A look at the transient nature of the ‘American dream’ as seen through the vindaloo
With a generous dose of colonial history, humour and food taking centre stage, Vikram Nair’s first novel Gone with the Vindaloo is largely driven by instinct but soaked with passion. Nair takes you on a journey of evocative descriptions of culinary skills exhibited by his triumvirate of chefs — Kalaam, Param and Pakwaan.
The novel opens in pre-Independence India, and focuses on Kalaam, his son Param and his grandson Pakwaan. Kalaam is born in a family of yarn spinners but soon discovers his culinary talent and begins to cook for the expats. Every dish he makes brings him more praise but it is his signature-style vindaloo that brings him the highest glory. Pakwaan aspires to make vindaloo like his grandfather and dreams that it will take him places.
Kalaam’s son Param is the main cook in the house of IAS officer Mahadev, who . Param’s employer has a strict food regime. Mahadev is deeply influenced by the British sensibility and follows a somewhat western inspired-lifestyle. Nair very cleverly depicts the ‘western fascination’ of Indians during the colonial era through food. Mahadev has only soup and sandwiches for lunch.
There are two parallel plots in this novel and both are fuelled by food. Nair transports us to the U.S. and here again, food is the driving force. More specifically Pakwaan’s delectable vindaloo, which catches the fancy of Svetlana, a Russian-American who is disillusioned by notions of Western supremacy. Along with Tikky, Mahadev’s son, she decides to market Pakwaan’s vindaloo in the U.S. The spicy concoction is an instant hit there. However, when you take something unpretentious like a good vindaloo — succulent meat married with spices for the right amount of time that and is often the result of something personal, the chef’s ‘touch’ — and turn it into a factory-style product; then it loses its essence. Quality takes a hit when food is mass-produced and real life-restaurateur Nair takes a disparaging look at this aspect; probably drawing from personal experience. He also looks at the transient nature of the ‘American dream’ through the vindaloo, the star of this novel and a powerful weapon that he manipulates by combining it with cultural history. Throughout his narrative, Nair celebrates food and relates cooking to an art form. The novel is a heady mix of Hindi and English and those who don’t understand Hindi may miss some funny episodes. Subversive and often irreverent, Nair’s Gone with the Vindaloo is unabashedly making a point that life is best left simple.
Gone with the Vindaloo; Vikram Nair, Hachette India, Rs.350.