Thursday, November 21, 2013



There are vegetarian cookbooks galore. One might ask whether there is a need for yet another one. But then this book is unique. It occupies a niche in the cookbook market. It is more than a cookbook. It goes back to the roots of vegetarian cooking, traces its history from the Vedic period and how it has evolved over thousands of years. The word ‘Pure’ in the title of the book stands for ‘Saatvik’ food based on Aayurvedic principles and abundant in ‘praana’, the universal life force. It is the diet of yogis devised for the evolution of the higher consciousness. Food that nourishes the body and the soul.

It is a large-format paperback book, a bit intimidating by size, but subdued in presentation and yet its pictures some colourful which stand out while others in green which could have been better, containing a goldmine of information drawn richly from our Vedic heritage. Food is an important part of our culture. Offering food to the Gods before eating it in moderation is ‘de rigueur’ and part of our culture. The book is a compelling read and a vegetarian foodie’s delight. Mrs Prema Srinivasan has adopted a cerebral approach in introducing traditional cooking to modern readers and besides laying out more than 100 recipes which are easy to follow and prepare has not left untouched the other ‘accoutrement’ that go with cooking - the traditional utensils and appliances, and the fine blending of spices that produce the right aroma and flavour. Not restricting herself to Indian traditions alone, the author has introduced the readers to Italian and Buddhist cuisines as they too place emphasis on the use of pure vegetables.

Gourmands like me can literally take an epicurean journey through the vegetarian cuisine of South India by going through this book. After the initial chapters on the culinary tradition and the author’s beginnings, the subsequent chapters pictorially describe the traditional vessels used in cooking, how weights and measurements are very important to maintain consistency of taste, and the pre-cooking processes. Quoting from the Upanishads, the author focuses on the spirituality of food and the special and sacred food offerings of the famous Vishnu temples in South India. The next chapter is all about rice. It was a revelation to read how temples distributed cooked food to the community, the nearly 2 lakh varieties of rice grown in our country, the order of serving food and the ‘sadrasas’ (six tastes) which makes eating of cooked vegetables with spices a pleasurable experience while it tickles our tastebuds. Pacchadis and salads, dals and gojju, the plethora of vegetables, kuzhambu and saambaar, the effervescent rasam and its varieties, the different mouth-watering sweets- each of these get a full chapter. Then comes the iconic South Indian tiffins which include idli, the different varieties of dosai, vadai, uppuma, aapam etc, There is a very interesting chapter on regional vegetarian cuisines - Rajapalaayam, Todaimandala Mudaliyaar, Kongunaadu and Udupi. I found the chapter on the experience of paan-eating heavenly. Separate chapters are devoted to the accompaniments to the main courses like chutneys and tugaiyals, pickles and podis which make them so much more enjoyable to eat. The irresistible trademark South Indian ‘ kapi ’(cofffe) is the ‘finale’. Mrs Prema Srinivasan refers to it as ‘nectar of the Gods’. She explains how ‘degree coffee’ (rated as excellent) is made using the coffee filter. All these chapters makes the book very exceptional .

Mrs Prema Srinivasan carries with her the rich traditions of Brahmin culture, intellectualism, spirituality, and philosophy of life. She shows her open and absorbing mind and her willingness to assimilate those styles of food which though alien are consistent and compatible with vegetarian cooking. The book has been painstakingly researched and draws its contents from various authentic sources. It is a marvelous contribution to the genre of cookbooks and will always provide reference and authenticity to the serious reader and practitioner.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Jhumpa Lahiri has specialized in writing short stories and novels around the immigrant experience. Her forte is that of writing on people of Indian origin living in USA. Undoubtedly, she has established a reputation as a leading fiction writer and has been short listed for the Man Booker Prize this year.

In her latest book “The Lowland”, Jhumpa Lahiri blends the political and personal in a dexterous manner and makes the story gripping and the book unputdownable. The story encompasses five decades of history centering around the lives of one family. The human emotions are depicted in full force. Inter-generational bonding, love, disagreement, independent thinking, selfishness and violence.

