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Devapriya Roy
Tuesday , July 19, 2011 at 12 : 30

The one where an inspiring cookbook is found


One day in the library I had an epiphany.

It came in the form of a slim little yellow hardbound book that nobody had borrowed in a long time. It was called The Pedant in the Kitchen and was by Julian Barnes, half-mistakenly kept in the cookery section, though it really belonged in philosophy. Never mind that though. It was a little treat. In a fundamental way, this book comforted a deep sense of inadequacy in me - but more on that later. It is more important to explain at this point what I was doing in the cookery section of the library anyway.

Long(ish) story.

In the year 1973 my mother had made a tiny slice of history in her part of India; it is Jharkhand today, but in those days it was still a part of Bihar. She became one of the first girl students (of 2) to get through the Birla Institute of Technological Sciences, Messra, which had only but thrown its doors open to women, to study engineering. Now Mum was no feminist. (Remember, she did engineering not sociology - she wasn't given to either histrionics or demonstrationism - that's just me.) She was, post-earning her engineering degree, your average ten-handed modern-day Indian woman juggling work - as a full-time lecturer - and home. Anyway, to cut a long story short, it's only when it came to me, her severely vague only daughter, she went on an overdrive to right historical wrongs. She has never indicated explicitly but I guess she might have read Virginia Woolf's apocryphal story of Shakespeare's imaginary younger sister. The one who, unlike her illustrious brother, was not sent to grammar school. The one who...

...had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers (A Room of One's Own).

So mum, with her penchant for a drama, in an act of supreme feminist empowerment, brought me up "liberated". While I was growing up, I was urged to acquire sciences and grammar, excel in math and languages, and never ever have to mind the stew, or even wonder where its ingredients were coming from; if ever I indicated interest in the above - and believe me I mostly didn't - I was urgently dispatched To Read.

Mum's underlying assumption could be interpreted in two ways: one that mending the stockings and minding the stew (and everything else these two activities symbolize) were decidedly less important than, say, rocket science.

From all available information and pay structures, it does seem that housework is far less important than rocket science or medicine or academics, less important than even a career that is as disreputable to the Indian middle-class, as say, that of a bouncer of a nightclub. For thousands of years, women have been mending clothes and minding stoves, yada yada yada, but classical economics kept these activities firmly outside the purview of the wage market. I don't know the exact dynamics in the hunter-gatherer days, but from what I can see of the last few hundred years, housework - and a large part of it is the cooking and planning (and shopping-thereof) of meals - has been bottom of the heap. Naturally, Mum, herself only half-free wanted to fully free me of its vicegrip and send me careening to do something meaningful in the brave new world, my oyster that was now recruiting females. Suited me fine!

The second assumption was that, indeed, mending the stockings and minding the stew were not rocket science and could thus be easily learned, while rocket science was rocket science - a jealous muse that needed full attention.

(You have, of course, understood by now that I am no rocket scientist, not even close; if you were to ask me exactly what I do for a living I'd have to reply in cryptic facebookspeak - "it's complicated". But that's a different story.)

Unfortunately this second proposition, like many other motherly assumptions, proved entirely false in my case. Learning to cook, for me, was anything but easy. In the kitchen, I am a clod. I waffle with the matches, my eyes begin to glaze, I lumber around vaguely knocking over utensils that I cannot name; in the words of a kind friend, I lack the sense of cooking.

Soon after, one day, the following realizations hit me solidly in the stomach, oldly:

1) there is such a thing as eating out too much.

2) complaining forever was not going to instill the "sense" in me.

I would have to do something about it.

Now, I am the sort who - if asked to clean the closet - feels more confident if I've read a book on the subject before commencing. I remember how one afternoon, while turning over a new leaf, I informed the spouse that I would take up running in a big way from the morrow. That evening, I rushed to the bookstore, bought a book called Mastering the Art of Running and read it overnight. (I'll have you know, the running thing didn't work out so well - difficult to take up running in the morning when you've been reading half the night; but the book was fun.)

Naturally, as I confronted cookery, I found myself in a library. When in doubt, go to the library, being my old axiom. And that is where I came across the little egg-yolk-yellow hardbound book.

In The Pedant in the Kitchen, Barnes confesses humorously that he is the very worst sort of a cook, a pedantic cook, one who is heavily dependent on his shelves full of books with recipes - and he follows them scrupulously. Indeed, he suggests delicately, how cookbook writers would do well if they defined what exactly they meant by terms such as "drizzle" and "pinch" and "slug" for the benefit of those of us who lacked the "sense". It gave me great comfort, this book.

It was okay if one hadn't been born with or hadn't cultivated the mystical and kungfooey thing called culinary "sense". One could always begin, if pedantically, with a book.

And that is when, in an off-beat bookstore, I spotted a black and white cookbook by a novelist whose words had made my heart go aflutter in my teens. Ah, Colleen McCullough, author of the gorgeous book of great romances - most notably, The Thorn Birds.

The project was to have, after all, an auspicious beginning.


More about Devapriya Roy

Devapriya Roy has degrees in English literature and performance studies from Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and adds a languishing PhD (on the Natya Shastra if you must know) to her list of mustfinishes. Once upon a time she was the Keo Karpin girl. Her first novel 'The Vague Woman's Handbook' was published in 2011 and her second, 'The Weight Loss Club: Curious Experiments of Nancy Housing', is just out. At the moment she is working on 'The Heat and Dust Project', the story of an eccentric journey through India on an extreme budget, along with spouse Saurav Jha. After years of resisting, she has succumbed to the addictions of twitter and can be found @DevapriyaRoy.