Book review: Gone with the Vindaloo


Published on 28 February, 2014 in Time Out Delhi

Vikram Nair’s Gone with the Vindaloo is a humorous tale about the goodness of food that swivels back in forth in time as well as continents. A successful restaurateur by profession, Nair’s palpable love for food combined with a no-holds-barred flair for storytelling, ensures the committed attention of his readers through and through.

The story opens in the bust­ling city of Varanasi during the pre-independence era and we’re introduced to three close friends – Kalaam, Mateen and Arth Purabiya, whose lives are about to change. These were the days when the British were taking great pride and joy in mercilessly stomping their steely colonial feet over insecure Indians and seeding notions of caste and creed to divide them. As a result, Kalaam, the expert Muslim weaver who has the inherent skill of making “brocade”, the most enchanting fabric of Varanasi, is quickly cast-off. He is also blissfully unaware that his true calling lies not with threads, but midst pots and pans, and spices and herbs.

Fortune strikes early as he stumbles upon a group of English Burra Sahibs on a camping tour and ends up cooking chicken curry and rice for them. Thence begins his culinary expedition – from working as a cook at the Palmers’ residence to perfecting the nuances of vindaloo, Kalaam’s experiments with food are endless as well as successful. Every dish he cooks is loved and praised by all, but it’s the vindaloo that wins him the most admiration and fame. His signature style of cooking the dish cannot be matched or superseded.

Another story runs parallel, about the Mahadev household. An imperial civil service member by profession, Mahadev is a classic example of the author­itarian patriarch of the family. He aspires to rub shoulders with the British and dreams of his son to carry forth his legacy. Pakwaan, who works in his kitchen, yearns to replicate his grandfather’s magical vindaloo; the recipe of which comes to him in a dream and is about to take him places. But cooking is a personal skill; it is instinctive and not merely about following certain tabled instructions. When you try to globalise or condition it, the skill suffers, the flavour hems.

The novel elucidates contra­s­ting notions of British colonialism – their brusque manners in treat­ing fellow Indians as well as their appreciation of the local taste and flavours. Nair’s prose is a generous mix of stormy English phrases and heavy Hindustani overtones. From descriptive junctures of flatulence to frank gestures of sexuality, bordering on being somewhat coarse, the author leaves no stone unturned in cooking a flavoursome story – much like the vindaloo – and leaves the readers with a satisfied burp.

Vikram Nair, Hachette, R350

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