Food for soul

More than just biryani
Andaleeb Wajid
Amaryllis
2014, pp 360
399

Ruqayya hates cooking. Unlike most girls in her community, she is educated, is forward-thinking, and has the courage to tell her new mom-in-law that she can’t even light a stove. But, her inability to cook isolates her in her new home. Her offer of help in the kitchen is not accepted by the elders in the house, expert cooks that they are. She is left alone in her corner of the house, longing for company while her husband is away at work, feeling like a nobody...

Tahera, a mother of two, finds her life take a turn for the worse when her husband dies in a freak accident. Unable to cope with the sudden loss of her beloved husband, she withdraws into a shell, refusing to even take care of her two children. Life holds no meaning for her without her husband. To top it all, she discovers she’s pregnant. She goes to her parents’ at Vellore and refuses to come back to Bangalore, her home, the one she shared with her husband...

Zubi, a chirpy eight-year-old, pesters her father to take her on a ride in an entertainment park, little knowing that the ferris wheel would crash and she would end up losing her affectionate father. Her life changes forever. Unconsciously, she holds herself responsible for her father’s demise and fears loving anyone intensely, not even her doting husband, for the fear to losing him and becoming like her mother — listless and withdrawn...

Three generations of women from one family, grappling with their own set of insecurities and problems, struggling to find their identities. More Than Just Biryani is the culinary journey these women embark on to follow their hearts and create a niche for themselves. Centered around the life of Zubi, the novel’s protagonist, the story moves back and forth in time, opening out, magically, to disclose the significant role food played in the lives of these women.

It all starts when food journalist Sonia Kapoor stumbles upon Zubi’s food blog and befriends her, in the hope of discovering the special bond Zubi seems to share with food. A tad reluctant at first, Zubi slowly opens up, taking Sonia with her to her past, to disclose the long panoramic vistas in her grandmother Ruqayya and mother Tahera’s lives, that had a direct bearing on her own — the defining moments in their personal histories — and the homely details of their day-to-day routines, punctuated with food. It is great to follow her grandmother’s efforts to learn cooking and ending up being the dessert queen of the family, and her mother’s flight from the dark world of depression on the wings of food. But, what about Zubi?

Well, as the story unfolds, we see Zubi building a wall around herself, not able to communicate her love for her husband owing to her deep-seated insecurities, and finding solace in cooking. This would have been the life she would have led, if not for a walk in the park with her ‘deliciously brooding’ husband when they bump into an ex-colleague of his, a Chinese bombshell, and he chooses to introduce Zubi to her as ‘just a housewife’. Irked by the casual tone in which he says ‘just a housewife’, Zubi is gripped by the desire to do something that would drag her out of the realm of being ‘just a housewife’. And, what can she do well other than cooking? So, she records herself while cooking biryani and uploads it on YouTube. Voila!

Andaleeb Wajid thus gives shape to the secret life of Zubi who enjoys the anonymity the Internet affords her. But, will she let the excitement of her new self break the walls she’s built around her? And, will she ever be able to tell her husband how much she loves him?

Well, that forms the crux of this beautiful book filled with so much universal experience, such haunting memories, such tidbits about Muslim food that the reader is left craving for more. The most commendable part of the book, other than the mouth-watering recipes, of course, is the charm and strength of character the author has lent to each of the three women who people the book — it lingers in our minds long after we have closed the book. Especially Zubi’s, who seems to be consumed by the very dilemmas she seeks to resolve. Exploring human emotions to the hilt, the novel portrays the conflict between dreams and reality. In short, it is not just a story of three women, but a saga of emotions.

Written in a lucid manner, the prose reveals the curious, observant mind of the author. She also deserves a pat on the back for the simplicity of language. Even as the story flows forth in a realistic manner, it ends as a journey begins, on the path of love, devoid of any baggage. Pick it up now!

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