The Oxford Anthology of South Asian Food Writing
Editor: John Thieme and Ira Raja
Price: Rs 595
This anthology is a morsel from the deliciously infinite world that is food. It is a book that one opens with the anticipation of an attack on the imagination — of flavours, tastes and smells. But the editors, Ira Raja and John Thieme, have a surprise in store. They have chosen to begin the anthology with Mahatma Gandhi’s views on “fasting as a means of self-restraint ... with the hope of supporting my brahmacharya vows”.
It’s an appropriate beginning. For, to deny oneself the pleasure of taste is perhaps to fight one of life’s most agonising battles. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is in South Africa, at the Tolstoy Farm, a small colony of satyagrahis that he set up outside Johannesburg. This is the place where Gandhi’s first experiments started — of satyagraha , of brahmacharya , of complete fasting. Though used to keeping partial fasts, Gandhi was convinced of the benefits of complete fasting by one Mr Kallenbach, allowing himself only water on these days. This was one of the beginnings of Gandhi’s attempts to curb “animal passion”, for which, we all know, he used some rather unconventional methods later in life.
The anthology — comprising short stories, poetry, extracts from novels—moves methodically, from fasting, famine, hunger and appetite to the gastronomic journey of feasting, cooking, spices and desserts.
Vaikom Mohammed Basheer’s Poovan Banana is a chauvinistic story of Abdul Khader Khan bringing his upper-class, snobbish wife to heel with the use of a stick. The trigger: Jameela Bibi’s refusal to eat the oranges that Abdul had brought her instead of the poovan bananas she craved for.
Ismat Chughtai, as always, is nothing short of brilliant. ‘The Rock’ is Bhaiya, who is eager to take his 15-year-old bride under his wings and “mould her into a homemaker”. Within years, Bhabhi transforms from a nervous child to a young woman, “playful as a doe”; and then, after bearing three children,
into a monstrosity. The sight of her obesity is worsened by the fact that she stops wearing make-up or paying attention to her clothes — “Bhaiya hated lipstick”. Then arrives Shabnam at her uncle’s house next door to this happy family. She was “playful as a doe” and looked everything that Bhabhi no longerwas. Bhabhi swallows her hurt and depression at the growing friendship between Shabnam and her husband with more and more food. Divorce, second marriage, Bhaiya and Shabnam leave town, to return only seven to eight years later. The narrator goes to pick them up at the station. When Shabnam descends from the train, the word ‘Bhabhi’ involuntarily leaves the narrator’s lips.
Kamila Shamsie and Romesh Gunesekara write of whipping up feasts during festivals — Masood’s legendary Iftaris for the Dard-e-Dil family, and the perfect Christmas feast, complete with stuffed turkey that furthers Mr Salgado’s romance with Nili.
The character Wazir Mian in Tabish Khair’s story is much like Masood from Shamsie’s tale. Except that his glory days are over. At one time, Wazir Mian would create magic in the kitchen, coming into his own when cooking elaborate feasts for large gatherings. But with the kitchen beginning to shrink, the
chef Wazir Mian is forced to adopt a new role as the cook Wazir Mian. It’s like snatching life from him.
Chitrita Banerjee takes the romance with the kitchen forward with her tale of Patoler Ma, whose early morning ritual at Banerjee’s grandparents home was to grind all the spices needed for the day’s meals. Patoler Ma, after wetting the surface of the ‘shil’ (stone), first grinds the turmeric, then the red chillies, onion, garlic, ginger and garam masala , scooping up each in turn to place them on a white plate, ready for the fire to do its magic.
Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie,V.S. Naipaul,Amitav Ghosh, Dom Moraes, Nizzim Ezekiel—the list goes on. The garnish provided by our best writers become evident here.