Three women, three different journeys, three connected lives in three different places tied by a single thread of Muslim cuisine. This is the gist of the heart-warming story painted by Andaleeb Wajid in “More Than Just Biryani”.
Life in a muslim household may not be familiar to most of us. As Andaleeb observes, non-muslims tend to think of the primary cuisine of muslims as biryani. In this foodoir (a memoir based on food), she has set out to correct that opinion by showing that Muslim cuisine is more than just biryani. In the process she has opened a window to the Muslim culture in south India.
Warning: The review could have spoilers.
Part 1 opens with the day-to-day dramas in Tahera’s life that is centered around her husband Bilal and their children – 9-year old Zubi and 5 year-old Rishaad. One cannot help but admire Andaleeb’s prowess in finetuning the reader’s imagination through her words. I could imagine an idyllic picture of a happy household. As she had started with a teaser of a warning, I was awaiting the inevitable – Bilal’s death. But the way it happened was a shock and the consequent change in Tahera’ attitude is heart-wrenching. Though there is a hint of her stand in an earlier chapter with the following words,
Quietly, Tahera prised Zubi’s arms from her stomach and flung them away.
when it is made clear that the third-time pregnant Tahera blames Zubi for her father’s death, I had to put the book down.
What starts out with the promise of being another Kite Runner, suddenly loses its steam, when in Part 2, the author moves over to Ruqayya’s life. This is the story of how an educated Muslim girl from Madras – who doesn’t know to cook, who marries into a traditional household in Vellore – adapts to her new home. Well, this part, though an interesting story in its own right, is probably the speed breaker for the initial force that the book was.
Move on to parts 3 and 4 to Zubi’s life and how she faces and overcomes her demons. Again, an interesting story, with a meta element (‘meta’ is discussed in my KTVI review). It is through her narration that Sonia, a food journalist writes the book ‘More Than Just Biryani’.
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- Andaleeb’s skill with words is just amazing. I find her descriptions so vivid that one can paint a picture out of them effortlessly.
- The emotions are captured in a shockingly accurate manner. I particularly liked Tahera’s cold tussle with Suman.
- Tahera’s recipes of course. Though I am not a foodie, the author succeeded in getting me interested in it. The
drool-inducing swishing and swirling of the adrak-lehsun paste in the oil and the sil-batta are lingering in my mind.
- The bit of Lauz (Sugary sunshine that melts on your tongue) that I got to eat when I went for the book launch.
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- I feel indignant about the promises that the book fails to hold. Do I judge a book by what it is or what it set out to be? The author may have intended for it to be a foodoir connecting three lives. But it held different promises for me. A promise of exploring the psyche of a child who is blamed for her father’s death. Another promise of a mother’s scathing tongue and injured heart, inflicting self-righteous stings on her own child. Yet another promise of a painful yet pleasurable reading of a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship and its various dimensions. Unfortunately, AW only notes how a single event affected the child and subsequently how she carries her fear of getting hurt into her marriage. But, where is the psychological baggage, the wall around her that was built brick by brick in the intervening years?
- Ruqayya’s life does not seem to be connected with the rest of the story. One does not see the Ruqayya of Part 2 in the other parts.
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- This book reminded me of a book I read long back – Bridges by Sivasankari (பாலங்கள் in Tamil) – which also portrays three generations of women caught between tradition and modernity. Usually, a later generation member has more freedom to choose and hence has a stronger personality and that is how the characters in பாலங்கள் are. In contrast, in this book, Ruqayya is the most confident and defined character of the three and Zubi is the most confused and insecure. How one event can change the general pattern for a particular family!
- Now that Andaleeb through Zubi has advised to stop cringing at the amount of oil used when cooking, I shall not mind the oil in future.
- I intend to watch her Biryani video on YouTube and check out the MTJB App as well. Hopefully they will result in less of takeaways from restaurants.
After a long battle in my mind with pros and cons weighing each other down, I decided to give the ‘must-read’ rating that the book easily deserves. But I want to point out that the must-read is earned by Part 1. I feel strongly that a decade of Zubi’s life after her father’s death should have been part 2.
Heart-warming and tasty read, if you forget the could-have beens.