Speaking Tiger Books Posts

Tuesday Reads (Vol 5), 16 July 2019

Dear Reader,

Choosing a book or two to write about always throws me into a pother. The three mentioned in today’s post are not to be missed.

Writer and translator Shanta Gokhale’s autobiography One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told Through the Body is brilliant. Shanta Gokhale is known for her translations from Marathi into English but she is fluently bilingual in English and Marathi. One Foot on the Ground is an account of her childhood, her father’s insistence on sending her to England to complete her school and later University. She returned home to become a teacher and then later joined the PR team of Glaxo. Ultimately she became known for her work as a journalist/columnist, screenwriter, translator and writer. She quit her day job once her children were old enough. Most interestingly, as the subtitle indicates, this is an autobiography that documents the various stages of her life through memorable experiences pertaining to the body. From the first remembered instances of molestation by the cook, dental troubles, babies, cancer, glaucoma etc. Then there are those other quiet assertions of her identity and her self, like filing an affidavit in the court to use her maiden name while still married, allowing her ex-husband to share her apartment till he had found a place for himself ( which was not to be for some years!), revelling in the joy of having her own space, her own bed where she could stretch out and read/work, ultimately recognising that she “needed a room of her own to be the person I was”. The calm tenor and poise with which Shanta Gokhale discusses her life, her body, her responsibilities and her ambitions is delightful. One Foot on the Ground is like reading the testimony of a woman who lives her feminism and do so contentedly. ( Read an extract published in Scroll on 10 July 2019. )

The second book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel is an extraordinary debut novel by award-winning queer Asian-American writer Ocean Vuong. Written in the first person by the narrator, Little Dog, it is a coming-of-age tale in America. It is about the boy, his Vietnam War veteran grandfather, his schizophrenic maternal grandmother and his mother who suffers from PTSD. It is a thinly veiled autobiographical account of Ocean Vuong’s life, of migrating to USA as a two-year-old refugee via a brief stay at a refugee camp in the Philippines. The precision of his writing, much as the fineness of description that is associated with poetry, is a remarkable transferance of creative talent into prose. The long beautifully crafted flowing sentences. In fact Ocean Vuong wondered in an interview if it was a comically futile effort. He had to contend with various multiplicities while also being very aware of the American lineage of biographies. Yet the agency as an artist is also very important to him. He adds that he was very inspired by the American idea that one can create a mythology for oneself.

Once at a writing conference, a white man asked me if destruction was necessary for art. His question was genuine. He leaned forward, his blue gaze twitching under his cap stitched gold with ‘Nam Vet 4 Life‘, the oxygen tank connected to his nose hissing beside him. I regarded him the way I do every white veteran from that war, thinking he could be my grandfather, and I said no. “No, sir, destruction is not necessary for art.” I said that, not because I was certain, but because I thought my saying it would help me believe it.

A coming-of-age novel that can be seen to exist firmly within the American tradition of literary biographies but at the same time is that of an Asian-American negotiating his adopted country. By writing this novel, Ocean has put together the best of literary traditions of his country of origin and his adopted country — the written word with the oral tradition and its folksy element. Thereby making it possible to speak of his schizophrenic grandmother and his mother who suffers from PTSD. There is plenty to unpack in this novel. It has many autobiographical elements which Ocean acknowledges in his various interviews but it has been announced as a novel. Ironically this is in the form of a long letter to his mother who is unable to read English. He states “the chance this letter finds you is slim — the very impossibility of your reading this is all that makes my telling it impossible.” At the same time Ocean Vuong rightly points out that “Conflict driven plot becomes its own protagonist” . Here is a wonderful profile of Ocean Vuong published in the Guardian. ( 9 June 2019).

The final book is another debut novel that has been considered by its publishers “the most coveted debut of 2019, an intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession”. Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory is set in Victorian London, at the time of the Great Exhibition and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Doll Factory is about the heroine Iris who aspires to be an artist while employed with her twin sister painting dolls faces. Iris soon finds herself a part of the PRB. She is hired as a model. It is a fine mix of nineteenth century preoccupation with details and twenty-first century preoccupations of modern storytelling while being very aware of concepts like male gaze. There are moments of pure gorgeousness in the book especially when the author is describing the Great Exhibition.

