Saturday, April 21, 2007
when i first read that my friend david mcmahon had written a book with this title,i wondered what it meant. i, therefore, did some research. vegemite is an australian concentrated spread made from yeast extracts. it is generally taken alongwith toast. it is dark brown in colour. it has vegetable spice additives and has a salty,bitter and malty taste. vegemite is the cultural icon of australia.
vindaloo is the king of curries. it is a preparation of meat,vinegar and garlic, it is a goan speciality and generally made using pork. the fiery hot vindaloo has even inspired an english football song for the 1998 world cup. and it is a very popular food amongst footy supporters in uk and australia.
vegemite + vindaloo = vegemite vindaloo. now, i started seeing the meaning for the title of the book. the author is an anglo indian and a football lover, who lived in calcutta for many years working as a sports journalist before deciding to migrate to australia.he has an intimate knowledge of the calcuttan and australian way of life. their characteristics and their idiosyncracies. and i suspect that he is very fond of vindaloo curry. he decided to write a novel. an expression of his command over the written language as well as his sharp perceptions on people and society. he tackles the issue of adoption in an emotive manner rather than getting into technicalities .the result is a 326 page absorbing book of fiction(near truth in many instances) centred around the lives of an anglo indian couple who live in calcutta and later migrate to australia.
steve cooper and hillary are looking for a maid as their 'fatty ayah'(maid) has left them. steve accidentally meets ismail who is a carcleaner in the new market area. ismail and his wife zarina who have fled from their village in bihar have an infant son azam with them. when they land up in howrah station,it appears to them to be an alien world.they live literally on the footpath and go through a harrowing period till dame luck dawns on them.ismail's chance meeting with steve.and that changes his life completely.steve offers the job of a live-in 'ayah' to ismail's wife.and ismail and azam can live in the servant's quarters too.
steve is an up and coming pilot in the indian airlines.steve and hillary have a son called clive.when ismail,zarina and azam move in to their flat, the drama gradually unfolds.steve develops a soft corner for azam and treats him like his own son. hillary is at first reluctant and hesitates to give such a status to azam.but then seeing steve's sincerity and sense of fairplay and justice, she has a change of mind and heart. she starts liking azam and he becomes an addition to their family.there is a lot of opposition among many of their friends for what steve and hillary are doing.unimaginable and crazy.they get socially stigmatised.inspite of the objections of most friends and wellwishers, they plan their emigration to australia alongwith azam whom they adopt.
steve wants azam to get the same opportunity in life like clive. he is apprehensive that due to azam's parental background and ismail's weak financial position,azam will be discriminated against. steve uproots himself and his family and starts a new chapter in his life in australia .for the sake of azam. anything new and unknown is fraught with risks.hillary questions his decision.but steeve has the resolve of steel and tremendous self-confidence. and guts. he convinces hillary that under the circumstances that would be the best decision for the family. steve and hillary shine as a lovable and model couple. their love for each other,tolerance,empathy,sensitivity and kindness are all written boldly in their characters.
having lived in kolkata for nearly 15 years and being even now a frequent visitor,helped me to quickly understand and appreciate the several characters who have been portrayed so realistically. e.g.dr wotherspoon,a committed english doctor who works for the needy and poor and runs his dispensary on the footpath. biplab,the rogue. mrs ghosh,the school teacher. sailen nath banerjee,a senior commander in indian airlines. the son of a jutemill worker who speaks and writes english thanks to fr. dennis taylor of st.mark's church and perhaps does so better than many englishmen. besides, he has excelled academically and is skillful in navigating the latest commercial aircrafts. the suave charmer and fixer,govindarajan kutty,who helps steve and hillary with all the emigration formalities as well as the procedures for adoption of azam.his greed and cunningness.prabir guha, hailing from an aristrocratic family but just an officer in the customs department.likes the good things in life and falls for tempatations to fund those desires.like cutting a deal with kutty to blackmail and harass steve and hillary after they have reached australia. steve's mother bertha who is in her eighties and has a mind "as sharp as a bowbazar housewife's tongue" and who burns chillies on steve's head to ward off evil. south australians frank walker and wally bennett and many more interesting characters.
some of the chapters kept me glued to the book.the drive to the dum dum aiport in the midst of heavy rains and flooded streets(haven't we kolkattans done it so often?). will they reach the aiport on time or not? will they get through the emigration authorities? was kutty's paperwork good enough for all the money he had taken? will there be any last minute glitches? what will be the emotional situation with ismail and zarina? and would azam just walk away with his fostermother? would zarina create a scene?
all these aspects are brilliantly covered by david.for a debut novel, it is a terrific piece of work.very funny in certain situations and extremely poignant in others.a potpourri of feelings and emotions of different characters from different cultures. and the ensemble turns into a vindaloo. thoroughly enjoyable .the novel was in the bestseller list for long. written in a simple,lucid and readable style,the novel depicts in chapter 2 a football scene where essendon and collingwood play the finals of the australian football league. "excuse me',he said,as steve and hillary embraced."paul murray for the football channel.how does it feel to see your son kick the winning goal in the first ever grand final,after the final siren?"
and then in the end of the last chapter, steve dials the number of the coach who had informed him that collingwood wanted to make an assessment of their son. because clive had met with a car accident,steve says that "it's going to be a few weeks before clive is back on his feet". to which the coach responds "did you say clive? steve,you got me wrong.it's not clive that collingwood want.it's your teenage boy.it's azam".that was a super climax.
i liked the analogy of the 'hakea' tree. only bushfires can open its seed pods. that is the only way the tree can survive and propagate. it applies to corporates as well. constructive destruction helps it to loose excess fat and become lean,mean and healthy.