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Growing fonder... love over food

Photo: Rajeev Bhatt.

SWEET TALK, SPICY FOOD: Herbert Traxl and Shovana Narayan share food over banter at The Imperial's San Gimignano restaurant.

NOT MANY years ago, when Herbert Traxl was Austria's ambassador to India, his embassy was constantly abuzz with exhibitions and cultural programmes from India and Austria. The events were a big draw for the Capital's visual and performing artists, who felt particularly at home because the lady of the house was the celebrated Kathak exponent, Shovana Narayan. Now that he is ambassador to Thailand, Herbert and Shovana have to content themselves with meeting infrequently. That's the way it has been for most of their marriage that straddles nearly two decades and several continents. Being married to a classical dancer whose art is heavily engaged in the various phases of Shringar, one might expect him to be aware of the meaning of viraha by now. While Shovana clarifies he doesn't know the word, Herbert amiably quips: "I don't know, I've probably been doing it for 20 years now."

Herbert and Shovana have taken time out to have a leisurely lunch at San Gimignano, the Italian restaurant in The Imperial, New Delhi's likeable hotel in Connaught Place.

"I feel very at home here," says Herbert of the restaurant, whose walls are decorated with photographs of the ancient town of San Gimignano in Tuscany, central Italy.

For Herbert the Italian menu is familiar territory. "Italian food is light. Olive oil is one of the best oils - low in calories and cholesterol. A study has shown that some of the longest-lived people in the world are from the Mediterranean, where olive oil is the cooking medium. You can read the English below the Italian titles," he adds helpfully, but Shovana says: "I will have whatever Saheb orders."

For starters there are salads. He prefers Insalata di broccoli - broccoli flowerets tossed with tomatoes and olives in a mustard and caper dressing - and for the lady suggests Insalata di carciofi e melenzane - marinated artichoke heart wrapped in roasted eggplant with sun dried tomato. There is also a choice of soups like Minestrone di Romagna and Pasta e fagioli - meals in themselves. But the Traxl-Narayans prefer a light lunch.

Shovana submits that Herbert is a good cook, but he disagrees with a modest "Oh... ".

"He knows about food," she emphasises, and he has to concur. It is useful in guiding his cooks, he points out. When planning official dinners together, he looks after the Austrian fare while she takes responsibility for the Indian cuisine. "There is division of work in everything."

As a student it was that ubiquitous emblem of Italian gastronomy - spaghetti - that Herbert learnt to cook first, when he shared a flat with three other bachelors of various nationalities. While the main course is savoured - Pesce spada ala siciliana (grilled snapper topped with a sauce of mixed vegetables, caper and olive infused with thyme) and Pesce con salsa di puttanesca al forno (tender fillet of Calcutta bekti with anchovy tomato sauce, baked with sage) - Herbert shows his interest in India's development requirements, and notes the similarities between the new hill State of Uttaranchal and his own country. To help down the food is beer for the gentleman and white wine for the lady.

So absorbed is he in civic talk that when Shovana makes a passing reference to the history of Kathak, he exclaims: "There, she's talking about dance again!" At first glance one might think that a Kathak exponent and a diplomat make an unusual pair. But when she's not performing or teaching, she's an officer of the Central Government, and their conversation reveals they are on the same wavelength.

They drift down memory lane too, to the days before they walked down the aisle. When he arrived in New Delhi for the first time on a rainy September morning in the mid-`70s - his first visit out of Europe - as deputy to the ambassador, he was supposed to be met by officials of the Austrian Embassy, "but they overslept". Fighting his way through the crowd of touts offering taxis and hotel accommodation, he waited in vain. "Then I thought something is amiss. There was no cell phone in those days, so I hailed a taxi and went to the Oberoi, where I knew I had a booking".

It was towards the end of this posting that he met Shovana. He remembers driving her car, a 1960s Fiat, with doors opening towards the front. "It had no handbrake and the accelerator was just a wire," he reminds her. What a "come down" it was from his Mercedes, he teases, and his low-key manner contrasts perfectly with Shovana's reverberating laugh.

For dessert Herbert shows through a mudra that the two of them can share La tentazione del rovo - soft black currant mousse - though the typical Italian dessert on offer is Tiramisu.

He is due to retire in three years. After that will Delhi see more of him, or less of Shovana?

"I have not made any plans so far," admits Herbert. "Actually, Vienna is my home and Delhi is my home, in that sequence."

Shovana chips in: "And Delhi is my home and Vienna is my home, in that sequence."

"Yes Shovana is also at home in Vienna. Now our son will go to university. He will come to India whenever he can, if he feels like it," adds Herbert, stressing the open-endedness of his expectations from Ishaan, who is writing his school leaving exams in Vienna as they sit at lunch. "He is not so great at maths. This from the son of someone who loved maths and physics!" exclaims Shovana.

"Yes," says the doting husband. "He has taken after me in that respect."

And as they rise from the luncheon, soon to be separated by thousands of miles in pursuit of their professional commitments, can there be any doubt that distance makes the heart fonder?


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