Book Review: Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family (FoodStory) by Madhushree Ghosh

Reviewed by Dolly Sharma

Book Title: Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family (FoodStory)
Author: Madhushree Ghosh
Publisher: University of Iowa Press

Book Review
It’s an easy read. There is no difficulty in understanding the experiences of Madhushree Ghosh even though she is an immigrant. Her story is the story of love and hatred, relationships mended and broken, love found and lost, and mundane desires that people have. But, it’s not owing to the simplicity of the experiences that the readers are able to relate to them, but the expertise with which Ghosh pens the book. She herself acknowledges towards the end that her writing skills were honed in America because of the scholarships and the workshops that she was a part of.

When the book opens, a comparison is drawn between butter sold in flight and Amul butter. She goes into a description of the Amul butter, standing for the Indian sensibility. Pyaara is the word for guava in Bengali. She informs the readers of such linguistic nuances, which adds a fun element to the text.

There are other words also which are borrowed from Indian cuisine such as chok, raita, and so on. She doesn’t even italicize them. They give a smell of Indian cuisine to Indian readers and remind them and even the author of India even though she is located in the USA. 

As a Bengali, Ghosh inscribes her fondness for fish across the text. Thirty-five percent of the book mentions how Ghosh’s father helps her recognize fresh fish, and how to bargain, there is an entire light thrown on the fish cuisine of Bengal. It is unique that such experiences form a part of the book.

Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family (FoodStory) by Madhushree Ghosh
Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family (FoodStory) by Madhushree Ghosh

A novice reader may have never thought that a book could afford space for a middle-class family’s eateries. Her mother showed her how to sustain attachment to one’s country through food. She cooks dishes to please her husband as well. She also cooks to welcome her ex-in-laws.

She interweaves her story as an immigrant with that of Samin, the daughter of an immigrant from Iran. Samin serves a dish native to Iran. Everyone is amazed about it. Ghosh’s occupation as a scientist comes through as she gives scientific terminology of food. The thematic elements are- nostalgia, pride in native food, and food that keeps an immigrant attached to his native home.

Culinary has many uses- to attract her ex-husband’s family, as a relief. She also traces the history of Bunny chow in South Africa, relating it to how Indians come to have it.

She lives by the mantra her mother gave- to spend only 20 minutes cooking, and more time attending to the conversation around the dinner table. There are pages that are devoted to informing the readers of the recipes such as the recipe for bunny chow, the recipe for Naru, and so on.

Diving into Indian political history, she recounts the episode of Indira’s murder- one becomes clueless as to how this adds to the narrative, but when we read on we realize that when the curfew is announced, the Sikh shopkeeper living nearby has his shop raided and food items stolen. Also, we realize a few pages later that because of this moment, a Panjabi restaurant runs in San Diego as the Sardars migrate to America. She also provides an account of Delhi in 1984.

The presence of a Panjabi restaurant in San Diego means that Ghosh can order food she loves. On a sideline, the way she focuses on a non-vegetarian diet seems to show that she wants to convert readers to non-vegetarianism. Many sayings attached to food are scattered throughout the book. She mixes politics with culinary tastes. The reader is left wondering- is it a culinary book, political book, or biography?

It obstructs the flow of reading when she details her sexual life. It seems as if she is too narcissistic and the book gives her a therapeutic experience. Similarly, the details of her cousin’s sister appear extraneous. There is innovativeness in the form of the text- how she goes back and forth in the narrative, there is asynchronicity, one moment she talks about the present and then goes back to her past as an inspiration for the present.

For example, when she cooks Naru for her ex-husband, she comments on how she tasted the dish made by Minu-di. Sometimes, it seems as if the past shapes her present in innocuous ways. She is shut in the bathroom and this takes her back to her childhood memory when she was similarly shut inside a bathroom said to possess the spirit of her cousin, a suicide victim.

What a coincidence that she mentions and gets to unveil this book at Jaipur Literature Festival, in 2023. It is as much a feminist text as a culinary one. The author claims reproductive rights. She compares her own life with that of Garima Kothari, an ambitious businesswoman.

She details anti-CAA protests. She also provides the history of Chai/tea. If you don’t know Bengali, the meaning of Khabaar is revealed when around 10 pages are left. It means food. It’s an interesting read for people who are looking for reading about the life of a feminist in distant lands.

About Dolly Sharma
Dolly Sharma is an Assistant Professor & Exam Coordinator in the Department of English at JECRC University, Jaipur, Rajasthan-303905

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