Manjul Bajaj, who was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction 2013, on food, writing, and the trade-off between the two

Sliding into her chair with an easy grace that’s quickly become her trademark, Manjul Bajaj begins our lunch with a quick confession. “I’m not a foodie, not really. I love my mother’s cooking, when I can get it, and otherwise, honestly, I’d rather use the time that I’d spend obsessing over food writing instead.” Even so, when the menus arrive, crowded with a selection of Asian, Thai and Japanese dishes, she peruses the list carefully. We are sitting in Eest, one of Westin Hotel’s many restaurants, and the ambience, a serene, peaceful medley of muted colours and hushed whispers of the few other diners, lends a restful quality to the afternoon. We opt for a Thai lunch, after Manjul confesses that Japanese food has never been a favourite. The soups and salad are ordered, and leaning back in our chairs, we chat while the kitchen gets to work.

Manjul is recently back from the Chennai chapter of The Hindu Lit for Life, 2014, where her collection of stories Another Man’s Wife was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction, and I’m curious to know if she enjoyed her time there. “I couldn’t attend all the sessions, of course, but there were a few that I really liked,” she says, adding that the last session on the second day of the festival, focussing on Tamil Muslim identity, had especially intrigued her. “I could understand and relate to the issue. I’ve grown up in Lucknow, with a composite culture and Muslim friends who were an essential part of my life. But since then, Muslim identity in literature seems to have become restricted to the idea of terrorism and its exploration. It is such a rich culture, and there is so much more to it. The crafts, music, poetry, architecture; we have got so much from it, but everything else seems to have taken a backseat.” Bajaj adds that this is the reason why, in her books, she takes special care to highlight the other aspects of Muslim identity, culture and tradition, taking care to not straitjacket the religion. She goes on to remember her visit to Pakistan. “I went there alone, on work. I was there when the Kargil war broke out. And I was treated wonderfully. Everyone was so helpful. I have never been more taken care of,” she says fondly.

The care and consideration she pays to her work reflects in her conversations. I remember a previous interview, and ask her to elaborate on the publishing industry’s response to debut short story writers. “I had initially gone through a literary agency, which has since then shut down. That time, they had told me that while they liked my writing, they wanted me to work on a novel instead.” She tells me that while there is a buzz that short stories are witnessing a revival, she doesn’t really think so. “Readers want big fat books now that never end. Sequels and trilogies and intergenerational sagas. They like the world that the book creates and they don’t want to let go of it.” For Manjul though, the choice is always the intense, short but packed story. She is at present working on the second book of her Rangeeli Duniya series for children and has just begun work on a new novel set in fifteenth century Punjab.

The soups arrive, and we dig in. My sweet corn and crab meat broth is steaming and wholesome, just right for a chilly winter afternoon, and Manjul tells me that her tom yam phak, a spicy vegetable soup with lemongrass and chili and kafir lime is perfect. While we systematically work towards emptying dauntingly large servings in front of us, she tells me that she has always loved reading, but had opted for Economics over English in college because she didn’t think that English would get her a job. “There wasn’t much scope for English students then, not like there is now.”

Manjul wanted to travel, to get out of Lucknow, and she did. Moving on from Economics in Delhi University’s Lady Shri Ram College, she opted for a Post Graduate course at the Institute of Rural Management. “When I heard of the place, I was excited. I knew it was something I’d want to do.” She smilingly confesses that she’s always been something of a social crusader. Once she started working, her first assignment took her to tribal villages in Gujarat, and she tells me that, though lost in the beginning, she picked up Gujarati in a month, and can still speak and read it. “It’s actually Hindi that I need to reconnect with. I write poems in Hindi, but reading longer pieces is becoming difficult.”

While we’ve been talking, the salad, sitting ignored so far, and finally, the shredded raw papaya salad makes its way to our plates. It’s wonderfully fresh, the peanuts adding layers of flavour to the tangy dressing. Manjul takes a second helping and I follow suit. Soon, the bowl is empty and the menu reappears. By now, she admits that she’ll only be able to do justice to a small main dish, and we order the pla nung manao, a small but succulent steamed basa dish that, when it arrives, makes us very happy indeed. The fish, cooked to perfection, is deliciously drenched in a garlic lemon sauce that we can’t get enough of. While we eat, she tells me of her reluctance to attend literary festivals. “I like being alone at home, using my time to write.” Or read. She talks enthusiastically about one of her favourite authors, Amitav Ghosh. “I had thought he’d be too intellectual, but when I read him, I realised that his is just the kind of writing that I love. It is intellectual, but it is also hugely readable, and I’m in awe of the research that goes into his books.”

The conversation flows easily, and Manjul goes on to talk about how she still thinks the literary world is kinder to male writers. “But then which profession isn’t? If you are a woman writer, you still aren’t taken as seriously.”

Before we know it, dessert has arrived. While the rest of the meal has been excellent, the sha qi ma, or honey noodle cake, leaves us disappointed, a tad dry and musty. We round up the lunch with cups of coffee, and realise that we’ve been sitting in Eest for over a couple of hours. It has been a good afternoon.