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Review

An Aesthetic Rebellion set in Mumbai

Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam

Title: Half-Blood

Author: Pronoti Datta

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Half-blood by Pronoti Datta is a gripping noir-fiction that speaks about the harsh realities of urban settings, morally negotiated characters, dysfunctional families, and atypical individuals with dark secrets and surprises. Pronoti Datta was a journalist for about a decade and a half, covering culture and society in Bombay, the city from which she draws inspiration. She resides in Bombay and works as an editor of digital content. Half-blood is her debut novel.

The novel starts with a letter from Burjor to Moonie (Maya), the two main characters of the novel. In the letter, Burjor clandestinely explains his reason for disappearance by writing, “You see, Moonie, I did a terrible thing for which I had to leave Bombay. I don’t want to burden you, in this letter, with the details of my deed – or my life. It’s a long story and I’m not a man of words.” The prologue with this letter sets the tone for the story. The book has thirty-two   chapters with an ‘Epilogue’ that gives the new order of things and “a sense of having created meaning” to life, or rather to newer ways of looking at life.  

The story gives a glimpse into the lives of the dwindling Parsi population of Mumbai. The narrative spanning generations, time and space is a perfect read for those who love city stories, or love to know more about multicultural India. Most importantly, it is a fascinating story for those who love crime and suspense with a touch of history and culture. Datta brings to fore snippets specific to the lives of people and places in the then Bombay and now Mumbai. The author successfully addresses the failures, shortcomings, and the uglier side of life with wit and humour.

Maya, a journalist, who is young, talented, confident, ambitious, and disillusioned with life suffers from an existential crisis. She resurrects the past in search of her roots and meaning in life. Through the limited clues left in the “letter” from her biological father, she traces her bloodline. She embarks on a journey, stumbling upon unexpected facts and fiction on the life of Mumbaikars and Parsis some of who are poor and sometimes half-blooded or of mixed ethnicity. This is a story of rags-to-riches, underrated heroes and people in the sidelines. Burjor Elavia, a half-blood, a “fifty-fifty” is an “Adhkachru” — an illegitimate child of a Parsi man and a tribal woman. He accepts poverty and bondage to resist being pushed aside as a non-existent bastard.

Through the story of Burjor and Maya in Mumbai from the seventies, at the time of the prohibition till the 26/11 attack in 2008 in recent times, Datta weaves the  less explored facets of history of the city into her fiction. The characters in the novel range from different religions, language backgrounds, and communities residing and crisscrossing paths to give voice to the culturally diverse mega-city.

Maya, born to Mini and Burjor, is adopted by an unusually matched Bengali parent. Brought up in Mumbai, she grew up in a locality with a good mix of residents from different communities and religions. Moved by stories of those who “persisted in their beliefs, fielding scorns and disapprobation, and emerged victorious,” she goes on to study Philosophy in Delhi and mingles with friends from across the country. Datta presents a realistic picture of a young girl of mixed descent from Mumbai, pursuing her path of self-discovery by connecting the past with the present. In this quest, she unravels smaller plots that add to the larger picture. As she unravels her own past, Maya describes her situation as similar to that of the Prince of Denmark — Hamlet. She says, “I am Hamlet looking into my father’s ghost.” Datta grinds a story that carries a peek into the time and gives a space to those at the margins and the unconventional like the infamous “Aunty Bars,” savage liquor barons, Adivasi women, scandalous navjotes[1], and children growing up in multicultural society

The novel is an aesthetic rebellion as it delves into the Parsi way of life including that of poor Parsis, good-hearted rogues, crime and punishment in defiance of pigeon-holes and labels about a community or group. Half-blood as the title suggests, reveals wider horizons and deeper nuances of identity. A fiction about modern India, this book takes us on a tour of less revealed nooks of history and culture to unearth beauty in diversity. Elegantly presented with a cover design by Maithili Doshi Aphale, which speaks for itself, the Speaking Tiger book, Half-blood breaks through stereotypes and clichés to win your heart.


[1] A religious initiation to Zoroastrianism, the religion followed by Parsis

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Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English Literature and Communication Skills at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE, Manipal. She is also a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

A Taste of Time

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

 Title: A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta
Author: Mohona Kanjilal
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2021

To say that this is a rattling book on the food culture of Kolkata will be an understatement. Indeed, there couldn’t have been a better book than this on the food history of the City of Joy. In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.

A Taste of Time–A Food History of Calcutta by Mohona Kanjilal goes the whole hog in digging out the culinary history of Kolkata with every minute detail. The book is massive and gorgeous.

