By VIJAYSREE VENKATRAMAN
MONSOON DIARY: A MEMOIR WITH RECIPES BY Shoba Narayan. Random House. April 2003. Hardcover, 240 pages. $24.95.
Monsoon Diary by foodie and journalist Shoba Narayan chronicles the author’s growing up in a Tamil Brahmin household in Chennai (then called Madras), her journey to New England as an enthusiastic student ready to soak in everything American, and finally, her move to her present home in New York following an arranged marriage. Each chapter in her life has an excellent dish to mark it, and easy-to-follow instructions to recreate it in your own kitchen. The recipes are really a bonus in this wonderful memoir that is filled with family, friends, and feasts.
At the heart of the book—literally (ninth in 18) and figuratively—is the chapter “A Feast to Decide a Future.” A psychology graduate from the Women’s Christian College in Chennai, Narayan won a fellowship to study at Massachusetts’s Mount Holyoke College. Her conservative extended family had to be coaxed into letting her go, but this was not an easy permission for them to give. They were not sure America would be ideal for a young single woman, though they were indeed proud of her achievement.
So they devised a clever test. If she cooked a satisfying lunch for the lot of them, she could go. As is the case with most city-bred graduates of that age, she had never cooked a full meal for anyone—herself included. On the surface, the test seemed fair—the ability to produce a decent meal is part of that skill set which would assure the family she would never be hungry and miserable in an alien land. But given her tomboyish ways and their own high gastronomic standards, Narayan was bound to fail, or so they thought. The elders had equated her culinary inexperience with ineptitude, as they are wont to.
But her mother’s attempt to familiarize her with spices over the years had not been in vain. Narayan managed to come up with okra curry, paneer spinach, and tomato rasam to go with basmati rice-milk payasam for dessert, and good strong filter coffee to wash down the simple meal with. As the head of the family, her grandfather simply belched his approval. Realization dawned on that little gathering that she had been blessed with “aromatic hands”—cooking’s equivalent of green fingers.
“The God of Small Feasts” had been on her side throughout. The description of this event along with the recipes for this simple but sumptuous spread appeared in the January 2000 issue of Gourmet magazine. The magazine turned in the article as an entry for the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award instituted by the James Beard Foundation. The foundation annually picks winners who keep the trend of revolutionary culinary writing alive. Two of the three finalists for 2001 were South Asian women. The Indian press placed their bets on Jhumpa Lahiri, who was already riding high with the Pulitzer for her Interpreter of Maladies. Again, Narayan won “unexpectedly.”
Her family had been right about cooking skills coming to her aid in America. To support herself as a student, Narayan cooked up a dinner, a charity Thanksgiving meal—the charity being herself!
The description of fellow feminists in the liberal arts program and the process of her acculturation make a riveting read. Narayan found out that school here was very different from India where it was mostly a “never-ending parade of classes.”
Readers from India might be familiar with the popular belief that a Catholic school minus religious instruction equals an excellent education. The Lord’s Prayer had to be recited every morning, though. Each young student had a garbled but sincere version of it to yell out in chorus in the school courtyard. Narayan’s own went like this: “Ah father, Charty Nevin, ah low be thy name. Thy kin dumb come thy will bidden north cities in heaven …”
Narayan lovingly recreates the cultural milieu she grew up in through such vignettes. She captures Madras with all its regional peculiarities— the inherent contradictions, and the dead certainties like her grandmother’s boundless love. Nallama visits her in America and sportingly goes on a road trip where she discovers Dunkin Donuts, Chinese, and other “forbidden” foods.
Paasam—the Tamil word for affection—between kin sums it up beautifully. Nallama’s love for her granddaughter helps her overcome a lifetime’s fastidiousness, based on religion, about not eating anything cooked by casteless strangers.
“Night train to Mumbai” is evocative of the cross-country train journeys we have all made in India sharing packed, homemade food easily with anyone in the same compartment and stopping station vendors to partake the specialties of the region we passed through, Nagpur oranges, and Lonavala chikkis, to name a couple.
National Public Radio listeners may be familiar with the author’s worldview—as she comments on a wide range of topics from cricket craze to her aunt’s Internet wake. This book lays it all out chronologically for the readers, events that shaped her attitudes and beliefs starting with the chorruunnal, or rice-eating ceremony, a child’s first meal at the Guruvayoor temple in Kerala, to a Thanksgiving get-together with her in-laws in Fort Myers, Florida.
All desis might want to thank the author for the refreshingly candid description of all the steps involved in a present day arranged marriage, her own, and that of her brothers. This custom is not about to vanish any time soon, and it is just as well that she has taken it upon herself to set the record straight. The Wall Street consultant and the spirited feminist make a perfect couple like the sooji (sweet) and bajji (savory), which are traditionally served at these boy-meets-girl-with-family-in-tow encounters.
Eating out and ethnic food has just begun to serve as an entry point into understanding the culture that made the cuisine possible. This book does a wonderful job of being a persuasive ambassador from South India, and there is something in it for anyone who is very familiar with that part of the world as well.