& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Settler's Cookbook: A Memoir of Love, Migration and Food

I’ve no compunctions in admitting that my ignorance of contemporary writers is monumental.

I had not heard Yasmin Alibhai-Brown or her masterpiece of a book. The Settler’s Cookbook – A Memoir of Love, Migration & Food that was published last year to wide acclaim in Britain.

House of Anansi Press Inc., the distributors of Portobello books in Canada, has brought the paperback edition of this genre-bending memoir and a cookbook rolled into one.

Thanks to my friend Yoko Morgenstern, I’m reading it right now. Quite simply, it’s an amazing book.  I haven’t finished reading it yet so it would be improper to review it. I'm sure nobody would mind if I comment on it.

You can also read it as a recipe book. Although that wouldn’t be half as interesting as reading the book as it’s written – memoir interspersed with recipes. Yasmin weaves the recipes into the story of her life. She does this assuredly and with dexterity.

When you begin to read the recipe, you can’t help but reminisce about your own past. A past that in my case is now a swiftly fading memory.

I had tears welling up as I read the recipes for rotlo, halwa, stuffed brinjals, shrikhand, dudhpak, lemon chilli and ginger pickle, moong dal bhajia, masala chai, chevro, khari puri, nan katai, sev, urad dal, sak dhokri...

Any Gujarati would feel the same way.

Reading these recipes transported me back into time and place when (in a world that somehow felt more secure than now), my mother and my Ba cooked for us – my sister and I – adding dollops of affection to their considerable culinary skills.  They could make everyday home food taste better than restaurant food.

Yasmin’s book has several finger-licking non-vegetarian recipes. I've only listed the vegetarian dishes because of my largely vegetarian upbringing. 

It’s been a while since I’ve had traditional Gujarati food. Let me hasten to add here, that to Mahrukh’s credit, despite being a non-Gujarati and a Muslim, her urad dal is as good as my Ba’s.

Yasmin’s memoirs are important in the context of Diaspora writing because the stories are about real people and about their despair at being uprooted from a land that they never quite considered home and yet didn’t know of any other place they could call so.

The story of Yasmin’s family is as compelling as Salim’s story in Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.

There is a sizeable Gujarati speaking population in Canada of first generation immigrants from East Africa (including the Ismailis, Yasmin’s community) who will identify with many situations that Yasmin describes in her book. In fact, all Gujaratis will enjoy the book. 

However, that would be an unfair summation of the book’s appeal. The book effortlessly transcends geographical boundaries and ethnic classifications.

Moreover, The Settler’s Cookbook portrays seemingly commonplace situations in a devastatingly deadpan style.

Sample this:  “Fatima, nearly ninety, remembered her deprivation and struggle: ‘Mosquitoes used to bite us everywhere and make us sick. My parents, you know making more children on the gunny sacks in the shop and it was not very good behaviour. My father made a lot of noise and my mother’s voice was like a lost kitten. She died when baby number fourteen got stuck. Good, she was free after that.”

Let me leave you with a recipe that you should have this Sunday afternoon...

Masala Chai (The Gujarati tea)

Teabags, one per person
Sugar to taste
Water with milk – 2/3rd to 1/3rd
A little cinnamon, cardamom and a pinch of clove powder or ready-made tea masala you can buy in Asian shops
  • Boil the milk and water in a saucepan, then add all other ingredients
  •  Let the liquid boil up one more time
  • Serve in feminine cups, not blokey mugs; never tastes right in those

Friday, March 12, 2010

Adventures with Camera and Pen

Anthony Dalton is a great speaker. I heard him recently at an event organised by BookLand Press, the publisher of his book Adventures with Camera and Pen

Anthony is a natural storyteller in the oral tradition and can hold his audience spellbound for hours, talking about his excursions across the world. 

His talk at Ben McNally Books was peppered with fascinating anecdotes – from being guided to safety by a penguin on Falkland Islands or walking through a minefield.  

I've just finished reading Adventures with Camera and Pen.  

Anthony is a great writer, too.  And let me explain what I mean by that. In today’s world, travel is commonplace, even to unaccessible and exotic places. 

There are many who fancy themselves as great travel writers. A million websites are a testimony to such fallacious thinking.

But, merely traveling and then writing about the travel doesn’t make the writing interesting. For that the writer should depict word pictures and successfully transport the reader in time and to place so that the s/he is able to live the adventures vicariously.

Anthony does this with alacrity and fineness; yet his prose is simple, straightforward and easy to read and enjoy. His adventures – which include a trip to Timbuktu, walking along Schelde, a roadtrip to Ghazni, a boat ride on Sitilakhya in Sunderbans, and yatching across the Panama Canal – kept me interested often because of his deadpan style.

However, for me the most fascinating part of the book was Anthony’s adventures in Canada. I’ve been here 20 months, but I've not been able to travel outside Toronto (except a trip to Niagara Falls). This is true for most newcomers. 

What I haven’t been able to afford to do because of my preoccupation with life, Anthony does for me, and then narrates his experiences in a deft, unobtrusive manner.

His trips to the Canadian Arctic and risky encounters with musk oxen, to rock climbing and photographing the Bugaboo range, and fishing expeditions in Manitoba gave me more than a glimpse of this in this vast and varied land.

The best piece in the book is his adventure on the Niwhaniwha, his home made boat. I won’t ever do it, but I sure know what it feels like to be riding the surf in a boat. 

Sample this: “For a fraction of a second we balanced on top, with the outrigger just skimming the rock, I learned forward as Bruce drove his paddle hard and down the slope we went. Our stomachs caught up with us a few moments later.”

BookLand Press’ Robert Morgan, publisher of Anthony's book, was also present at the reading session and gave his own insights into the difficult business of publishing.

Image: Invitation from BookLand Press

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Glimpses of the Setting Sun

On a day when all Canada was watching the Olympic hockey final between archrivals Canada and the United States, I took my family to attend a book launch. Meena Chopra’s book Glimpses of the Setting Sun at the Mississauga Central Library.

Talk of being mixed up. Che was quite upset.

My main purpose for dragging my family along was to celebrate Holi, and I couldn’t have thought of a better way to celebrate the traditional festival than to attend this event.

It was unique in so many ways. Meena had termed the event a multilingual poetry celebration, book launch and art exhibition. It was all this and more.

Four versions of Meena’s book were released at the event – Hindi, Urdu, English and a transliteration of the Hindi version in Roman script. Meena’s sublime paintings were on display in the foyer and an adjoining room.

There was a restrained aesthetics to the manner in which the event was conducted – all the credit to Binoy Thomas, editor of Weekly Voice, who had taken charge as the compere.

Binoy made a telling observation during his unpretentious introduction that Canada needs to develop the confidence of India to shed its self-consciousness about multiculturalism.

The soft-spoken Navdeep Bains, a Sikh born and raised in Canada and now people’s representative, released the English version of Meena’s book; Dr. Colin Saldanha, famous (and erudite) medical professional, originally from Karachi, Pakistan, released the Urdu version of the book and MP Singh, diplomat from the Consulate General of India in Toronto, released the Hindi version of the book. All the speeches were brief and the audience comprised a healthy multicultural mix of poets and those interested in poetry.

Meena read a few of her poems. Reproduced below is one taken from her collection Ignited Lines.


I walk bare feet
on the ruins of time
Past crumbles underneath.
Images emerge
from the rigid stonewalls.
Cracking in front of me.

I see shadows
in the debris of