Elizabeth Macneal is a graduate of the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia where she was the Malcolm Bradbury Scholar, and The Doll Factory has won her the Caledonia Novel Award. It has been sold to 28 territories so far, while TV rights have already been snapped up. Alan Massie puts it well in The Scotsman review:

It’s accomplished; there’s nothing raw about it. Today’s young novelists have all been schooled in the making of a novel and they have usually submitted drafts of it to fellow students as well as teachers, and taken their suggestions and criticisms on board. Their novels are far less clumsy, far less raw, than first novels so often were a couple of generations ago. The Doll Factory is a perfect example.

In the acknowledgements Macneal thanks a long list of people for their help and encouragement. No doubt they have all been useful. Nevertheless, it’s fair to assume that only she is responsible for the novel’s charm. It is indeed charming. But is it about anything that matters? Perhaps we shall have to wait for a second or even a third novel before knowing whether the author’s evident ability can carry her beyond charm so that she deals with matters of significance, writing something which has the reader engaged in both feeling and thought.

The Doll Factory will undoubtedly be seen on longlists and all the noteworthy literary prizes meant for debut authors. Ultimately Elizabeth Macneal may win one of the big literary prizes for a later novel she writes, by which time she will have rid herself of all the creative writing school learnings and learned to be confident of her own voice. She will have learned to trust herself.

For now enjoy this wonderful Twitter thread by Elizabeth Macneal describing how the exquisite book cover was designed:

One Foot on the Ground, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and The Doll Factory are three unmissable books of 2019. They have the incredible quality to stay with the reader long after the books are over and done with.

Enjoy!

JAYA

16 July 2019

An interview with Ekarat

Recently Speaking Tiger Books published a collection of short stories called The Book of Love Stories by Ekarat. The book cover is illustrated with two thorny branches. Not exactly an enticing book cover. Yet the stories are a curious collection exploring a range of love. From that of marital love, extra-marital, innocent love shared by little children who are probably imitating adults to young lovers determined to be together cutting across barriers, including the terrifying one of religion. It is a collection that does not grip you from the word go and yet it is difficult to put down. There is something about the detached, seemingly unaffected, style of writing of the narrator which makes it difficult to put the book down.

Ekarat is an alter-ego, a self-created role model, with a million stories to tell. He has walked this Earth for forty bittersweet summers. He has been a travel magazine editor, film marketing executive, communications lecturer and salesman.

After reading the stories, I emailed the author. Here are lightly edited excerpts of an interview with him.

  1. Why did you opt to write short stories and not longer fiction?

Can I tell you the truth? Maybe it was the failure to complete a novel (two actually – in the last seven years) that made me give short stories a go.  In 2016, I had just given up midway on what I thought was a very provocative novel. I was disheartened. My friend Palash Krishna Mehrotra read a couple of short stories (one found its way into the book – “Maria”) and he pondered and pronounced that there was something here. That was the inception of the short story collection.  

2. How did you get into writing fiction? 

Since I can remember, I have been in love with storytelling. I know nothing else. I wrote my first book (unpublished, not sure about the whereabouts of the manuscript anymore) in 2002, just after college. It was an ambitious project – a short story collection that flowed like a novel. My first published novel was The Nothing Man (published by Rupa in 2011) written under my name Ajay Khullar. It was a story of redemption through evil.

3. Did you consciously make every story revolve around love? 

Not initially. I wrote the first few stories with the flow of what I had in mind, but when I saw that there was a thread of love running through these stories, I decided to pick up this thread and roll with it.

4. The different explorations of love are fantastic — from the little children in “Love has come to town”, the wife/lover in “Perizaad’s Lover”, to the besotted husband in “Wild Horses (Couldn’t Drag Me Away)” to the stunning “New Kid in Town”. Were these written at different moments in time or in quick succession? 

