Book Review: On Masterchef Australia They’d Say, This Soup Lacks Depth of Flavour

This article was first published in The News Minute on 1 Aug 2016.

Alphabet Soup for Lovers by Anita Nair

Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers India

Pages: 204 pages

“Masterchef Australia”—where amateurs battle against time for the love of food. The show charms me with its friendly contestants, kind judges and the perceived yumminess of its dishes. It also happens to be one of India’s favourite TV shows. When I picked up Anita Nair’s “Alphabet Soup for Lovers”, I was hoping to savour in food fiction format, the same delicious bisque of imagined tastes and romantic decadence.  Buy this book.

I remember the first time I tasted buttered scones. It was in Liverpool in the winter of 2009. Growing up in the nineties, Enid Blyton had brought into my rice-and- sambhar world, the unattainably tasty buttered scone! For years, I had dreamt of their melt-in- the-mouth feel. I imagined they would smell like warm buttered toast on steroids. The actual tasting was of course underwhelming, but that’s not the point! It was the grand culmination of an unknown taste I had nursed for over a dozen years of my childhood.

Though my constitution is built on F for Filter Kapi, M for Murungakai and R for Rava, I live in a world made better by “Masterchef Australia’s” lobster crudo and pan-fried gnocchi. As one of the biggest voyeurs of food porn in the Deccan Plateau, I was hoping Anita Nair would recreate for me the magic of K for Karuveppilai (curry leaves) in an N for Nande (crab) curry. I was, however, left with a watered down soup coating my palate with few high notes.

Nair’s recent work sets out to reaffirm the power of love in all our lives. Lena Abraham believes that love can only end in disappointment. She lives with her husband KK in a perfectly loveless marriage set in their tea plantation in the Western Ghats. They don’t argue and their interactions are all matter-of- fact; just how they like it. But love does find Lena when Shoola Pani, a South Indian superstar rents out their homestay in an attempt to outrun his fame. Before they know it, Lena becomes his “Lee” and Shoola Pani her “Ship”. And the quiet of the hills will not be enough to calm the rising storm.

Komathi, the couple’s omniscient domestic help, is the real protagonist holding the novel together with her history lessons, life lessons and cooking lessons. We meet her as she is taking English lessons from Selvi, her granddaughter, by relating a kitchen staple to each alphabet. So it’s A for Arisi Appalam and B for Badam. This narrative style is the highlight of the novel. But some of the associations are rather a force fit like Z for Zigarthanda. The character (and perhaps the author through her) justifies, “I know the Zigarthanda should start with a J. But this is my alphabet book. What is right for the world may not be right for me. I have always called it Zigarthanda and this shall be my Z.” Things left out of this soup are questions like: What are Komathi’s motivations? What are KK’s impressions of his loveless marriage? Why is Lena’s the only perspective? We meet Muthu, the local drunk for no reason. We meet Selvi, her only purpose—to help her grandmother with the alphabets. The storyline is thin as a crisp and the characters are pale like undercooked prawns. This rather shaky skeleton of a book is propped up only by the author’s command over the language.

The way she weaves phrases to form her lines in the novel makes for delightful reading, making one forget momentarily all its pitfalls and shortcomings. I read recently that she writes her books using a fountain pen in a hardbound notebook. And the inherent romance and thoughtfulness of putting pen to paper does reveal itself in the carefully chosen use of words in the novel. There is, for sure, magic in her fingertips. However, coincidence or not, her debut novel “The Better Man” had similar problems. Set in the imaginary land of Kaikurussi, “The Better Man” reflected beautifully all the tropes of small-town Kerala, a universe I assume was Nair’s own, growing up in Shornur in Palakkad district of Kerala. However, its storyline and character development were its undoing just like the “Alphabet Soup”. Both leave an uneasy sense of longing for an opportunity lost; an almost-there piece of literature.

Like the damp that settles in homes in the monsoon months, there is an unshakable dampness that’s making the plot structure, the relationships and the characters in the novel mouldy. It’s all there, but in “Masterchef Australia” lingo, this soup fails to develop a beautiful depth of flavour! Read it only to learn a new desi ABC! Buy this book.

Book Review: Pain Of The Parallelogram And Other Distractions

“Ousep Chacko, according to Mariamma Chacko, is the kind of man who has to be killed at the end of a story”, begins Manu Joseph’s second novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People (buy this book). Ousep, Mariamma and their son Thoma live in a limbo since the unexplained demise of their eldest son, 17-year-old Unni, three years ago. Ousep, a journalist and writer whose genius has stalled, is on a mission to decipher his son’s anarchist comic strips and solve the puzzle of his death. Ever-practical Mariamma, who runs the Chacko household mostly on faith and very little income, is in the habit of talking to the walls of her house and plotting to kill her husband. But she also knows that “Ousep Chacko is not a man who can be killed by oil. He does not eat much.” Meanwhile, Thoma, all of 12 years, “is distracted by the pain of the parallelogram, which is slanted forever”. In his fantasies, his beautiful neighbour, Mythili Subramaniam, asks him the two questions he knows the answers to: What does KGB stand for and what’s Pele’s real name?

Of Unni’s cartoon strips, “Enlightenment” is my favourite. In it, a saint meditating for ages, begins to glow in enlightenment until he wakes up and screams, “Shit, i am cartoon!”. The book is full of charming observations. Thoma Chacko learning to grow out of his deceased brother’s shadow is my favourite plot in the book. As the years go by, it’s dawning on Thoma that Unni was a prankster who had him believe things like, “Maths was about to get a lot easier…the home minister, who is responsible for happy homes, would soon pass a law changing the value of pi from 3.14159 to just 3, making it easier for all Indian children to calculate the area of a circle”. I can see my brother fooling me thus, if only he had such an imagination! His coming of age is a bitter-sweet moment that Thoma negotiates with courage and clarity, all by himself.

My main criticism of Manu Joseph’s debut, Serious Men, was its lack of admirable women characters. By contrast, this story does justice to its women characters. Mariamma Chacko is strong, decisive, vulnerable and wild in equal parts. The author’s craft shines through in the well-told relationship between Ousep and Mariamma. They take one another seriously but cannot stand each other mainly because of years of cohabiting. Joseph captures the delicate rope walk of their relationship with superlative finesse.

In most parts, this novel delves into the workings of the human mind rather beautifully. But at some point the details of mental illness become tiring. My theory is that 2012, when this book was published, was the year of books on mental illness of a family member. Another brilliant creation that supports my theory is Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto.

I highly recommend this book for a sense of what it was like growing up in the early nineties and some hilarious accounts on how our unstable lead regular lives.

Buy this book here