Shalini Mukerji is a prose editor at Papercuts. She is an independent writer and editor, occasional journo, traveller, common reader, incidental photographer, vodka-philosopher, viewing the world through a fisheye lens, deep in the woods or in chocolate, ex libris or on a walk with dogs, from wind-whipped heights or stretched out on the perfect planter’s chair. Somewhere, until the wind changes, seeking stories to gather up the world. Her essays, reviews and interviews have featured in The Hindu, First City, Outlook, The Asian Review of Books, Biblio and Passage. Obsessed with words and punctuation, she seeks zen in the art of word arrangement but, more often, finds it in birdsong and twinkle-eyed laughter.
They say love, as an emotion, can be eaten whole. Exploring that notion whilst navigating the appetite for travel alongside her literary appetites, Shalini Mukerji offers us a tryst with love, longing, Margaret Atwood, kosha mangsho, and everything in between.
Telling my wide-eyed niece the other day that I find her delicious enough to eat (especially if seasoned with rock salt and lime) and debating whether the dog will be more succulent a roast when put inside a tandoor or poached with wine and apricots, I finally faced up to a gut-wrenching truth: Love is devouring.
The two-going-on-three-year-old instinctively understands this emotional cannibalism, for she prowls around like a very hungry tigress and, depending on how much she likes you, either takes just a bite or gobbles you up whole.
Hanging out with her, I’ve focused – as never before – on how, to love is to hunger. For isn’t love a hunger through which we feel alive, thrilling to our bones? We hunt for le grand passion to overwhelm all our senses, hoping music, literature, art, travel, food, or a relationship will transport us. At the heart of our desires – appetite if you will – is, I think, the urge for a new dimension in which we can lose ourselves to something more magnificent than us, an authentic account of our being. In our desires and yearning, we hold onto possibility, absurdity, hope, and our hunger has to do with beginnings – the many chances to reinvent our lives, to imagine a world more abundant, glorious.
This plays out, most compellingly I think, in our hunger for stories. For what is reading but appetite, the kind that sets your teeth on edge, craving a bite of the sumptuous? ‘And then what happened mashi?’ my niece often pesters me, never letting any story end, re-affirming how stories feed a primal, insatiable hunger. Don’t we all, greedy for new spaces or lives to inhabit, read? Read, to will an alternate universe into being, in a crazy kind of wish-fulfillment exercise that only stories allow? Surely, desire is never more consuming or more delicious than when a writer’s words find you and become an intimate voice curled in your ear, rendering everything else white noise. And it’s a sacred hunger even when the book ends – a delicious plummeting, an immersive mourning … an inconsolable grief.
To read, I learnt early, is to hunger. And, for some, an illicit all-consuming flagrance, as in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which asks, right at the offset: ‘… We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?’ Later, in that dystopian world, where the handmaids are prohibited coffee, cigarettes, liquor, reading, and writing, when Offred is summoned by the Commander to play Scrabble with him, her word lust overwhelms: ‘I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous … The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that … I would like to put them into my mouth … The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious.’
Still later, ‘On these occasions I read quickly, voraciously, almost skimming, trying to get as much into my head as possible before the next long starvation. If it were eating it would be the gluttony of the famished, if it were sex it would be a swift furtive stand-up in an alley somewhere.’
Of course some books are just meant to be devoured: Reading about the hearty, indomitable Gauls in the Asterix comics, I always get caught up in the fish-mongering and dream of wild boars on spit. I imagine them seasoned with the aromas wafting from my thakuma’s kitchen, for we would read our summers away at the dining table where she could keep an eye on us while she prepared kosha mangsho or sugar-crusted peachy chamcham. The secret midnight feasts by torchlight in Malory Towers had me hunger for boarding school and squirreled-away tuck treats (but with besan laddoo instead). When we visited my didima in Agra who never cooked, she took us out or ordered in; I got as ‘rumbly in my tumbly’ as Pooh would for honey while waiting for Compounder Sahab to bring crispy hot jalebi for the Sunday breakfast. I’m consumed by anxiety each time I read about Mrs. Bennet in a flap over tea or luncheon or dinner (confession: I prefer the parlours over the libraries in Austen, for their gossip and grip on life). And I’m forever puzzled by how Tintin goes adventuring without contemplating food when even the fastidious Poirot, for whom ‘eating was not only a physical pleasure, it was an intellectual research,’ defers orchestrating murder revelations for tea or dinner. That we are most alive in our appetite is something I picked up from Lewis Carroll’s curious adventuress Alice who was wont to declare, ‘I know something interesting is sure to happen, whenever I eat or drink anything …’ It’s probably why Tintin, to me, has never felt as animated as Snowy who dreams up big juicy bones, or Captain Haddock who has my nana’s bearded thirst.
But no amount of Margaritas and Bloody Marys over bar stories can be as transporting a compulsion as kishmish and badaam – surely not just for me, but for anyone who has read “Kabuliwala,” Tagore’s short story about the itinerant Afghan dry fruit peddler and his friendship with a little girl in Calcutta who reminds him of the one whose handprint he carries close to his heart. Layered onto that impression of Afghanistan is one that haunts from Nadeem Aslam’s “The Wasted Vigil,” mapped around the exploding, jewelled beauty of pomegranates, ittar, miniatures, snowy passes of the Hindu Kush, landmines and books nailed to the ceiling. Anaar and almonds remain a complicated taste of home and the world and of nebulous relationships, reminding me that distance isn’t about just miles; it’s more complicated than that. It’s about fear and longing and time.
But spin a globe and watch political boundaries blur, and it’ll come to you that if enterprise is spurred by lust and the world is tossed around by hungry tides, then food maps the real nature of the world. It’s perhaps the Bengali in me speaking when I say places are encoded in my memory as tastes: Lahore as a steak and phirni epiphany by moonlight as pure as the marble dome of the Badshahi Masjid; Copenhagen as a caramelised hot dog canal cadence; Macedonia as a sun-warmed, ouzo and feta-n-olive spiked epic adventure; Samosir as a grilled fish revelation by sunset as molten as the lava-flow that shaped this floating island inside a volcanic lake; Istanbul as a decadent chocolate by the Bosphorus floating and kebap house wholesome extravagance that even Amir Hamza’s celebratory feasts couldn’t have rivaled! I remember treks for their relish of steaming Maggi tossed in a portable chulha with the holy trinity of onion-tomato-egg, and not to forget the chocolate along the way! I climb mountains because a part of me believes in the fabled gourmet paradise of Bengodi that Boccaccio described in “Decameron”: ‘a mountain, all of Parmesan cheese’, from which cooks roll macaroni and ravioli downhill so they’re well-coated in snowy cheese. Trekking across this happy valley, I imagine I’ll slake my thirst with a crisp white wine, for Boccaccio promises ‘hard by flows a rivulet of Vernaccia, the best that ever was drunk, and never a drop of water therein.’
Taking cues from feasts in fiction, when I visit old friends in new places, I too wish for the felicity of the table: ‘flavours that were as unfamiliar as they were delicious’ – the way Amitav Ghosh treats Uma in “The Glass Palace” when she visits Dolly in Malaya and samples Nyonya cooking. Those tastes of Penang and Malacca have serendipitously flavoured other books I have consumed or rather, been consumed by: Tan Twan Eng’s books in which preparations for feasts have left me breathless in ways Gatsby’s parties never did! Hung up on the noodles at a Penang hawker stall in Eng’s “The Gift of Rain,” I’ve walked disappointed through Singapore’s hawker centres, hankering after that fugitive taste. I’ve sniffed the air hungrily whilst reading Eng’s “The Garden of Evening Mists,” for the scent of boerwoers grilled by Magnus Pretorius – he with the pirate patch and tattooed heart who walks tall with softly padding boerboels by his side – has leaked from the book’s pages. Curiously, I found those boerwoers at a dimly lit greasy tapas bar in Grenada. In this vivid re-contouring of the world through my taste buds, I felt like Ghafoor, the nomadic Gujjar traveler-trader from Pakistan with honey on his fingers and a tale to tell, in Uzma Aslam Khan’s “Thinner than Skin.” When Ghafoor tastes a local version of pulao in Andijan: ‘… he ate with two tongues, one that did all the work while the other dreamed of flavours it did not touch.’
Hunger and yearning can do that to you: longing, intense in its fullness, can lead you to belong, however fleetingly, however displaced. Growing up, I would roll my eyes at acquaintances and relatives who squirreled achaar and spice contraband to flavour their first-world lives in exile, but not too long ago, I found myself sneaking posto, mutton seekh, and nolen gud past Singaporean customs officers. We hunger for newness and change, but sometimes our yearning for the familiar betrays us. Desire, we all know, can be treacherous. As can dreams of elsewhere.
Taste for pepper and cinnamon, opium, and coffee, shape the world we inhabit, inspiring voyages of discovery and conquest. Land hunger still afflicts us, as does our appetite for exotic foods, pushing animals into extinction and turning ecosystems into wastelands. Wanderlust is often a churning in my traveler’s guts, equal parts excitement and misgiving, for I’m never quite certain where curiosity will lead me or what may follow in the footprints I make. Keenly anticipating the benediction of prayer wheels and Kanchenjunga glimpses pooling into our teacups, I drove into western Sikkim recently. Road-widening projects, a trickle that was once the great river Rangit and a damned, muddy Teesta put me in mind of Ben Okri’s indictment of the famished road in an all-but forgotten and gutted corner of Nigeria. In “The Famished Road,” he wrote ominously of how this road that was once a river, now forever hungry, unfurls like the devil’s black tongue and keeps swallowing up whole the forests and all life in its way. Through Chhang-laced nightmares that could also have been dreams in their unexpected lightness, I was transported to Jiang Rong’s story “Wolf Totem,” which documents the systemic extermination of wolves from the Mongolian steppes. When I travel, I often think of Irwin Allan Sealy who, from his corner in Doon, increasingly unquiet and dwarfed by high-rises, chronicles insatiable appetites in his experimental narratives, whilst strategically planting trees to screen his 433 square yards of Himalayan foothill. In “The Small Wild Goose Pagoda,” describing the trellised approach to his house which he built along with the bricklayer Habilis, he writes: ‘Peace, not security, was what I was after: that, and a certain effect … And I wanted a gateway rather than a gate.’ He could have been describing an infinitely readable book – at least, the kind that whets my appetite.
