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CLIMBING THE MANGO TREES: A MEMOIR OF A CHILDHOOD IN INDIA by Madhur Jaffrey. Knopf. October 2006. Hardcover. 320 pages. $25.00.
Yes, it does come with some family recipes at the end. But the real joy of Madhur Jaffrey’s memoir Climbing the Mango Trees is reveling in what she calls “taste memory.” For her she says there is nothing like the pure pleasure of “the smell of moong dal and basmati rice boiling in the kitchen.” For her musician husband Sanford Allen it’s “the smell of bacon.”

In her memoir, Jaffrey uses the triggers of taste memory to unlock a flood of other memories of growing up in a joint family with 30 to 40 cousins sitting down to meals (“venison kebabs laden with cardamom, tiny quail with hints of cinnamon, chickpea shoots stir-fried with green chilies and ginger”). Sometimes the memories are much more humble—summer cucumbers hawked in Delhi as “Laila ki unglian hain, Majnu ki pasliyan” (the fingers of Laila, the ribs of Majnu).

Redolent as it is with memory, the sense of loss is palpable. It’s not just immigration that has suddenly separated her from the foods of her childhood. (She came to England not knowing how to cook at all.) But even in globalized India, the old ways are gone. No one chills mangoes in frigid streams on mountain picnics, the lady in white doesn’t stop by with terracotta cups of daulat ki chaat (“a frothy evanescence” of milk, “dried seafoam,” and pistachio shavings with the special ingredient of winter dew).

Jaffrey writes simply but in vivid prose. It’s not easy as a writer with an international readership to get across the differences between ghiya and tinda and tori. Sometimes it sounds like she is indeed the cookbook diva explaining just how to make that yakhni pulao.

But food aside, this memoir is of an idyllic childhood. Jaffrey shows both the pleasures of large joint families and the stresses and strains inherent in them. She says now that “love was like a security blanket—you knew exactly who you belong to.” At the same time it’s obvious she chafes against how “family history is all about men.” This memoir is her way of bringing to light the stories of the women—her mother, her sisters, her grandmother Bari Bauwa’s homemade lime pickle.

She also grew up in a remarkable time in India witnessing the birth of modern India. She remembers going to Birla House to see Gandhi, but what really stands out is a “taste memory” of Partition. She recounts how as Indian split into two, “most of our teenaged friendships withered and died as soon as talk of Partition began.” The tiffin carriers literally changed. Gone were the roti with spicy shorva meat sauce and goat with spinach the Muslim girls brought. Now Delhi was full of new refugees from Punjab who brought with them their village food of parathas, sarson ki saag, kali dal and chickens cooked in tandoors. This is truly history in a lunch box.

The memoir stops at the cusp of adulthood when she is 17. The rest of her interesting life, her marriage to Saeed Jaffrey, her acting career, and rise to kitchen goddess is surely full of spicy stories. But Madhur Jaffrey isn’t sure there will be another memoir. “I didn’t want to go into the later years,” she says with a smile. “Life just gets messy.”