13 July 2009

Book Review: The Anger Of Aubergines

A slice of life

Author: Bulbul Sharma
Pages: 151 pages
Publishers: Kali
Year Of Publishing: 1997
Price: 150

This wasn't a book very easy to find, what with it threatening to go out of print. But a couple of friends made it possible and man, am I grateful!

It was a very favourable review on one of my favourite book sites, http://www.biblio-india.org/ and my own personal fondness for books that combine fiction with food that made me eager to lay my hands on this. The last book I read with a similar theme (food and women) was The Book Of Rachel by Esther David, which I absolutely loved and savoured. But while in David's book, food is mostly linked to the Jewish ethos and the simplicity of home made cooking, here, in The Anger of Aubergines (very inspired title), food -- while it is inseparably connected with the Indian way of life (ritualistic and otherwise) – takes a life of its own in the passion it evokes in people.

What sex is to man can be food to a woman ( they are certainly interchangeable of course) and beyond the uncontrolable urge the latter can feel towards it from time to time, food is also closely linked to a woman's emotions and her sense of well-being. This is one of the overriding themes in the 12 short stories that Bulbul Sharma so brilliantly pens down. At least 8 of these stories are sheer gems.

The stories abound in so many wonderful references to food – and there's a whole array here – and some pages go into details of how they are cooked, so that in no time you'll be salivating even as you read.
The book is an ultimate ode to food – because it sees its role as far more potent than it outwardly signifies. Between stories, it sees food as a source of power and envy, a thing of pride, a binding force, and many such things. The passion for food in women comes out even more strongly since most of the stories are set in a somewhat patriarchal, middle class ethos, where decorum and ritualistic demands need to be honoured.

The first story, Jars of Gold, sees food – in this case, pickles, as so precious that they are protectively guarded in a store room by the family's matriarch, Bauji. To the young protagonist, who has to make do with a very small piece of the pickle during meal times (the bigger portions are reserved for the men), the glistening pickle jars in the store room are a source of constant amazement. “I caught a glimpse of a row of pickle jars glowing tantalizingly in the dim, brown-paper-filtered light. There was mango pickle in jaggery, a large glass jar of sweet and spicy cauliflower and carrot pickle, and next to that sat the pride of Bauji's store room: ten little bottles of red chillies filled with spices.”

Train Fare – while it again reiterates women and their special connection with food – is really a wonder in terms of character sketch. Here, you have a very nervous Mr Sen undertaking a train journey with his mother, wife and daughter to Haridwar. He is stunned to see the passion for food the women have and the contented glow that their face takes on once their tummies are full. Here, food is seen as something wonderfully liberating to a woman, a permissible indulgence that helps them assert their choices.

Food is seen as power, a show of wealth and excess in Feasting with A Vengeance, where both the bride and groom's side want to outdo the other in servering their guests. “If one party served rabri loaded with pistachios, the other retaliated with kulfi flavoured saffron.....”
Similarly in Food To Die For, the grandmother takes great pains to cook the perfect and most elaborate meal for the pundit who is invited for her husband's shradh.
The author narrates both stories in an ironic vein, showing how the value and taste of food goes far beyond the events it is linked with. More than the eminence of the shradh or the marriage, it is the heavenly food that registers in everyone's mind.

Strangely, even when all other ties are lost, the adour of good food can keep people connected in odd ways. The Anger of Aubergines - the delightfully ironic title story -- describes an estranged couple who meet once in a week, when the husband drops in for lunch. He relishes the aubergines (handpicked from the garden) that his wife cooks for him, but neither of them exchange a single word. They have been following this pattern for years, so the husband is startled when the wife asks him if the 'salt is fine' one day. He is distressed as he wonders if his wife would initiate talk during mealtimes from now on and spoil it for him. Clearly, food is the only thing worth caring for, when relationships lose their meaning.

The most poignant story here is A Taste For Humble Pie, which recounts the tale of young, orphaned Bala, who is passed on from one indifferent relative to another. But as she grows older, her culinary skills come to the fore. She is an expert at making all kind of pakoras and soon enough, she is in much demand. The relatives now want her to remain with them, even if it means she could remain unmarried. So much so, that when a nice boy proposes to her, her relatives prod her to turn him down. The story ends on a sad note and is an anti-climax of sorts but succeeds in bringing out the selfishness that comes with the love for good life and food even if it is at the expense of others.

The only stories that don't really connect that well are Moonfish By Moonlight, Mushroom For Madness and Dead Man's Feast to an extent.
All the others are so acutely described that it makes you marvel at the author's power of perception and irony. Every story carries with it colourful and vivid details, recounted with an obvious sense of joy and wry humour. Also, being a woman, she manages to bring out traits in her sex the way only a female author could have done. And many of these are not flattering qualities...like a rather nasty description of how ravenous women eat in Train Fare. These are things a male author would rather avoid – even if he noticed – to remain politically correct. But women authors don't shy away from making observations that are unmistakably nasty.

Incidentally, Bulbul Sharma seems to love the word 'plump' which is uses at least a douzen times to describe any woman with a healthy appetite.

The book – while brimming with description of food– touches upon a number of relevant themes that makes it a rich experience.

It even has a couple of lip smacking recipes at the end of every story, which I'm determined to try out. The Amchur Alu, Orange Kheer, Spinach Pakoras and Hot Ginger-Honey Drink recipes appear especially delectable.
-Sandhya Iyer


renu said...

nice review sandhya, shows how much you liked the book. just one observation. in the eponymous story, i think food doesn't really stand for the only 'connection' between them. it is sheer habit, i think. not a connection, bcos tht word has a certain degree of fondness attached to it. wht makes me think so is the end, wer he lays awake with an upset stomach, feeling glad for the divorce. so, it;s nuthing more, nuthing less. not even a sharing. it has the emptiness, mundane-ness, short-lived happiness of habit. no lingering quality that 'connection' probably implies. and it's as dead and unstoppable as an old habit. and that's wht makes the story poignant

sandhya said...

Renu: thanks for reading. I have to agree with you. I think 'food' and the need/craving for it is somewhat like good sex. Beyond a point, it's just a pure physical act that satiates you. Food likewise is too basic, too essential and too desirable by itself.

sandhya said...

But as abzee mentions, the beauty of the book is also that each of the stories contradict one another. Where food is just habit in one story, it is a passion in some others.

Abhishek Bandekar said...

Wonderful review this. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to explore this little gem of a book. Apart from Moonfish By Moonlight, I don’t think any other story disappointed me at all. Every story had something in it. My favourite of course is A Taste For Humble Pie which is just heartbreakingly poignant. But yes, the titular story and Dead Man’s Feast are also right up there in terms of literary merit.

Coming to Train Fare, I believe that ‘food’ here is a metaphor for the sexual identity of Indian women, and the ‘liberation’ that you mention is a sexual one. To the man of this story, a clumsy insecure patriarch, and the three women in his life- his mother, wife and daughter –are a source of constant anxiety, because he believes he has to constantly protect them, as told by his father to him. He is the quintessential Indian male, to whom the thought that women have a sexual existence is alien. Hence, food here literally becomes a stand-in for their sexual identity, liberating them in a way that he cannot quite object to, but is yet baffled by. His wife’s social intercourse with a stranger chaiwallah, or the anecdotes that his mother and her friend share about their young days (they could be talking dirty secrets or about food…it is never quite clear!), and the fact that young men constantly eye his daughter as she bends over from the top berth to reach for food…all these women break taboos in a manner that by their apparent nature is something that the man cannot control and/or object.