Book Review: Sara, Shashi Warrier

Book Review: Sara, Shashi Warrier

'Sara' is a tepid fare, one where lots of backstories emerge but none energise the plot...

Sara, Shashi Warrier

Shashi Warrier has written a critically acclaimed fictional biography of the last hangman of the State of Travancore, The Hangman’s Journal, as well as a political satire, The Pillow Talk Movies. However, the bulk of his oeuvre consists of thrillers. Night of the Krait, The Sniper, The Orphan Diaries, The Man Who Wouldn’t Be God are all very readable, making his name become synonymous with competent storytelling: diverse settings, well-paced plots, credible even likable characters, an easy conversational tone.

Sara, the author’s latest offering, introduces the reader to Junaid, 40-ish, with thinning hair, a chef and part-owner of a popular restaurant in London’s Regent Street. Named Junaid’s of Fatehgarh, after his grandfather, it owes its success to an heirloom recipe for a spice mix with over a hundred different ingredients. One summer day, during the lunch hour rush, a woman arrives. “She’s in her mid-twenties, a curly-haired dishwater blonde, freckled, wide-mouthed, dressed in a t-shirt and denim jacket. Pretty.”

Alice Munro is the great-granddaughter of a former political resident of the erstwhile kingdom of Fatehgarh in India. Her great grandmother, who is nearly a hundred and wheelchair-bound, still remembers ‘the real thing’ that she ate at the Nawab’s table, cooked by the legendary Junaid. The grandson, obviously smitten by the great grand-daughter, waives the bill. Their romance, like slow cooking, progresses at a solemn pace.

Readers are made privy to Junaid’s insecurities as “a cook from an obscure village in India,” dating a ‘gori’, descendant of a “high official of the British government, and, for all I know, a blue blood.” The love story gets a slight jog when Alice asks him to cook for her Gram, followed, on his part, by more agonising — over what to cook. The meal is a hit with the old lady who pays the ultimate compliment that “young Junaid” might be even better than his grandfather. More polite chatter reveals that the said grandfather killed himself for reasons that remain a mystery till date.

Gram gives her blessing to the budding romance and promptly dies, leaving a legacy to the chef who made her so happy. This is a set of 80-odd diaries, written over 68 years. One of them records how the nawab’s khansama always prepared two versions of a dish at the royal banquets, one spicy and “the other watered down for visitors.”

Young Junaid naturally finds all this family history riveting, not so the reader, who, in the excess of tell-not-show, might easily miss the next signpost for an important twist in the longwinded tale: the hitherto secret recipe for the spice mix is listed in the diary in its full glory. Not so secret, after all.

Young Junaid, who feels that his livelihood depends on the originality of this spice mix, is stunned. He jumps to the conclusion that his grandfather served two sets of dishes at those long-gone banquets because he didn’t have the famous spice mix recipe. The question then is how did he lay hands on it? Did he, for instance, plagiarise someone else’s work?

Was his suicide a ‘death by guilt’, or did someone do him in for having stolen the recipe? To add to the muddle that befuddles our chef, some of the diaries are missing. One is tempted to ask why he feels compelled to resolve this mystery. How does the recipe’s provenance matter? But this is a hero suffering chronically from overthinking. “I’m uneasy with the thought that I’m making my living off someone else’s inheritance,” he tells Alice. To his surprise, but not to the reader’s, she provides the solution: “We go to India.” Thus begins ‘The Quest’. If, after this lukewarm appetiser, the reader expects the story to lift off, there is only further disappointment. The return to India and to the bosom of the family — Abba, Ammi, sister Razia — takes up the next few chapters.

Fatehgarh, somewhere in the vicinity of Lucknow, is a forgettable place. Between presenting his girlfriend to his family and friends — and dealing with their predictable reactions — Junaid launches into some half-hearted detective work. Several characters float in and out, backstories emerge, but none of them quite energise the plot. Meanwhile, Alice becomes pregnant, the couple gets married, she delivers a baby girl Sara, Ammi and Abba die, in quick succession, and so does Alice — of cancer.

As all these events clog the storyline, The Quest simmers on the backburner, and 16 years later, when Sara herself is a teenager, it’s finally somewhat resolved. By then, the reader cares not a whit. Fusion, a recent culinary style, does have its equivalent in fiction, too. However, this novel, despite its ingredients — food, romance, tragedy, history, mystery — doesn’t quite get it right.