It is about two brothers with an age difference of about eighteen months - Subash and Udayan. They hail from a middle-class Bengali family. They are deeply attached to each other and are inseparable as children. They share a lot of common interests and exhibit a scientific temperament. The talented brothers study together and lead a happy carefree life. They look and sound alike. At the same time, they are like opposites. Udayan is impulsive. Subash is placid. They live in Tollygunge, a South Calcutta locality. The book derives its name from  a pair of ponds in front of their house which overlap during the rains and become one waterbody and separate during the dry season choked with water-hyacinth. leaving a lowland in between. The identities of the brothers are
like the ponds-together and separate.

Unfortunately while in college, Udayan gets drawn to the Naxalite movement which dominated West Bengal in the mid-sixties. It was a radical and violent Communist movement idolizing Mao-tse-tung. It was a war waged against the State of West Bengal. While the elder brother Subash realized the risks of what Udayan was doing, he could not persuade his daredevil brother to give it up. Subash leaves for USA to pursue higher studies in marine chemistry. Udayan gets actively involved in guerilla warfare and is accused of murder. His girlfriend Gauri gets sucked into the vortex of the misguided movement. He marries her and they live together for a short while before Udayan is shot dead in a brutal manner in the lowlands in front of their house by the Police who
come searching for Udayan for his anti-State activities. The author is brilliant when she explores the ways in which Udayan’s kith and kin are affected by his death. The whole family is devastated with the apple of their eyes becoming a victim of his own violence.

Subash returns to India on hearing the tragic news Gauri is pregnant and is ill-treated by Subash’s mother. Looking at the depressed state of affairs and his love for Udayan, he considers his duty to lift her out of the morass at home and take her to USA. He decides to marry Gauri and convinces her that it is in her best interests. Gauri agrees though Subash’s mother warns him that he will never receive any love from her because she is wedded to Udayan. Ignoring his mother’s objections, he gets married and sets off for Rhode Island to continue his academic career. Gauri follows him and later delivers Udayan’s child whom Subash names as Bela.

Over time, the incompatible couple drift apart. When Subash and Bela return to Kolkata on the death of Subash’s father, Gauri leaves a note behind in their Rhode Island home and abandons the family for pursuing her interest in Philosophy in Southern California. In the absence of the mother, Bela grows up under the loving care of Subash who she believes is her father; however the trauma of her mother abandoning her remains deeply etched in her memory. She grows up like other American children. She has independent views and is decisive in her own way. She becomes an environmentalist. Subash is lonely and develops friendship with a woman. Bela becomes pregnant and when asked by Subash about the father she says that she doesn’t care. A girl child is born who
is named Meghna by Subash. Subash gives away the long-held secret of true fatherhood to Bela who is totally shattered.

Subash decides to put an end to the sham marriage and emails to Gauri to sign the papers for divorce. Gauri obliges and decides to drop in at Subash’s home on her way to a conference in Europe to hand over the papers. When she arrives at Subash’s home, she finds that Subash is not there. She meets Bela who totally ignores her and questions her as to why she has returned. Bela show her mother the door.

Each character in the novel is strong but Gauri is the most vibrant character. She is intelligent, rebellious, unconventional, fiercely independent, extremely selfish  and a neglectful mother. And enigmatic too. She has the most tragic trajectory in the novel.

While the first half of this marvellous book concentrates on the Naxalite movement, the second half deals with the impact of the shock of Udayan’s death on the family. This is an exceptional novel by an exceptional author. The storyline is suspenseful, the prose beautiful and written with great clarity. The underlying theme of the book is the dislocation of immigrants and how their lives are impacted. Lot of parallels can be drawn between the author’s earlier books and “The Lowland”. In carefully measured words, the author gives the readers a peep into the hidden emotions of family life and the choice of words make it an outstanding book and certainly Jhumpa Lahiri’s best so far.

The book lingers in one’s memory for a long time.