Hindi writer Mridula Garg, who recently won a Sahitya Akademi award, gives in to some great food, and a little reminiscing
Mridula Garg’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the previous evening, and as she slides into her chair, the interrupting presence is silenced and slipped into her bag, forgotten for the duration of a leisurely lunch. The well-wishers looking to congratulate the new winner of Sahitya Akademi award will have to wait. The next two hours, Garg has decided, are dedicated to some surprisingly great food, and a little reminiscing.
We are sitting under the Nehru Place metro station, amidst a lush, green setting that feels both out of place and wonderfully serene. The recently opened Fio Cookhouse and Bar’s open seating is perfect for a mildly cold winter afternoon. “I live close by, and have heard a lot about this place from foodie friends,” says Garg. The menus arrive and, admitting that she isn’t a great one for food, but does know good from bad, Garg picks a thyme chicken and lentil broth. “I like eating light, but trying new things.”
As we wait for the first course to arrive, Garg talks about “Miljul Man”, her latest Hindi novel that’s won her the Sahitya Akademi award. The book’s her first since 1996. “I’d announced the name and the premise of the book back in the 90s, but it took me this long to write it because I had to find the right voice.” “Miljul Man”, published in 2009, is part fiction and part a biography of Garg’s sister, who was also a writer. Ask her if, after over 20 critically acclaimed Hindi and English books, she thinks the recognition has come too late, and Garg candidly replies, “At least it has come. Yes, it would have been more relevant a few years earlier, but it’s still an honour.” Interestingly, Garg tells me that when she did get the call about the award, an hour before the press release was sent out, she didn’t actually tell anyone. “I only messaged my son later, and then, the news sort of snowballed and reached my family and friends.”
She also laughs about the comments people have been making on sites like Facebook. “Someone wrote, ‘why are you giving the award to old people?’,” she laughs, clearly amused. Garg goes on to talk about the state of Hindi literature in the country. “There’s no money, no backing, no support. It’s us who are slowly killing the language and its literature.” We are interrupted by steaming bowls of chicken soup and a plate of Fio’s special cookhouse salad. While Garg doesn’t usually enjoy raw food, the sumptuous plate of goat cheese, green apples and baby greens is too good to pass, and she scoops a spoonful on her plate. “It’s really fresh, and the dressing is great”, she adds.
Garg is used to trying new cuisines, and when she peruses the lunch menu, her eyes linger on the pasta. “I’ve only had good pasta in Italy, and I’d like to see if they can do it justice here.” She requests the waiter to keep her portions small, and once the orders have been taken, we resume the conversation. Garg remembers the places she travelled to, small towns in Bihar and Karnataka, and the small, independently run primary school she opened in one such town. “We’d perform plays there, Shakespeare and other adaptations.” Garg’s face is soft, illuminated by the memories that are so obviously precious. She is in the middle of talking about a brilliant chef who used to work for her when the main course arrives. The ordered dishes, a plate of spaghetti zucchini with parmesan and almond flakes and a portion of seared tenderloin chimichurri, are followed by the in-house specials that the chef and management insist we taste. Our table is groaning under the weight of delicious, beautifully prepared food and we dig in, tasting a spoonful of this and a bite of that. Garg, in between bites, talks about food in Delhi and how the Old Delhi street food still holds the same charm. “They’ll tell you how this or that new place makes the best biryani, or the best jalebi, but you can’t beat the flavours of Old Delhi.”
So far though, Fio has ticked all the right boxes, and the spaghetti has more than met Garg’s expectations. “It’s cooked very well”, she says. We are both most appreciative of the mushroom risotto that’s made its way to the table. “Usually, people don’t take that much care with vegetarian food, but this risotto is excellent”, says Garg.
In between bites, Garg is full of stories, and the conversation never lags. She tells me about strange, comical experiences during her travels to Japan, Russia and Germany. Her memory is sharp, full of intricate details and small, telling anecdotes. We talk about translations, and the pains she takes to get the voice of her work just right. “I exchange innumerable letters with my translators, stay on the phone for hours and hours”. Garg switches between Hindi and English smoothly, and it’s easy to see that you are talking to someone who has mastered both languages.
Somehow, we manage to do justice to the great food laid out in front of us, and after one last bite of everything, the table is finally cleared for dessert. A tiramisu jar and a banoffee jar arrive, and at first, both look too pretty to eat. We finally give in and dig in, and while Garg doesn’t eat much of the banoffee jar (“it’s a lot of bananas, and I’m not too fond of bananas”), she enjoys the tiramisu jar thoroughly.
It’s been a delicious and leisurely meal, with a richly flavoured, delicious chat to match.