Vol. 5 Num 390 Sat. July 02, 2005  

Book Review

This is a superb anthology of, as is evident from the title, Indian writing on food. The credit is entirely Nilanjana Roy's, a literary critic and columnist for the Indian papers Business Standard and the Telegraph. I have seldom read an anthology introduction as lucid and witty as hers, which lays out--tastefully, decoratively, with a perfect sense of table setting and which courses should follow which--the organising principle behind the selection of the articles. This introduction should be a model to follow for other editors and would-be-editors of anthologies.

As she writes, when first thinking about the idea she immediately ran into the brick wall of whether it should be an anthology 'of Indians writing about food or of writing about Indian food?' There is a vital difference between the two: the latter would have resulted in yet another middlebrow cookbook, while the former has given us this volume: a bringing together of some of the most significant Indian voices over the last century writing about food, and by extension, about their lives.

From lavish meals, modern diets and cooking lessons that serve as a rite of passage to fake fasts and real ones, fish, feni (a potent Goanese drink) and fiery meals that smack of revenge, this book has something 'to satisfy every palate.' Here, amid all the excellent writing, special mention must be made of Ruchir Joshi's piece 'Shrikhand' (taken from his novel The Last Jet-Engine Laugh), which is probably the funniest piece in the book, evoking as it does an Indian Portnoy--readers familiar with Philip Roth's Jewish rebel will know what I'm talking about!

There is Gandhi's guilt-ridden account of his failed flirtation with eating meat which goes with the slaughter of live things depicted in Rohinton Mistry's 'Gustad's Chicken' and Suketa Mehta's 'Black-Collar Workers.' In gastronomic takes on history ('the flavour of history on the tongue' to use editor Nilanjana Roy's apt phrase), Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and Saadat Hasan Manto ensure that we will never look at chutney, a Tibetan momo or jelly in quite the same way again. Food is the factor in the'line of control' section for Abdul Bismillah's 'guest' where a simple meal illustrates the rather thin divide between guest and host of differing faiths, while Purabi Basu's Radha looks at a kitchen and sees a life sentence. P. Sainath in his 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought' with anger and irony illustrates how institutions crave crises, how hunger feeds Western donor agencies as well as the non-white aid recipient. Subtler shades of deprivation mark Anjana Appachana's Anu as she keeps a fast that reeks of prejudice. And in faraway lands, 'across the seven seas,' the search for fresh fish accentuates the loneliness of immigrant life for Jhumpa Lahiri's Mrs. Sen even as Anita Desai's Arun learns from his America hosts the importance of 'keeping the freezer full.'

The sole minus point of the book, especially for the Bengali reader, is an omission that the editor herself notes with regret: Amitav Ghosh's writing on 'the condition dear to Bengalis known as "Gastric"' and which I haven't yet come across. As one who's been subjected to elaborate complaints on the 'condition,' I wish Roy had included it. That would have made this anthology beyond reproach.

Farhad Ahmed is a freelance writer/editor.

A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Writing on Food edited by Nilanjana S. Roy; Penguin Books, India; 2004; pp. 363 + xx; Rs. 450