‘Love has come to town’ was among the initial stories, written a few years ago. The others were done in a span of eight-nine months. ‘The Point of Inflection’ was added to the collection last, when the book was already with the publisher.

5. Where do you draw the inspiration for your stories? 

Keep my eyes open and my ears close to the beat of my heart. Life provides a lot of material, enough to fill up volumes, if you pay attention. I also draw from my own life. Some of these stories are fictionalised depictions of real life love stories (mine and those that others told me).  

6. What is the most challenging aspect of writing a short story? 

Honestly, there was no struggle with this collection of short stories. While writing ‘The Book of Love’, I too was in love with a beautiful lady. It made writing these love stories that much easier. It just flowed.

7. Do you think being a travel journalist has made a qualitative difference to your fiction writing? 

One hundred percent yes. As a travel journalist you are also telling a story, of a place, of people. You are connecting people to these places. That’s what you also do in fiction, in storytelling.

8. In many ways travel writing and fiction help readers “escape” and experience different landscapes without moving from their chair. Yet, in what way are the rigours of writing distinct for these two forms? Are they demanding in in their own way? 

I think to write on travel and to write fiction is a dream job. And I think I’m very fortunate in that regard. I guess you have to have a keen sense of observation for both formats. I’ve had a great time doing travel journalism and I love writing fiction. You, though, invest very heavily when you write fiction (short stories or a novel) and sometimes it can be quite heart breaking – I abandoned two books after spending three years plus on each. It was a terrible feeling.

9. Who are the writers/journalists and poets who have influenced you? 

My biggest influence has been the late British writer Graham Greene. I believe a lot of the darkness in my writing comes from the formative years of reading Greene. Also Stephen King – a very effective storyteller who walks the balance of good quality writing and being extremely popular.

10. Why did you publish your stories using a nom de plume? 

My reasons for taking a Nom De Plume are very subjective. In my 20s I lived through some dark hours, hours which rolled into years. During these dark hours, I created an alter-ego, a role model, a sort of hero. Over the years I saw some bad days, mostly better. There was no constant in these years, except the idea of Ekarat. I took the name.

10 June 2019

Book Post 28: 18 February – 2 March 2019

At the beginning of the week I post some of the books I have received recently. In today’s Book Post 28 included are some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks. 

3 March 2019

Of Nayantara Sahgal’s “The Fate of Butterflies” and Toni Morrison’s “Mouth Full of Blood”

Nayantara Sahgal (b. 1927) and Toni Morrison (b.1931) have new publications out this past week. Nayantara Sahgal has a novella called The Fate of Butterflies. Toni Morrison’s Mouth Full of Blood is a collection of her non-fiction articles published over the past four decades. Every word chosen in these books is powerful. The two writers have witnessed significant periods of modern history — from the Second World War onwards to experiencing the joy of new democracies and its mantras of self-reliance, new freedoms as those made available with womens’ movements’ and the end of racial segregation, to the presently depressing times of rising ultra-conservative politics, authoritarian rule and sectarian violence. So when Nayantara Sahgal and Toni Morrison as seasoned storytellers pour their wisdom and experience into their writings without mincing words, you listen for the truths they share.

Nayantara Sahgal’s novella The Fate of Butterflies told from the perspective of a political science professor, Prabhakar, is a chilling tale about the all-pervading violence that exists in society. It is an insidious presence that is gradually transforming the rules of social engagement. It is licensing sectarian violence to such a degree that is fast becoming the norm rather than the deviant behaviour it is. The dystopic society Prabhakar finds himself in where people speak of “them” and “they”, mysteriously unnamned groups who are powerful enough to command and strike fear in the hearts of ordinary citizens. The horrors shared in The Fate of Butterflies of mass rapes of women and children, slicing bellies of pregnant women before sexually assaulting them, the homophobic behaviour of some expressed in the horrific violence towards individuals by setting them on fire after trying to castrate them, the quiet disappearance of kebabs and rumali roti from Prabhakar’s favourite dhaba with the excuse that Rafeeq the cook had disappeared making it impossible to offer Mughal cuisine to finding a naked body on the road wearing only a skull cap makes this fiction at times too close to reality. It seems to be a thinly veiled account of many of the witness accounts, oral testimonies and media reports of pogroms and communal violence that have been witnessed in recent years. Linking modern crimes to the historical accounts of Nazi Germany when such horrors unleashed on civil society where first witnessed and documented, Nayantara Sahgal, seems to be reminding the reader of the past being revisited today in the name of “nostalgia” and “harmony” when it is actually a crime against humanity, a human rights violation.

