My upbringing in Madras in the late 1980s and 90s led me to picnics in the beautiful country that dotted Enid Blyton’s books – just as it did many children of my generation and the generations before me. The Famous Five and The Secret Seven offered a generous serving of scones, marmalade, pears, fresh cream, crumpets and whatnot… And like any self-respecting EB-reading child, I nurtured a not-so-secret yearning to eat scones at tea one day.
When I finally tried them, surprisingly later in life, at a charming café in Madras, I was utterly disappointed. Perhaps it was the weight of all that expectation, perhaps I wasn’t a scone person, I could never figure out which.
Scones disappointed me, but I kept looking for food in my books. As I grew up and my taste took a turn towards writers closer to home, and to cultures similar to mine, I not only enjoyed local tastes in my mouth as I savoured the words that leapt out of the pages, but also actual dishes. That’s when it hit me: food, just like books, was political; perhaps that’s why we vacillate from wanting books banned to foods banned, once every few months here.
When I read Rohinton Mistry’s deeply moving A Fine Balance, set in the turbulent days of Emergency in the 70s, I had to fight the urge to run out to a local tea shop to eat Masala Wada (as Mistry spelled it, though at home we spelled it Vada) and Chutney, before I continued reading the book. Mistry’s description of the entire process, the frenzy with which the characters in the book whip up the dish, working together as a unit, going out to buy ingredients, boiling dal (lentils), grinding kopra (dried coconut) and kothmeer mirchi (coriander and green chillies), slicing onions and mint leaves is an absolute delight…
Much later I tried making Masala Vadas with my husband and Mistry turned out to be right. Nothing can whip up a frenzy in your house the way the making of Masala Vadas can, for evening tiffin. Particularly on rainy evenings with masala chai or strong coffee for company. The sweetness of the fennel seeds with the crispy, crunchy, earthy taste of fried curry leaves, the super spicy green chillies, sitting snug with ground dal will all sing a little medley as they go down your throat. Savour it the way Dina, Om, Maneck and Ishvar do in Mistry’s wonderful book, which is sure to leave your heart heavy.
(Incidentally, Mistry’s book Such a Long Journey was removed from Mumbai University’s syllabus in what the author has called an institutionalisation of the ugly notion of self-censorship after calls for boycott as well as threats from the Shiv Sena).
When I read Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, I wanted very badly to eat jollof rice. And to my surprise, when I got down to making it, I realised how much like our thakkali saadam (tomato rice) it was. And the deep fried plantains that went with it? Have you met Kerala’s fried nenthram pazham? It is the same thing really. Then there’s the really tasty pazham pori or ethaka appam (banana fritters). We south Indians also love our stir fried unripe plantains (with a garnish of popped mustard seeds, curry leaves and some masala of course).
Every now and then at home, I make my own fusion Nigerian-South Indian food with jollof rice – scented with thyme that is oh-so-therapeutic – with Garam Masala and Kashmiri chilli powder, cumin powder and cinnamon dust because the curry powder and the cayenne pepper that the recipe requests are hard to find here. Of course, there’s also Chimamanda’s coconut rice, which I want to try, having read about it in more than one of her books. Something tells me it might not be too far from the thenga saadam we used to take in stainless steel boxes to school for lunch.
Copious amounts of coffee drunk out of tumblers made of stainless steel made repeat appearances in R.K. Narayan’s short stories. While as a school-going tween I related to this because it’s how it was in our home, later as a student of sociology I would understand the implications of social status and coffee, and caste status and tumblers. I would learn that the working class in my city, Chennai, drank tea, while the upper caste drank “filter coffee” out of devices called tumblers, made especially to avoid ritual pollution.
Professor A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s In Those Days There Was No Coffee – a sociological study of class, caste, beverages and cinema about my part of the world – would help me understand how untouchability and ritual pollution evolved with time. It would later make me wonder if I should subvert caste symbols and use the tumbler and the davara (the stainless steel version of a cup and saucer made to ensure ritual purity) while serving coffee to everyone that comes home, or if I should abandon those markers of caste and opt for mugs instead.
But, speaking of short stories and caste, I must mention a vernacular favourite: the Tamil story collection entitled Posal by the Kavita Sornavalli. Out of that book “Pachai Paambukaari” (or Green Snake Woman) has stayed with me for its balance of pride, food, and the effect of not-so-subtle everyday caste violence on young minds in Tamil Nadu. I stumbled upon this collection online after reading a review. In this story, Kavita’s protagonist writes a love letter of sorts to a grandmother whose food it seems can never go wrong. Not even bitter gourd is bitter when her grandmother lays her magic hands on the vegetable. Pots filled with oyster, finely chopped cabbage, black coffee sweetened with jaggery… Kavita’s story is a tale of beauty, told with love.
My most recent favourite political food moment, however, came in Vivek Shanbaug’s charming, wonderful novella Ghachar Ghochar, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur. The politics of a woman coming to the doors of the nouveau riche, looking for a man with a dal she has made for him – defiant at first, and defeated later – says much without saying much. The smell of masala from the dal hangs in the air, even after she leaves, hinting at the power play at hand. Ghachar Ghochar handles the politics of food and caste just as it handles all of the other things in the story. By not dwelling on it for too long. And the silence is deafening.
In Anita Nair’s mouth-watering Alphabet Soup for Lovers, a love story set in the hills of Tamil Nadu, when the protagonist craved daangar chutney (a quick chutney whipped up in our homes when sudden guests show up for a meal), I found myself craving it too. Anita’s novella is a meditation on food as well as a love letter of sorts, just like Kavita’s story. From arisi appalam (crunchy rice crisps) to zigarthanda (a Tamil cold drink), Anita captures our favourite foods from A to Z, in an English novel unlike any written thus far. To read about our own foods in such lyrical prose feels almost like an act of protest. The taste lingers for a long time.
But Nilanjana Roy’s The Girl Who Ate Books resonated with me so deeply that, when I read the passage in which young Roy rips a page out of a book and eats it, I felt incredibly satisfied in the knowledge that someone else who loved to read and write ate printed paper. When I bought the book, I was hoping someone really had eaten it, for with much guilt and hope I have actually, literally ingested newsprint (figuratively, too, having worked in newspapers and magazines for the better part of a decade now).
My favourite books are those that end up in my tummy.
Krupa Ge is a writer and journalist based in Chennai. More of her work can be found at krupage.com