By Supriya Sharma | July 4, 2015
When Rukmini Srinivas, then teaching at Queen Mary’s College in Madras, was first introduced to author R K Narayan by her husband in 1955, she had not heard of him or read his Swami and Friends. “I had grown up with Thomas Hardy and Somerset Maugham,” she writes in her cookbook-cum-memoir Tiffin, adding, “and had not heard of R K Narayan till I visited Mysore.”
But that meeting was the start of a life-long friendship. In Berkeley, US, where Narayan was a Rockefeller Fellow along with Rukmini’s husband, social anthropologist M N Srinivas, Narayan spent many evenings with the couple, narrating them stories, and using Rukmini as a sounding board while plotting the twists and turns of the book he was writing then—The Guide.
Narayan—with his fondness for scented areca nut, zealously scrutinising food labels in America to ensure he eats vegetarian, ‘cleansing’ his mouth with curd rice after mistaking pepperoni for tomato on a pizza—is among the many characters who come to life in these pages filled with the adventures and memories of the octogenarian author. The stories that accompany the vegetarian recipes recreate eras long gone in vivid detail—growing up in British India, the country post Independence, exploring America of the 20th century, the cities of Poona, Baroda, Bombay, Delhi, Madras as they changed over the decades—through food. It helps that the author, whose father worked for the British Defence administration till 1947, had a nomadic childhood and lived across the country.
Each vegetarian recipe in the book is preceded by a story or rather the memory of how Rukmini learnt it or the occasion that called for it. So there is masala vadai learnt from an uncle who was a doctor in Tanjore, where the feasting was interrupted by a labour call from a Harijan colony; vegetable cutlets made by her father in a Victorian meat grinder for a lunch; potato bhajji from the famous Sathe’s restaurant in Poona; masala paranthas that Rukmini and her sisters took to school to give away on Pound Day, the sticky coconut toffee made every Diwali, the bondas served at the mobile canteen on Marina beach, and so on. “I basically followed the chronology of my life,” says Rukmini over e-mail. “For me food and the cooking and eating of it are intimately connected with occasions in life, with people and places. So, the stories and the recipes flowed easily one to another,” she adds.
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