From My Bookshelf ~ Featuring Jhumpa Lahiri and Richard C. Morais

By Lynn Willoughby

The Lowland ~ Jhumpa Lahiri

Growing up in Calcutta in the 1960s, Subhash and Udayan Mita are inseparable brothers . Udayan, as an adult, is drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequality and poverty. Mao Tse Tung, Castro and Che Guevara were their heroes. Udayan becomes more and more involved, deceiving not only his parents, but also his wife, Gauri, who he has already used to further revolutionary killings.

Udayan is shot by the paramilitary police, in front of his family. Disgrace and grief descend upon the home and the pregnant Gauri is treated worse and worse by her mother-in-law.

Meanwhile, Subhash has left home to pursue a life of scientific research in Rhode Island. When he returns to Calcutta after his brother’s murder, he is appalled by Gauri’s life, and the fact that his parents will not allow her to continue her university studies. His solution is to marry Gauri and bring her with him to America. They will raise Udayan’s child as their own.

This novel covers a fair bit of historical ground. There are wonderful descriptions of Calcutta, a majestic and decrepit city that has been witness to many political regimes, enormous bloodletting from communal riots and from the various military. Terrible famine has decimated the city, which went seemingly unnoticed by an administration fighting in a world war.

The Naxalites were a section of the Communist Party of India and their bloody initiation in 1917 was due to the failure of the constitution to limit tribal autonomy, the exploitation of natural resources and the historical caste system.

There comes a time in this novel where the characters don’t seem to grow or change. They all live with bitterness, sadness, grief and guilt. No one seems to talk. Each character is rudderless and alone, unable to come to terms with a painful and terrible event. I enjoyed it for its historical value.

  • The Namesake
  • Interpreter of Maladies
  • Unaccustomed Earth

The Hundred Foot Journey ~ Richard C. Morais

“That skinny Indian teenager has that mysterious something that comes along once in a generation. He is one of those rare chefs who is simply born. He is an artist.” (from the book)

This is how Chef Mallory describes Hassan Haji as she takes him under her wing and mentors him. But Hassan’s journey, and Mallory’s influence in his life as he becomes a famous Parisian chef, has many bumps along the way. Like all of us, Hassan must make sacrifices, must work as never before to overcome the odds and fulfill his dream.

His first sacrifice is to leave his large, extended Indian family. He also leaves behind the life he knows and the traditional Indian cooking of his grandfather’s restaurant. Always, he is haunted by whiffs of spicy fish curry, gourmet outings with his mother, buying trips with his grandfather to the local market where he is familiar with the tastes, textures and methods of food preparation. Can he make the necessary transitions between cultures?

This is a book about food, but also a travelogue of sorts, a lesson in clashing cultures and identities. “Hajis blood runs with curry and wine and butter and garlic and the jus of fresh oysters.” ~ Mary Lawes

What I felt was missing were the historical connections and any real descriptions of Indian foods, cultures from around the globe and the foods that go with them. However, if you are a “foodie” you are in for a treat. (no pun intended!)

The movie version came out on August 8th, and stars Helen Mirren.

Who Knew?

Tiffen Boxes are a kind of lunch box used widely in India. The commuter trains were so crowded there was no room for them to carry lunch boxes. Tiffens arrived on a separate train after rush hour and over two million per day were delivered with utmost precision to every insurance clerk and bank teller throughout Bombay.