The Fish of Gods
Director: Jean Queyrat
Colour, VHS/PAL, 26′, English, 2000
What does god sound like? Exactly like one Alan Wenger, who tells us—in more words than are strictly necessary— the story of the Raji people in mid-western Nepal. Or so Jean Queyrat, director of the documentary The Fish of Gods would have us believe.
As the film opens, with the camera gliding through forest and over rocky banks, to skim the surface of a wide turquoise river, Wenger intones: “The Raji people live at the confluence of the Karnali and Babai rivers. The tarai is an isolated region in western Nepal. The Raji are people of a few numbers but many legends.” There could not be a worse- start to a film though the filmmakers make a valiant attempt at telling us where we are going, and fail miserably. For one, no map that this reviewer has looked at, hints at the possibility of these two rivers meeting within Nepal’s territorial borders. They come close in the south-west of Bardiya National Park, but of a grand “confluence” there is no evidence. The first lesson of old-fashioned ethnography is: survey the territory and make a map. “Western Nepal” is hardly evocative, sell-explanatory or even accurate, made up as it is of Himalayan mountains, mid-hills and plains. And the tarai is hardly restricted to western—mid-western, to be specific—Nepal, but runs along the southern length.
If The Fish of Gods were at all a reflexive film, meditating on its own modes of expression, the opening shot would have been a brilliant comment on the endeavour. But it misses the forest for the trees, and barely is it out of the woods, than it attempts to walk on water. Like the previous sentence, it is a confused mixed metaphor of a film, the reactionary bastard child of anthropology’s attempt to reinvent itself over the last 20-something years.
Queyrat decides to show and tell us about these, “the Raji” people, by focusing on what he suggests is a vital annual community ritual: a trip in December to “the source of the Karnali”, to try and catch a fish, the golden majir, which Rajis revere as an omen of prosperity and which, on these annual fishing trips, “allows itself to be caught.” Here again, the geography is muddled—the Karnali originates in a glacier in Kalapani, which is certainly not where this film is set. And it is unclear whether all Raji people make this trip, or only these, the Raji of Ghatgaon—the film gives no indication how large the Raji community is, and if there are more than those we see, where all in Nepal they live.
If the account of Queyrat and Wenger is to be believed—and there are reasons to view it with some scepticism, given the inconsistencies in it—the Raji are river people. Here, this means that they own no land, live on the fish they catch and barter it for grain. And they pan gold dust. And here, at the gold dust, is where things get interesting. For the Raji, or at least those of Ghatgaon village, which seems to have no more than 40 or so people, gold is something of a fetish.
After half-a-dozen references to “the fish of the gods”, “the golden majir”, “the fish with the golden scales”, and the undertaking about to commence, we are told a legend. Apparently, one of the protagonists of the film, the village headman Fakir Bahadur, likes to tell this story quite a lot. No, he doesn’t actually tell us that himself and neither do his friends. In fact, we don’t hear them speak for more than a total of three minutes in this 26-minutelong film, and that too as conversation in the background, so we’ll just have to take Mr Wenger’s word for it, thank you. This is the story:
One day as the Rajis were fishing, they met a princess who wanted to cross to the other side of the river, but the current was too strong. The young woman said make a puja, an offering to the goddess Kanyakumarl and everything will he alright. They made the puja, the river suddenly became still and the princess was able to cross easily. As she set foot on the other bank, a rainbow appeared, forming a bridge over the river. The young woman climbed the rainbow and walked towards the sun. To thank the Raji„ she threw a handful of gold dust into the river and the river began to gleam. The dust settled on the golden majir. The princess was none other than the goddess Kanyakumari. Ever since, the Raji make an offering each time they catch a golden majir, because the fish of the gods is a sign of prosperity.
It’s a nice story, even if, compared to the story-within-a-story legends that are modelled on an illiterate dope-fiend’s understanding of karma and circular existence and are the curse of the Subcontinent, it seems to begin in media res. But we won’t ask why the goddess/princess was there, why the deception was necessary, or whether she had reason to test them. Instead, we will ask why more is not made of the story. Perhaps it would have detracted from the narrative flow chosen for the film to ask the people of Ghatgaon— and tell us—what they would do if they did not manage to catch the majir that winter. is there a substitute offering they could make? How would they continue these trips if the place they traditionally found the majir, “the source of the Karnali”, simply stopped yielding fish for them to eat—after all, the catch here is already getting smaller, “there are too many fishermen now and too few fish”
This point is, this isn’t just any old story, it seems to be central to how the Rajis of Ghatgaon understand and order their life and society—why else would the women of Ghatgaon spend every winter panning the river for a few grams of gold dust? Why would the men undertake such an endeavour year after year even as the trip became less easy and the prospects of success, few and fewer? Perhaps it is a fact that “since they have nomadic souls, the Raji like to be surrounded by nature in the middle of wild, unspoilt landscapes.” Perhaps it is simply an excuse for a male bonding trip, but unfortunately, despite Wenger’s insistence that the women stay behind to pan for gold and this fishing trip is all-men, there are a number of figures on the boat and the bivouac who are undeniably of the female make.
There is one sure sign that this legend and the symbolic value of gold for the Raji—and the hunt for the golden majir are more than the simple reward-to-a-good-people and quest to keep this privilege alive, respectively. The headman Fakir Bahadur’s son, Udav Bahadur, is also to go on the trip, for the first time, as “some day he will lead the Rajis and have to know how to fish”. The narrator tells us that his father talks to him on the trip, man-to-man: “You know the history of our people. You also know how to fish for the food we eat everyday. Soon you will be able to feed your wife and your children. I am very proud of you. Now you must discover what has brought us here, to the source of the Karnali, the golden majir, the fish of the gods.” The trip, it turns out, is a quest narrative about prosperity yes, but it is fundamentally an initiation rite which culminates in returning to the community’s home ground with a trophy, a prize and a successor to the chief. The legend, then, is more important, and gold occupies a more symbolic position in the Raji world than The Fish of Gods suggests.
It is possible Queyrat and his crew are right, and the Raji as a society are indeed a functionalist’s dream, but the chances are pretty slim. Which brings us to why the film has the narrative it does: a simple story about the search of a simple people for a fish that will ensure them prosperity in the year to come. This “prosperity” is never defined, neither protagonist, Fakir Bahadur or Uday Bahadur, is fleshed out as a real person, the Rajis’ location and context are not important enough to be explained other than in the vaguest, most fleeting terms—what, for instance, do they do with the little gold dust they find?—and we are told nothing about the impetus for such a film. It would not be surprising if chance viewers of the The Fish of Gods, were tempted to think the Rajis are simply boring people, far less interesting than the scenery they are props in.
The Fish of Gods fails in large part because it does not give voice to its subjects. Surely, after close to three decades of guilt-ridden anthropology where the writer’s or filmmaker’s efforts to bring in not just “the native’s voice”, but many “native voices”, have resulted in a plethora of works with a lot of talk but little analysis, or analysis that is really high theory looking for “examples”, there is no excuse for this. Worse, the narrator is not even an honestly ill-informed outsider. Two minutes into the film, he introduces himself as a miller in the area, not a Raji, but a friend of Fakir Bahadur, “with great respect for this people and its history”. This is such a strange move, that it must have a deeper, more involved rationale that simply passes this reviewer by. As for blithe statements about “nomadic souls” and unsubstantiated (for us) assertions that the Raji “are very respectful of the world around them”, they just go to show that no matter the supposed revolutions in anthropology—the “interpretive turn”, “thick description,” the “textual turn”, the understanding of “performance”— the discipline retains its links to people’s passion for travel, the unfamiliar, and exotic and “simple” folk.
The methods of observations, terms of explanation and null hypotheses gentlemen travellers and ethnologists of yore made use of, might well have been so inherently unsuited to what they wanted to study that they came up with conclusions and explanations that were sometimes bizarre and often totally off the mark. But because they had generally spoken to more than two or three informants and because they tried to get a broad picture of a society, they did gather enough detail to make their work informative at a very basic level, so that, even with flawed data, one could if one tried come up with different explanations for a particular marriage taboo or whatever was under discussion. Early anthropological films did something similar. There is plenty to object to in them, but they showed you things from up close, unlike this film, which seems content with pretty pictures of the Raji and their setting. This is a shame, because except for one instance, everyone seems blissfully oblivious to the camera. Queyrat misses the opportunity this sly, almost unnoticed camera provides to shed light on the dynamics of relationships in this group of people, to help us really get to know them. As it is, all it is helpful for is divination, reading people’s faces when the narration gets too much or simply seems inaccurate.
The assertion that The Fish of Gods is the bastard child of anthropology’s attempt to reinvent has its roots in this slippery slope. Since the 1970s, anthropology has been trying to do its damnedest to fix its problems. The focus on “voice” and who has it, the politics of representation, have been vital debates, and the focus on intangibles, the difference between a blink and a wink— “cultural” anthropology—has been an important change in orientation. The new focus on “culture” somehow took away the need to be fluent in mapping or kinship terminology, and made the discipline more fanciful, more diffuse. These changes did not only arise out of a newfound sense of justice or decency, but in large part because many of the people anthropologists were writing and making movies about now had access to the garbage they often produced. But the professionalisation of anthropology was at all possible only because of the old guard’s “flawed” terms of understanding and explanation: without their protective glaze, without the overwhelming assumption that anthropology could explain race, ethnic and class “worldviews” so Others could he understood, helped, spoken for on the world stage—without all of this, anthropology would have remained the preserve of dilettantes and travellers.
“Reinventing” anthropology changed the rules by which the discipline judged its own, but not the basic grid it rested on. And as it became more focused on “culture” and letting people speak for themselves, it found new justification for its foundational conceit that it could explain the entire truth about whole societies, which is why today anthropology has come to stand in for history, for English literature, political science, even and, yes, travel writing.
But a film like The Fish of Gods falls between the cracks, seemingly steering clear of over-theorising trendiness, but without any contemporary resources to draw upon to make something in the image of classical anthropology. Few such undertakings are of ittherent interest to anyone, which the makers of The Fish of Gods do not seem to understand. One way to make them of interest is to provide a reference point, or a comparison of some sort, even if it is two Raji stories in different tones. Cultural anthropology loves stories, anecdotes, oral history, and even if this film did not want to go down the path where the simple Fact of presenting an oral history, or an account of migration or hybridity overwhelms the actual story itself, or where the story is used to illustrate concepts like Polyphony, rather than arise out of such research practices, it would have done well to respect the value of its stories more.
But first of all, viewers are owed a more reliable account of the legend and the hunt for the majir, or at least one that seemed to truly emanate from the Raji’s world and that of their neighbours. And if The Fish of Gods had played up the visit of the travelling Damai troubadours to the Raji camp, and their narration of one history of the Rajis to a captive audience, including young Uday Bahadur (in exchange for a dozen fish), we would have had one story, one history more, from a different perspective, to fill in our picture. And even if the narrator as the all-knowing voice of god had occasionally shown up, he would have been more tolerable, more believable even.