Lopez reminded his friends: no meat unless proven to be mutton, not cow. The Cow Commission went around making sure. He was thinking of becoming a vegetarian himself, he was scared as hell that his fridge might be raided and the mutton turned into beef. Suspects were being dealt with out on the streets, surrounded by camers and cheering beholders. He didn’t fancy that treatment for himself.  It was far from reassuring in view of Rafeeq’s disappearance or dismissal. they drank their cloying Limcas, not sure how to find out about Rafeeq. The kaif’s water wasn’t safe and there was no mineral water left. All the bottles of mineral water had been commandeered by ‘them’, the ‘they’ and ‘them’ who came and went, mysteriously unnamed.

Lopez, who taught Modern Europe, said, “This tea party you were at, Prabhu, you said the Slovak was well ahead of the others.’

‘Why wouldn’t he be? They’ve have practice. They had a flourishing Nazi republic during the war, with a Gestapo and Jew-disposal and all the trimmings, and evidently there’s a tremendous nostalgia for those good old days when everybody was kept in line, or in harmony, as they called it.

Togetherness was the watchword. Not that the other speakers weren’t harking back to the glories of the 1930s, but I did get the feeling that some of them were sitting back and waiting to see which way the wind would blow before they risked investing in it. Only fools rush in. Compared with the rest of them the Slovak was the only Boy Scout.’

‘But most people are little people who have to go along with whatever’s happening,’ said Lopez, ‘either because they don’t know any better, or they have no choice and can’t afford to lose their wages or their lives.’

‘Most people,’ repeated Prabhakar, and again with stubborn emphasis, ‘most people everywhere, in Europe or here or anywhere else, only ask to be left in peace to live their lives. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.’

Toni Morrison’s A Mouth Full of Blood is a collection of her essays, speeches and meditations. They are a testament to her varied experiences in American history and literature, politics, women, race, culture, on language and memory. These are structured essays to occasional pieces of writing to moving eulogies as for James Baldwin to her Nobel Prize in Literature speech. It is a wide range of pieces which deserve to be read over and over again but it is the introduction to this volume entitled “Peril” that is exceptionally powerful. It is a commentary on contemporary world politics while focused on the importance of a writer and the significance of making art especially in authoritarian regimes.

In “Peril” Toni Morrison reasons that despots and dictators are no fools and certainly not foolish enough to “perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgements or follow their creative instincts” for if they did, it would be at their own peril. Whereas writers of all kinds — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that works like a coma on the population, “a coma despots call peace”. As she astutely points out that “historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow”. She continues that there are two notable human responses to the perception of chaos: naming and violence. But she woudl like to add a third category — “stillness”. This could be passivity or dumbfoundedness or it can be paralytic fear. But in her opinion it can also be art.

Those writers plying their craft near to or far from the throne of raw power, …writers who construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. …The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films — that though is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” So begins Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture in Literature. Likewise pay heed when these two old and wise women speak. Pay heed.

22 February 2019

Book Post 25: 20 January – 2 February 2019

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter. Today’s Book Post 25 is after a gap of two weeks as January is an exceedingly busy month with the Jaipur Literature Festival, Jaipur BookMark and related events.

In today’s Book Post 25 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought at the literature festival and are worth mentioning.