A good writer is a like a ticket to ride; more often than not, s/he takes you to places you’d rather not go. At least test thresholds if not cross them, and thresholds have a lot to do with appetite. Margaret Atwood is one such writer, for she is bracing and funny and provoking, as she asks in much of her writing: What do women have to eat? Each time I eat paan (Benaraswala of course, luscious, dripping red), I luxuriate in the defiant pleasure of the post-lunch paandan ritual in my mashuthakuma’s room: Louvered windows angled down to censor the sun and reproachful eyes, the sisters would succumb to a girlhood habit that was taboo in the house my thakuma married into and where my unmarried grandaunt eventually came to stay once she retired. ‘Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality and language. We eat before we talk,’ Atwood writes, loading a whole lot of thought-provoking politics into food. ‘It’s [death] one of the great themes of literature, along with love, war, nature – and what else? Meals, perhaps. There are a lot of meals in my writing. Meals are more precise than deaths.’ In the introduction to The Canlit Foodbook: From Pen to Palate – a Collection of Tasty Literary Fare, she reflects: ‘I think I first connected literature with eating when I was twelve and reading Ivanhoe: there was Rebecca, shut up romantically in a tower, but what did she have to eat?’
It was a question answered quietly but powerfully by CS Lakshmi writing as Ambai, and that meal-of-a-short-story-read is a flavour still lush on my tongue. In one of Ambai’s stories, a soft-spoken matriarch doesn’t sit down to eat until every clamouring mouth in the house has been fed; but when this ostensibly dutiful housewife lunches, she lunches not on scraps – she feasts on the choicest pick of the meal that she’s set aside for herself before she serves it. It could have been how my mother – a new bride, but not shy in her insistence on wearing tinkling glass bangles and asking for extra helpings or raiding the larder between mealtimes – came to be friends with my thakuma.
Ma couldn’t really stomach abstinence. Carrying her sharpest knife to cut fruit for the morning prasad distribution at the local pandal each durga puja (but only after she’d dipped her biscuits in tea and reapplied her red lipstick), she would scold her friends who would be waiting to eat after the morning’s anjali: you pray more sincerely on a full stomach, where’s the piety in being hungry, she’d ask? If we were honest about our desires, she told whoever was listening, we’d be better people, truer to each other and less unhappy with the world. Amongst my most relished meals from her kitchen is the chilli chicken dinner she improvised from a recipe passed on by my thakuma: I got, not the well-browned tangdi, but the much-prized wishbone. We pulled it apart, my twin and I, and I held onto the disproportionately larger part, excited but unsure what to wish for. We still believed in such fragile certainties then. An inspired cook and compulsive collector of quixotic recipes that she’d invariably improvise, ma believed that life, like the meals she cooked, is about gut feelings. (She was assured, I think, by her voracious consumption of westerns and “Mills & Boons,” where you take your chances with the most reckless, romantic gambles based on instinct and intuition and, the world is a little better for that courage. I mean, isn’t that how you cook rice or adrak-chai, consigning it to the fire, trusting the instinct that tells you when to switch off the flame?)
So when my niece asks that indefatigable question of hers for the nth time, ‘And then?’ I too, like my sister, resort to my mother’s infallible life-hack when we quizzed her, flailing around for answers – about dinner, that dishy scoundrel who’d broken our heart, a truth to live by … As off-key in our rendition as she was, we sing her fallback anthem: ‘Que sera sera, what will be will be.’
For we know now what she knew then, articulated so presciently by Nadine Gordimer: ‘Truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.’ The Rolling Stones’ iconic lips and tongue logo that debuted on the inside sleeve of their Sticky Fingers album cover perhaps expresses it best: plump jeering lips and a thick tongue unfurled, probing life in its tomato red essence, lush, and raw. Vivid. Unsettling. Sexy. Animalia. Unschooled appetite. An acknowledgement that we are most alive in our hunger.
Hunger – curiosity – is proof of life too when we get too comfortable: we need to hearken stirrings deep within, the kind that prompted Bilbo out of Bag-End, to the edges of the known world and beyond, braving dragons and orcs, because ‘something tookish woke up inside him’ when he heard the deep-throated singing of the dwarves inside his hobbit-hole. The halfling’s adventure, like all quests I will venture, rests, finally, on a promise.
Turns out it has a lot to do with love. Not in the sense I began this ramble with – that to love is to hunger – but the realisation I’ve come to since: We are restless and we hunger, because we know, deep down in our guts, how difficult love – or fellowship if you will – is to come by.