Andaleeb Wajid first shared her manuscript of More Than Just Biryani with us before she was due to come to Bangalore Writers Workshop (BWW) for a discussion on being a published author with multiple books lined up for publication.
At the time, we were new to the whole literary world; but it was still a pleasant surprise to have someone be so candid and open about their work. When she came in later to speak, she was no-nonsense, open, informal, and incredibly inspiring. We had discussions around what hell the publishing world really is, the strange things people asked her: ‘How do you feel about wearing a burka and being a writer?’, and the like.
It blossomed into a friendship inevitably because Andy is special and that rare sort of a writer who is humble, self-deprecating, and reassuringly normal. She’s extremely positive and helpful with absolutely no ‘writerly airs’ about her, a thing I, even without a single book to show for, have.
While that was reason enough to read her work, what piqued my interest were the first two chapters she had shared. I knew immediately that this was a book I wanted to read further because the story was compelling and feminine. The voice was empathetic.
I was right on all accounts. The book, like its author is unassuming but inspiring. It’s a tale of three women and their relationships with their men and family members as sharpened through cooking. It’s a rich and textured introduction to Muslim food in Bangalore, and the dynamics of a Muslim family spanning three decades.
At BWW, we talk about high brow books and Chetan Bhagat. And one of my BWWers Shom Biswas, always comments on how we don’t have much of a middling range in fiction to choose from in Indian English writing. We either have literature or a Ravinder Singh. And that’s why it was so yummy to read Andy’s MTJB. This is an emotionally satisfying, well-written book that straddles the in-between zone with absolute confidence. The themes make it almost literary because even a casual reader thinks about and reconciles with notions (read misconceptions) about Muslims as a minority community without putting too much of an emphasis on it. It’s all in the subtext and one could miss it entirely but one doesn’t because Andy is skilled.
Then there is the utterly fabulous way she describes marriage and love, and what it means to have a man and a woman come together for life. Throughout the book the characters in happy relationships converse through mere eye contact. Entire conversations are completed by just staring at the partner for an infinite time. And what’s amazing is that it doesn’t feel cheesy or contrived.
This book makes you long for a simple time where relationships grounded and centred you. A time where you knew that your father would always be home by 5 pm and he would first carry you and spin you a bit before asking about your day. That you would see the silent exchange between your parents and resent it on your bad days because how dare they have a relationship that doesn’t include your five-year old self! It makes you nostalgic for those excursions to fairs and exhibitions that you used to go to in Bangalore. There is mention of a massive papad sprinkled with chilli powder and as you read, you can taste it in your mouth along with the sand that inevitably settled on it in those open ground exhibitions. You smell the popcorn and cotton candy in the air. You didn’t realise then that it was a romantic outing for your parents. A date, if you will. And you are stunned when you realise it now through her book.
And then you miss the simplicity of life. How your mother fed you basic fare like rice and dal and chatted and gossiped with you. Most of all, you miss the way Bangalore used to be. Almost a small town. You miss the taste of biryani when it was still a delicacy available only if you had Muslim friends, or at Samarkhand, and if you wanted to go pig it, how you would go to Hyderabadi Biryani House. An age where the thousands of Ammis and Amburs hadn’t opened on every street.
And you miss the way relationships were. That heady intoxication of first love. That intense passion when you didn’t even know what your body was about but you gave in anyway. A time when you didn’t think in terms of performance or cynicism. The way you cooked for him the first time and how he kissed the nape of your neck and you were delighted because you were finally living a cliché.
I’ve never seen nostalgia packaged better. And after long, it was good to read light, Indian writing in English that nevertheless speaks to you because it’s so honest and poignant. My only complaint, and that’s because I am so anal about it, is that she uses multiple exclamation marks sometimes. Sometimes only, so I was able to look beyond it and see how delectable and delicious the journey she took me on was.
Thank you, Andy. And keep writing. It’s a good thing I know you cannot stop. 🙂