4 February 2019 

Book 23: 9 December 2018 – 5 January 2019

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 23 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received during the holiday season.

Enjoy reading!

7 January 2019

Paro Anand’s “The Other”

Award-winning writer Paro Anand’s latest book for young adults is a collection of short stories called No Other: Stories of Difference . These are stories that are as bold as those published in her previous book Like Smoke. They revolve around critical issues like transgender, sexual abuse, conflict. Without badgering the reader with a preachy tone these stories carve out a niche for holding a dialogue about these mostly taboo topics. It is a very tough space to negotiate and Paro Anand does it superbly.

On Saturday, 22 September 2018, Paro Anand was in conversation with veteran journalist Sunil Sethi about this very book. It was part of the “Talking Books” series launched by Cafe Turtle, Khan Market, New Delhi. Do listen to the recording I made of the conversation. It is 45 minutes well spent.

 

To buy: 

Kindle 

Paperback

24 September 2018 

Book Post 3: 22-28 July 2018

On Dalit literature – recent publications

Sujatha Gidla’s memoir Ants Among Elephants and Baburao Bagul’s When I Hid My Caste are some of the recent publications of Dalit literature published.  Interestingly the writers come from different parts of India and different religions but because they share the same “caste” of being a Dalit, their experiences of life and anguish at the shocking social injustice they have witnessed is similar.

Sujatha Gidla’s memoir was launched in USA in 2017 to  great critical acclaim for being an unusual piece of writing documenting the horrors of Indian society even in contemporary India. Although Sujatha Gidla has been living in New York for many years and yet the searing pain at the injustices faced at being an “untouchable” or a Dalit in India are unforgettable. Her memoir about her family who despite being Christians faced social ostracism. Once she left for America she was eager to know more about her origins and began to record the testimonies of her family particularly her uncle Satyam. There is an extremely powerful moment in the book when she quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after Indian Independence was achieved. ‘A short, chubby dark boy …had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?” It is a question that remains to be answered many decades after Independence was achieved. ( Read an extract published in the Literary Hub)

When I Hid My Caste by Baburao Bagul (translated by Jerry Pinto) is a collection of short stories that were previously published in the Marathi literary magazine Navyug. The editor of Navyug Shirish Pai “confesses in her introduction to the Marathi edition of the book that she used to experience joy mixed with fear in anticipation of a Bagul story. The joy came from knowing it would be a good piece of fiction; the fear came from not knowing what the content would be.” This collection of very powerful and unnerving short stories are disturbing to read in English that one cannot help but wonder how powerful must they be in Marathi where possibly even the dialects used are evident. Four stories stand out  — “Prisoner of Darkness”, “Streetwalker”, “Revolt” and “When I Hid My Caste” —- that hopefully will be anthologised in other volumes focused on Indian literature.

Sujatha Gidla’s memoir attracted worldwide acclaim quickly becoming of those “must read” books featuring on many reading lists. Undoubtedly it raises some very sharp issues that continue to plague Indian society where casteism unfortunately still prevails yet Ant Among Elephants is not half as gracefully written as some other notable Dalit memoirs. For instance  Y. B. Satyanarayana’s My Father Baliah, Bama’s Karukku or even  Daya Pawar’s Baluta. But of the books discussed so far the recently released When I Hid My Caste stands out for the grittiness of storytelling evident even in the English translation where interestingly the sub-castes of Dalits are mentioned. There are graphic details of the violence and the horror that the Dalits continue to experience. It is hard to distinguish reality from fiction for many of the stories included in the volume seem to resonate the news published regularly in the media about regular atrocities against Dalits.

These are books that are valuable additions to the landscape of Dalit literature that is fortunately becoming richer and richer with every passing year as newer translations or original writings in English are being made available for a larger audience.

Do read!

Buy Ants Among Elephants ( Print and Kindle

When I Hid My Caste ( Print and Kindle

My Father Baliah ( Print and Kindle

Karukku ( Print

Baluta ( Print and Kindle

Nandita Haksar’s “The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship”

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship  by lawyer Nandita Haksar is a unique memoir that intersperses two passions — human rights and food.

