Some prose is like poetry in its rhythym; words pattering like raindrops against a rooftop, liquid syllables dripping honey on the tongue and in the heart. Images arise from phrases, teasing the reader with haunting reminiscences so visceral that they might as well be their own. A gifted writer can deftly unfold sentences and engulf the senses with flavors long past, hurtling the reader headlong into a yearning for a place she has never known.
Such is the beauty of Shoba Narayan’s prose in Monsoon Diary: A Memoir With Recipes.
Of course, it isn’t all pretty words and poetry; Narayan is a skilled storyteller as well. She narrates her life, from childhood to early adulthood, with gentle wit, passion and not a little humor. A trained artist, she paints portraits of her immediate and extended family in words so vivid that one can easily see the antics of her grandmother, Nalla-Ma, in whose home she lived for her first four years of life.
Nalla-Ma was a proud, fierce woman who cooked passionately and beautifully, but ran her kitchen and her household like a field marshall. She bullied the vegetable sellers, fussed at her servant, and was the terror of the neighborhood, but she doted on her grandchildren and loved them with all of the strength her body, heart and mind possessed.
Narayan recounts Nalla-Ma in the kitchen, making vatral in the heat of summer, just before monsoon season. Vatral are sundried preserved vegetables that are kept for the cooler months when fresh vegetables are not as available and are more expensive. The entire process was lengthy, and required much cooperation between Nalla-Ma and her servant, Maari, a woman with whom Nalla-Ma was always irritated. Somehow, every summer, the vatral would get done, though there were many quarrels and difficulties to be overcome.
Of course, food is the major thematic component that is woven throughout the narrative of Monsoon Diary. Narayan notes that her family, like many in South India, were obsessed with food, and through every rememberance, it is made very clear that the fabric of her entire community was made up of food that changed with the seasons, marked life transitions, celebrated holidays and held every individual together as one people. In sharing food, whether it was with schoolgirls on the playground at lunchtime, or with the Gods at the temples, the community was made stronger, binding individuals together almost as close as family. (When, years later, Narayan jumped into a cab driven by a fellow native of Chennai, she found herself and her friend taken to his home for lunch with his wife, and then dropped off at their intended deestination, without charge. The cabdriver said, “You are from my town. You are like a sister to me. Does one take money from a sister?”
Travel and transportation are major motifs in the book, and Narayan unsurprisingly tells of how she could guess where fellow passengers on the train in India were from by what was in their tiffin boxes. She and her brother liked to strategically seat themselves next to Marwari women from Rajasthan, for they were known not only to be wonderful cooks, but were generous when they shared their food. Of course, they shared their mother’s own delightful idlis with coconut chutney with their new friends, once again, creating community, even if it is a temporary one, among the passengers of a train.
It is the sacred nature of food, and its role in tying people together into communal groups that struck me as I read the book. Yes, Narayan describes the food in beautifully, such that I was about to drool on the pages as I voraciously devoured the words. But, more than the descriptions of the delicious foods and the recipes that end each chapter, I was drawn to the way she shows food as not only a carrier of culture from one person to the next, but a sustainer of culture. Not only did it transmit culture and tradition by being passed down from mother to daughter, but it also spread that culture from family to family, across India. The openness, warmth and humor that comes from sharing food together is a potent force in human existence, and Narayan captures that essence in her memoir.
And it is that message which will stay with me long after I have forgotten how it was she described Nalla-Ma’s rasam as tasting.
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