Not only is her latest novel structured like a cyclone, author Anita Nair can cook up a storm in the kitchen too
In a quiet corner of Fire restaurant in The Park, Anita Nair can be found peaceably communing with herself. The acclaimed Bangalore-based writer, after visiting the Jaipur Literature Festival, has stopped by in the Capital for the launch of her fourth book, “Lessons in Forgetting”, a Harper Collins publication.
The author of four novels and numerous non-fiction works, including literary essays, children’s books, retelling of myths and legends, averaging a major work a year for the past decade-and-a-half, is refreshingly approachable. No airs — except the turbulence of her latest work, which, she explains, she has structured like a cyclone.
Over fresh lime soda and starters, she talks about the main themes of the book. Just as a cyclone is made of currents of hot and cold air, her two protagonists, Meera and Jak, represent two very different human beings whose lives are tossed around by unprecedented storms.
“It begins with a page 3 kind of party, where everything is structured.” Meera, a corporate wife, lives in a seemingly perfect world, epitomised by the elegance of the party. “You think nothing can touch her. Then things fall apart.” It hits her out of the blue. In the case of a cyclone too, notes Anita, “you never know where it comes from.”
Fire’s dainty platters appear at regular intervals. Anita has opted for imli paneer: “I like tamarind very much so I like to see what they can do with it.”
This author knows her cooking, and with “a mixed repertoire”, admits to cooking and baking a lot. “Once I’ve perfected a thing, I’m very confident. My husband has to bear the brunt of my experimenting.” Anita is methodical and uses recipes. “And I think the secret is to follow the recipes exactly,” she notes.
As for the cuisine of her native Kerala, Anita points out, “It is heavy duty cooking.” An important ingredient being coconut, she clarifies, “There are so many varieties of it. You either fry it before, or later, or at point number three…”
This meticulousness translates into her writing. Anita is fluent in Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and Kannada — “It allows me to go down to a kind of basic level which I wouldn’t be able to do if I didn’t know these languages” — and enjoys doing research for her novels. Internet is handy, but background reading is important too.
For “A Better Man” she read up extensively on herbs. “Ultimately it was only a small part of the book, but I discovered I like research.”
For “Ladies’ Coupe” she read BSc Chemistry textbooks for her character who was a chemistry teacher. “And for my next book I actually went and enrolled in a Kathakali institution for a while.” In the latest work, to breath life into her cyclone studies expert Jak, she researched the structure of cyclones.
Meanwhile, the meat curry with a choice of rotis and paneer kulcha ave appeared on the table, with an array of garnishing choices on a eat tray. Anita is game for the combine, but obviously because she nows what goes well together. Otherwise, she admits, she is not one or fusion cuisine. “I’m a purist in that way. When I order for a particular dish I want it o taste the way I expect it to.” Or else, he feels, it should be a place without a menu, where customers eat hatever takes the chef’s fancy. Nor is she fond of the recent trend of molecular gastronomy.
“At some food court I’d asked for a chicken tikka roll. It’s roti and chicken — it blends beautifully and becomes a full meal. And now it’s all a sandwich thing, with mayo and all that. Ghastly!”
The awful memory need not be exorcised with sweets, since the delicious pineapple raita is as good as dessert. Anita does have “a very long sweet tooth” though, and makes kheer varieties at home.
Which is preferable — Bengali mithai or Mysore pak? “Everything! No class-state distinction about it. As long as it’s sweet and it’s Indian.”