She belongs to a community of meat-eating Brahmins — the Kashmiri Pandits. Her ancestors came from Kashmir in the beginning of the twentieth century and settled in the plains of Hindustan. Very soon they forgot the culture, the rites and rituals and even the language of the Valley. The men learnt Urdu and Persian, while the women were taught Hindi and, on occasion, Sanskrit. The men greeted each other with an adaab-urz-hai but women were always greeted with a respectful namaskar. Once the Kashmiri families migrated they integrated many aspects of the cuisines of the plains, such as those of Lucknow, Allahabad and Delhi.

Nandita Haksar employs her sharp skills as a human rights lawyer to dissect cultures and bigotry. She rightly observes that ” In India, upper-caste Hindus do not inter-dine with Dalits, Muslims and tribal people, because of what they eat. Perhaps this is the distinguishing feature of Indian society and culture.” It still happens.

Later she adds ” The recent attempts to impose a ban on eating and trading beef, and the promotion of vegetarianism, have brought into focus the fact that the caste system and the ideology which sustain it is still alive. The question is how do we, who believe in democratic values and espouse liberalism, resist the imposition of this vision in our country?

The liberals, including a section of the media, have opposed the beef ban largely on the ground that it violates the human rights of an individual to choose what he or she wants to eat. However, the ban on beef is not merely a question of the violation of an individual’s right to liberty, dignity  and equality. But when millions of people are collectively denied those human rights, then we need a stronger political discourse to challenge their exclusion. ”

Some years ago in an article on “Dalit Literature in English” I had written “The recent banning of beef in India also deprives Dalits of their primary source of protein. Beef is cheap and easily available. The Dalits belong to a section of society that cuts across religions. What is astounding is that the quantum ( and relentlessness) of violence against this community is impossible for any sane individual to comprehend and yet it is practised daily.” One of the fiercest responses to the article said my assessment was wrong. Banning beef would not deprive Dalits of food.  I stood my ground and said it was an unnecessary hostile act not recognising a critical source of protein was being taken away from a community and probably plunging the already very poor people further into poverty and despair, but I was only scoffed at. The late Sharmila Rege’s Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Woman’s Testimonios discusses this at great length in her book. So when Nandita Haksar makes these associations and link human rights with the basic act of accessing food I agree with her 100% and only wish more people saw it in a similar fashion.

While I was writing this article, journalist M K Venu wrote on Twitter in reference to the Alwar lynchings and Muslims being repeatedly attacked by gau rakshaks that:

The successful right to food campaign in India led to establishment of systems to ensure food security. For instance passing of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act ( NREGA) in August 2005, the introduction of cooked mid-day meals in all primary schools following a Supreme Court order in April 2004, and finally the passing of the National Food Security Act, 2013. “But even these achievements have been undermined by the controversies over beef and vegetarianism and have served to divert public attention from the most fundamental issue: food security for the poor who cannot afford even one meal a day and the wretched condition of farmers and their families, so many of whom have been driven to committing suicide.” This crisis is related to the globalization of the food industry and the so-called safety laws that in effect criminalize the small dhabas and the street vendors who provide affordable food to millions of people. This is food fascism.

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship  is absolutely fantastic for food is not only a repository of cultural norms, local wisdom ( in terms of what is the best dish / spice to have that would be most suitable for the person) but of course it is a rights issue too. To deny someone the right to their cuisine is a violently hostile act. At the same time to accept the local cuisine offered while travelling whether you like it or not is the height of graciousness and civil behaviour. This is exactly why  the anecdote Nandita Haksar shares about her friend who is a vegetarian and yet quietly eats the meat so lovingly served to her by the host at the Hashimpura wedding celebrations was an incredibly graceful gesture upon her part.