An alumnus of Loreto College, Kanjilal spent most of her childhood in Bengaluru. From a freelance journalist to a full-time writer, newspapers have been her invariable guidance. She dabbles in short stories, too.

Says the blurb: “Calcutta, once the nucleus of the Raj, was at the heart of a thriving economy and unparalleled administration. Over the centuries, this teeming, cosmopolitan metropolis has become home to people from various communities who have lent its food and culture their distinctive tastes and culinary rituals. The heady romance of palates and flavours in the ‘Royal Capital’ has fostered diversity in food and culture all the while adhering to the city’s Bengali roots.”

Divided into four sections and about a dozen chapters, Kanjilal brings to the platter a full account of the food culture of Kolkata and it, surely, is an intellectual nourishment.

The book is a perceptive journey through the ever-changing landscape of Calcutta’s food and cultural environment, from its decades-old cutlet, jhal muri,and puchka stalls to its iconic continental restaurants like Firpo’s and Flurys. Whether it is the oldest tea shop, Favourite Cabin, set up in 1924, to the 21st-century fine-dining restaurant “threesixtythree”, Mohona dexterously captures the stories behind the city’s adorable culture of ‘bikel chaar-ter cha’ (tea at 4 p.m.).

What makes the volume fascinating is her authentic research. From Calcutta’s renowned bakeries like Nahoum’s to the invention of rasgullas and samosas (or shingara), Kanjilal does a 360-degree exploration. Diving into Calcutta’s blazing history, she shows how the food habits of early European settlers, Jewish, Armenian, Chinese, Parsi and other communities, and the city’s next-door neighbours like Odisha, have made the culinary fabric of Calcutta immensely flush and stratified.

Food, Kanjilal says, “has always been an integral part of the lifestyle of the residents of Calcutta… whether it is… the phuchka wallah… the jhal muri wallah, selling the spicy puffed rice preparation… or the ghugni wallah, serving… the semi-dry and spicy preparation of whole yellow peas…”

In close to 500 pages, she weaves scholarly accounts of historians and food writers with the everyday fables one hears from a famous paanwallah or an old-timer of a club. In the introductory part; she deals with the founding of Calcutta — from the Mughal empire to the coming of the British and latter part of the twentieth century when Calcutta became a bursting metropolis.

Writes Kanjilal: “As the capital of British India (1858-1911), Calcutta became a culinary melting pot of Armenians and Parsis from Iran, Jews from Syria and Baghdad, the Chinese fleeing their revolution, and local migrants such as Gujaratis, Punjabis, Marwaris, Sindhis, Oriyas, Biharis and South Indians. Her book explores this culinary evolution across a variety of cuisines and time periods. She structures the book according to when these migrants figured into the city’s consciousness. It is divided into four sections, with each section taking up the culinary influence of a particular set of migrants and the dishes they influenced in a Bengali household’s repertoire.

“The British were responsible for introducing certain food habits that have, over the years, become pillars of Calcutta’s culinary culture. One of their major contributions was the introduction of beverages to the Bengali table. Tea, coffee and fresh fruit juices are a fixed part of the average Bengali’s breakfast spread today because of the British influence. This nation strongly influenced the foods Bengalis ate for breakfast as well, introducing typical preparations of egg, sausage, bacon and bread to the local palate. Chops and cutlets, which are today as essential to a Bengali as rice and fish curry, also owe their popularity to the role played by the British in Bengali culinary history. Today, kiosks in every nook and corner of the city make and sell these fried foods, usually as accompaniments to what many perceive as a quintessentially British meal: afternoon tea. Finally, egg-based puddings, now a fixture on Calcutta’s dessert menus, were introduced to the city by the British.”

Her investigation is truly fascinating. From the British influence to the Portuguese influence; from the Anglo-Indian to the Armenian; from the Jews to the Nawabi influence; from Chinese to Parsi cuisine, she digs out hundreds of recipes. Then, there is a whole chapter on Bengali cuisine itself. She also deals with Pan-Indian cuisine and the influence of nearby Darjeeling district.

If one ever wants to read a book about Calcutta that takes to the vignettes and the history surrounding the favourite dishes and eateries, this is the book. If you want to hear stories about which famous personality (e.g. Subhas Chandra Bose) ate what and where, and if you want to repeat those experiences for yourself, then this is the suitable guide.

This delicious and all-embracing history of food in Calcutta, peppered with mouth-watering nuggets, recipes and incendiary accounts is a boon for the bon vivant.

Glossary:

* Puchka, jhaal muri and ghughni are savoury snacks.

Paanwallah is the seller of paan or betel leaf.

Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL