Hot off the kitchen

‘Write what you know’ is the number one piece of advice new writers get. That it is cent-percent justified is amply demonstrated by the novel Gone with the Vindaloo. The author, Vikram Nair, is the founder and CEO of a chain of restaurants, and by God, does he know his kitchens!

Gone with the Vindaloo is the story of the travails of three generations of cooks. The grandfather, Kalaam, begins life during pre-Independence India as a weaver’s help, but is forced out of his job by caste prejudices. He discovers cooking and becomes a cook par excellence. His son, Param, carries on his father’s tradition in the house of an IAS officer, one of the top dogs in the post-Independence era. And his son, Pakwaan, goes to America with the bureaucrat’s son to find fame and fortune in the land of the firangi pari only to find out that... well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.
 
Any talk of this book will be useless without a mention of food, so grab a plate of hot pakodas and tea, or a tall glass of cool lassi or a nice bowl of cold kulfi and settle down. Food is the real hero of the book, and cooking stands out as a benevolent art, a way of expressing oneself, as well as showing love and care to the people who are being fed.

The deep wholesome joy of the entire process of connecting with the food through the preparation and presentation of it pervades the entire story. The descriptions of food and cooking in this book, the textures, the smells, the flavours, and the tastes are so vivid and so lovingly related, you experience them yourself.

When Kalaam makes chicken curry for the English burra sahibs, “He threw in the onions and stirred, and watched, fascinated at the change in colour and texture — the fresh raw slices changing, turning translucent at first and then gradually shrinking as they become golden, then brown. The smells changed, too, from strong and pungent when the onions were chopped to a gentler aroma when translucent and finally, the stronger, more metallic smell when they turned dark brown.”

These passages on cooking are sometimes so intense that you might find yourself dropping the book to go cook the dish you are reading about for yourself to eat. I was nearly tempted to go make myself some cheeni ka parantha, while reading Kalaam’s courtship, and ended up gaining a kilo, I think. So dieters, be warned.

The cultural scenes also come to life, as the story journeys through a century of Indian and American history. India as seen through the eyes of an outsider, a firangi, first as a wonderful place and then as a sordid country is a dash of cold water. In fact, there is a cynical air through the whole story, as characters are set up on pedestals and then dashed off of them, all except the three simple cooks.

The blurb describes the book as “funny foodie fiction” and it is certainly irreverent and subversive. The sly passing reference to “a half naked fakir” shouldn’t be missed, and the comment on history being the victor’s perspective is another gem. The vagaries of the characters, such as the pomposity of the Indian bureaucrat and his ambitions for his son, the ambitions of a young boy, which in no way intersects his father’s ambitions, and the servility of the cook to his superiors in contrast to his image in the kitchen and to his own son, are well drawn.

However, the humour is often ‘earthy’ (to put it mildly), which can be a little off-putting. Moreover, while the descriptions are excellent, they sometimes tend to weigh the story down. The first part of the story is rich in its imagery, but slow and meandering. It is not helped by the fact that it is related mostly in narrative, as told by Param to his son Pakwaan.

The second part starts out as a crash course in history: lesson — the US in 1960-70. Then the story is taken over by Svet, an unprepossessing abbreviation of Svetlana, a first generation Russian-American. While her story rings true up until her exit from Rishikesh, it completely loses credibility after that. The wonderful, detail-oriented story-telling suddenly becomes fast-paced, incomplete and generalised, until the inevitable end.
 
All in all, Vikram Nair has done an amazing job for a first-time author. His eye for the finer details of colour, texture, smell and taste is excellent, as well as his ability to tell a historical story with humour are bound to make his future endeavours worth waiting for.

Gone with the Vindaloo
Vikram Nair
Hachette
2014, pp 256
Rs 350
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