Saturday, April 21, 2007

"vegemite vindaloo"

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 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 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's not clive that collingwood's your teenage'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.


rums said...

that sounds like such a fine book. will pick it up on my next trip to the bookshop.
btw, uncle i'm reading this book by a new york times reporter, john leland called hip: the history. really enjoying it, it traces the history of hip in america and gives you a very interesting insight into american social history. it is also a commentary on how various cultural influences shape a society, even though there are clashes between these influences sometimes.
do read it if you have time.

gs said...

hello rums
i am sure you will enjoy reading vv.and i'll take your tip for hip.i only hope that the font is not too small and that the book is not voluminous! signs of old age,ah?

david mcmahon said...

Hi Gopal,

Thanks for a great review. I'm glad you liked the novel - and I'm very humbled by your critique.

I've just posted a link to it on my blog.

PS: Hi Rums, I'm delighted that you want to buy the book.

My thanks once again, to both of you ...


gs said...

hi david
the books that i really like reading for a second or third time,i tuck them away in a sepa
rate corner of my bookshelf.vv will be there.incidentally,i am reading another kolkatacentric book.'namesake' by jhumpa on the fourth chapter and savouring every bit of it.have you read this book david? the book has now been adapted into a film by meera nair which i saw last week.

david mcmahon said...

Hi Gopal,

Why, thank you sir. That's high praise indeed. I am so glad you enjoyed the novel and chose to review it.

`Namesake' is on my books-to-read list. Just need to get this other manuscript out of the way first!



rums said...

david, i have got the book, and am dying to read it :) and guess what, the other day i saw vegemite at our local super market and bought a jar. haven't tried it out yet. is it like marmite? (i like marmite)
i read the namesake when it was first published. i liked it, it was very touching. but i liked her collection of short stories, 'interpreter of maladies' better.

gs said...

hi david
which is this other manuscript? yet another novel? best of luck.

gs said...

hi rums
'namesake' is indeed very touching. i lke jhumpa lahiri's style of soon as i finish reading n'sake i am planning to read iom for which she got the pulitzer prize.

david mcmahon said...

Hi Rums and GS,

Sorry I've taken a few days to reply but I've been unbelievably busy, flat out like a lizard drinking.

Rums, I'm delighted that you've got the book. Look forward to your impressions.

In reply to your Vegemite purchase - spread it very thinly on hot buttered toast. You've also given me an idea for a funny blogpost about a schoolmate who spread it thickly - and almost gagged on it! Watch my blog for the story!

You and GS are really winding me up to get into Jhumpa Lahiri's books. Okay, will do!

Yes, GS, the ``other manuscript'' is another novel for Penguin. It's not a follow-up from Vegemite Vindaloo and in fact is in a different zone altogether. The working title is `Muskoka Maharani'.

Take care and have some bhel puri for me today!



Lotus Reads said...


gs, what a wonderful review of what appears to be a wonderful book by David! I have my copy here (got my mom to send it to me from Bangalore) but I find the print too fine, so am looking for another copy.

You really did a brilliant job on the review and I really must push this book to the top of my pile when I can get a new copy!

david mcmahon said...

Hi Rums,

How did the Great Vegemite Experiment go?

Hi GS,

Nice post on the three Ws of cricket.

Hi Lotus,

Interesting - but I agree. And a graphic designer friend of mine also had the same opinion.

I think it's actually the choice of font (not so much the size) that makes it difficult to read.

Strangely enough, when the pages were sent to me, pre-publication, the PDF version did not have this problem. It was a different font and larger, so much easier to read.

If I still have this version, I'd be happy to email it to you as a simple text file.

That way, you have the option of reading it on your computer/ laptop screen or printing it out.

Let me know ....

gs said...

hi lotus
thanks for the comments.i wish you happy reading of vv.i have just completed reading jl's namesake.having seen the film too earlier, i am ready to launch on a double review.the movie and the book.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, David!

That would be awesome! Thank you so very much...I really have been wanting to get cracking on your book after gs's excellent review! Also, I am going to be loaning out my copy to a couple of friends who do not seem to mind the font.

Hi, gs!

I await the movie/book review with bated breath! Will keep checking your blog.