Thursday, 11 June 2009

Book Review: Shoba Narayan – Monsoon Diaries

I was sent this book by Umm Nassim (over at the excellent Islamic Unit Studies) as part of a book swap earlier this year. She picked up on my desire for some light reading and thought this might fit the bill.

Monsoon Diaries is Narayan’s account of her childhood and teenage years amongst a large family in South India and later America. What is different about this book is that it reads part autobiography and part cookbook. Narayan describes her loving and eccentric family with affection in the various settings of journeys, celebrations and holidays. She colours her account with the descriptions of food that her memory has linked to each occasion and each recollection is interspersed with a traditional South Indian recipe.

Narayan describes her idyllic childhood and the love she receives from her extended family as well as the chaos and joy of family weddings and holidays. The cast of characters she recalls, from servants and neighbours, to family and friends are full of life, eccentricity and

As a Punjabi (north India and Pakistan), some of what she describes – the role of family and food is very recognisable to me, others aspects were more novel: the tropical nature of South India, the religious practises and the role of women (South Indian women seem to be stronger and to command more respect).

Narayan takes us through college life and onto her scholarship in an American college. This part of the book reminded me of Nahid Rachlin’s Persian Girls (review here), where the protagonist goes to America and finds herself alienated and misunderstood, struggling to create any kind of identity. The author of Monsoon Diaries in contrast, approaches America with a sense of delight and adventure. Keen to try everything, meet everyone and learn all that she can, Narayan also struggles with identity and questions of belonging, but doesn’t dwell on these issues long enough to dampen her enthusiasm for her adopted country.

The first half of the book was an enjoyable read. I found pleasure in reading about the colour, culture, costumes, traditions and people of India, but most of all the culinary heritage of this diverse and amazing country. Narayan really does make her country and childhood come alive.

In contrast the latter half of the book was less absorbing and I was less interested in her various financial and academic problems. The book does end on a note reminiscent of its beginning though – we find that the author and her family have imported much of their culture, family values, eccentricity and chaos into America proving the point that you can take the Indian out of India, but not the India out of the Indian I suppose.

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