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Literary Review

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FOOD has always played a major role in individual lives, especially in Asia. Festivals revolved around not only lengthy rituals but also fascinating amounts of food. Nowhere has this been more strongly entrenched than India — home to a multitude of cuisines — each one more tempting than the other.

Many of our growing years have been spent tasting the delectable food prepared by parents and grandparents. In India's joint family system recipes were passed down from generation to generation, seldom written. Around each there was a little anecdote — something shared and something remembered. This unique legacy has been lost in the crush of modern living. So when Shoba Narayan, writes of her childhood and growing years, tracing it through the cooking skills of her grandparents, aunts and cousins, it seems almost natural to expect a full-blown story. And that is exactly what she has done. The result is a layered mélange of different tastes and smells all rolled into an intimate account of her life. One good thing I managed to glean was how to make the perfect idli — always difficult if you haven't been born into it.

Monsoon Diary, Shoba Narayan, Penguin, Rs. 295.

PRIMARILY this is a story about good and bad, revolving around the pitiable life of an 18-year-old deranged boy, Raju, his saviour Prabhu and the villain Prakash. It all begins with the murder of Maariamma. Even as shocked villagers get together to perform the last rites, one question haunts Prabhu: who murdered her and now what will happen to her son Raju? While Prabhu agonises over these questions, some of the village land is leased out for the construction of a fireworks factory.

In what could otherwise have been a mundane plot the writer introduces, ever so slyly, an element of homosexuality and child abuse. As the author writes, this book is not about a village but about human beings, their follies, their courage and above it all their belief in dignity and a right to live peacefully. Here is a story that limps to its start but then shifts gears and makes it to the finish.

Wingless, Anuradha Murlidharan, Bluejay, Rs. 250.

IT happens only in India. Remember that ditty from a Bollywood film? It could become an apt saying for the peculiarities of Indian bureaucracy and politicians. Anurag Mathur has managed to produce a book that not only makes you smile but also gets you chuckling. Babar Thakur, Babs to all, decides his life's ambition is to be Prime Minister of India. Thrown in with him are sister Radha, mom and Bahadur Prasad Thakur, his quiet and gentle bureaucratic father. Babs soon finds out that having contacts matters but need not necessarily open doors. He also sees his father being transferred to the department of denials, a punishment posting by a minister his father has inadvertently annoyed. Prasad is agonized but like all good bureaucrats turns around a bad situation managing to ingratiate himself with his oversexed minister in the hope of being transferred out once again. But as luck would have it, Balak Ram the minister, is so happy with Thakur's performance that he refuses to part with him. The end result is a devious comedy played out in all its glory in the corridors of power in South Block.

Mathur unerringly manages to get under the skin of his characters and brings each one to life. Ideal to read on a lazy day in office.

The Department of Denials, Anurag Mathur, Penguin, Rs. 200.

CAN women express their true feelings? How can they? Centuries of submission have made them secretive of their desires, their feelings and their ideas. This slim anthology opens the door to some soul-searching. It accounts for women who are individuals before they are gendered, who have a need, a desire and want to see its completion. These are women found in the rural hinterlands or in cities. Each story is hauntingly told, leaving the reader with a sense of growing desolation. But what is riveting is that this wonderful collection comes out of regional writing so often ignored. Gendered Spaces may mean different things to different readers, but there is one certainty — this is a collection to be read.

Gendered Spaces, edited by Jehnara Wasi and Alka Tyagi, Srishti, Rs. 195.


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