A few days ago designer Orijit Sen posted on Facebook about eating Kozhukatta on a Kochi street. Steamed rice dumplings with a sweet core of coconut and jaggery. Immediately he had a flood of responses on his timeline talking about variations of exactly same dish. There were folks writing in from Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Bengal, and even Parsis. It was fascinating to observe how food united everyone. Orijit Sen was prompted to respond “Amidst all our diversity and contradictions, I seem to have chanced upon one of those simple beautiful things that connects us all on this subcontinent!” Something that comes across so well in Nandita Haksar’s book too — the animated conversations that involve food whether designing a wedding menu to organising a meal at home or even visiting the local gurdwara for a langar!”

The July 2018 issue of the National Geographic’s cover story is on “Building a Better Athlete“. It is basically about how sports scientists are working closely with the finest sportsmen to help them excel known barriers of performance. In it is quoted Alan Ashley, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief of sport performance, who says the key to breaking performance barriers is to “keep athletes healthy. If they stay healthy, everything else falls into place.” This had me wondering why is that we only look at these frames of reference in absolutely exceptional specimens of human race and apply these rules of living for them alone? Why can we not shift these very same frames of reference and apply them to ordinary families? Won’t it be very liberating for many, especially women who are foisted with the responsibility of feeding their families, to feel that investment in their health, with local produce and that which is familiar to their cultures is perfectly acceptable and in fact a great way of living?

If this argument is extended to the micro-level of seeing how a family unit works. Apply it to women and see if they are taught to eat and look after themselves perhaps there won’t be so many instances of illness in many families. Off late it is not unusual to hear of instances where urban poor women are being encouraged to attend nutrition camps where they can learn how to manage household budgets by buying less and less milk as the prices skyrocket. So the women are taught how half a litre of milk can be stretched in providing nourishment value by setting curd, preserving the cream (if any) of the boiled milk etc. Or even using cheaper substitutes like soya milk. [ With today’s inflation rates I do not know if this holds true any longer!] Or adapting their old family recipes so that they do not require milk, dahi or cream as ingredients, instead they could substitute it with cheaper ( not necessarily healthier) ingredients. This is a horrific act of violence being perpetrated under the garb of nutrition camps for in the process of managing household budgets women are being forced to forget skills they have acquired / inherited and instead adapt to the local requirements. This is undoubtedly an inherent act violence as the woman is inadvertently put under familial/ economic pressure to provide regular sumptuous meals despite spiraling costs of ingredients and since she is mostly voiceless these acts go unnoticed. It is a very complicated and insidious act of violence that gets slowly embedded and perpetuated in the long run.

The scrubbing away of collective memories of local cuisines that define a community and are more importantly repositories of information about ideal foods to be consumed in different seasons using local ingredients, ensuring the people remain healthy and it is also cost effective in the long run. This is echoed in film director Jean Renoir sharing in his memoir ( Renoir, My Father ) about his father, the Impressionist painter Renoir, describing the varied smells coming from different houses in their neighbourhood. Every fragrance was that of a distinct region of France and easily identifiable but now both father and son were ruing the fact that dishes and flavours had more or less become homogenised. They were referring to the homogenity of smells but the passage in the book also is a wistful reminiscing of how much has been lost in the name of progress — the standardisation if you will of French cuisine. It is much like the different knowledge systems and the value accorded to them as Nandita Haksar mentions in reference to the two young boys of her acquaintance — Ashwin Mushran and Adani. Her nephew 18-year-old Ashwin is unable to make her a cup of hot coffee but is able to write a remarkable 10,000-word essay on Tolkien! Whereas 10-year-old Adani, her host’s son on a field trip to the north east of India, had not only killed a bird with his sling, but plucked and cooked it as well as made rice to accompany it — all in the short duration she took to get refreshed after a long journey!

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship is meant for those who love social and family histories; love cooking; love reading recipes and collecting them too. It is also meant for those who cherish an India which celebrates its diversity and the richness of its varied local cultures that are embraced willingly by its citizens, irrespective of which region or community they hail from. This is the idea of India most citizens believe in!

Read this book. It is unforgettable!

Buy the paperback edition and Kindle edition

24 July 2018