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Although South Asian American fiction has burgeoned in the last few decades, the memoir is a relatively under-explored genre, especially one which focuses on something as quotidian as food. There are many celebrity chefs who have produced cookbooks with glossy photos and cooking tips, but it is rare to find a book that curates food stories.
Madhushree Ghosh is a scientist who works in oncology diagnostics, but in writing Khabaar, she has joined the ranks of South Asian American authors who have given literary form to the lived but unexpressed experiences of immigrant lives. Her stories are specific to her family’s geographic location as refugees from East Bengal who settled in the Chittaranjan Park neighborhood of South Delhi.
The Bengali Art Of Buying Fish
The first couple of chapters transport readers to this neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s, where her father built a house, planted a garden, and introduced her to the intricate Bengali art of buying fresh fish.
As someone who grew up in a Bengali family in Kolkata and later moved to Delhi, these venues are intimately familiar to me. Ghosh’s recreation of the ambience of these places is painstakingly accurate and her depiction of a Bengali family, where a father buys too much fish and the mother patiently cooks them, is poignantly recognizable as my own.
However, Ghosh’s narrative is not linear. She juxtaposes her own life’s vignettes with the biographical details of other chefs. In the chapter focusing on her forays into the fish market with her father, Ghosh interweaves reflections on Samin Nosrat’s book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, including Samin’s recipe of mast-o-khiar.
Feeding The Future Ex-in-Laws
Several chapters in the book are devoted to Ghosh’s traumatic experience of a difficult marriage which eventually ended in divorce. Chapter 3, “Feeding the Future Ex-in-Laws,” is a comedic account of the early days of her relationship with her partner who is a South Indian Brahmin, and whose family represents a very different kind of cuisine: one that is strictly vegetarian.
Ghosh encapsulates diasporic food journeys through her account of other chefs, even as she offers us glimpses into her private emotional life. In the chapter, “Future Ex-In-Laws,” we are offered engrossing tales of the parta (paratha) stall in Singapore. In the next chapter, she traces the story of the bunny chow, a doughy sandwich with a meat gravy, which developed in the Indian immigrant community in South Africa.
Indira Gandhi’s Assassination
Chapter 5, “When Indira Died,” transports us back to the tumultuous history of the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the state-sanctioned violence against Sikhs that broke out in the aftermath.
Ghosh provides eyewitness accounts from her childhood about these atrocities, including loss of life and property that the Sikh community faced, as well as the political background that led to the crisis. These traumatic memories are juxtaposed with the biography of Lucky, a San Diego chef whose family emigrated after the 1984 riots.
The Search For Naru
As a Bengali growing up in Delhi, Ghosh is unabashedly fond of Punjabi dishes like saag paneer and chicken tikka and quickly develops a deep friendship with Lucky and his wife Kamaljeet, even though he is reluctant to share his family history.
My favorite chapter is Chapter 6, “Dessert in Kolkata Summers: Search for Naru,” which masterfully combines a family ghost story with the harrowing personal episode of getting trapped in a hotel bathroom, weaving fantasy and psychological realism into a delicious mix.
Later, in the throes of a claustrophobic and unhappy marriage, Ghosh becomes trapped in a bathroom, only to realize that the incident is a metaphor for her life. This chapter ends with a recipe for the wonderful Bengali desert of naru, which Ghosh had been served at her cousin’s home many summers ago, and which she later serves to guests during Diwali.
The chapters which follow recount the very difficult struggle to untangle herself from her emotionally abusive husband. In one of these chapters, she juxtaposes her own situation with that of Garima Kothari, an Indian chef who was brutally murdered by her husband.
However, in Ghosh’s case, after a long and arduous fight, she achieves the freedom of divorce and the peace of closure. In her new house, she nurtures new friendships and celebrates Diwali with a lavish meal catered by Lucky and Kamaljeet. Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic upends her social life but does not really affect her everyday life.
The memoir closes with Ghosh growing a vegetable garden, much like her father did in his house in Chittaranjan Park. She is at peace being alone, and happy to have the unconditional love of her dog.
Khabaar is a book about food stories. Food offers a vision of not just one woman’s immigrant journey, or that of her extended family’s—it juxtaposes individual with national trauma from the partition, anti-Sikh riots, to the more recent protests against the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act by the women of Shaheen Bagh.
In weaving stories of the nation with those of individuals, food becomes symbolic of resilience, especially of women not defeated by adversity or isolation but striving for meaningful connections and communities.