The book opens in a Delhi that was still under the Raj, where only an educated and privileged few could flourish under the British rule. Ms. Jaffrey, with her impeccable poise, of course comes from just such a background and carries the reader along easily with black and white photo-aided descriptions of the family set-up, the super extended joint-family life and her early memories with many fascinating details like the festival of Dussehra where writing implements were blessed along with the men’s hunting rifles or the dress-up Delhi Winters where their family turned quite British for this season with tweed coats and jackets (British fabrics, Indian tailors) and cardigans (British wool and patterns, family-women knitters) that wouldn’t stop smelling of mothballs.
She has many keen and entertaining observations, like the one above about her Indian family striving to be British in its own way - or just knowing to survive in any era by taking on the traits of the dominant power. Through the medium of a book on the family history, she also imparts how her ancestors’ lives were woven into the bigger events of the ages- Shah Jahan’s Mughal court, the fall of the Mughal Empire and the ensuing foreign expansions into the country followed by the rise of the British Raj.
Unfortunately, having read the first couple of chapters with much relish, reminding me so much of my mother’s paternal home - the rambling house with children galore, surrounded by relatives and distant relatives in a familial cacophony of unity – I soon found an odd pattern to the narrative. In some places it grabbed my attention with historic, cultural or family life details while at others it definitely lost steam. Therefore, while I loved picturing the portion where she uses a watermelon as floating aid in the water to swim across the deep river Yamuna with my cousins flanking me on all sides, and how The watermelons seemed to grow right out of the sand. There they were, dozens and dozens of monstrous green balls, barely acknowledging the withered, browning vines they were attached to, just lying there, asking to be taken away from the burning sun and devoured. , during the very next long piece it was difficult to stay engaged by the writing when we get a lengthy description of “The Drawing Room” with its contents and rituals of a Winter evening. This, despite the waves of nostalgia at many of her tidbits of information, feeling the oft-heard nuggets reach out to me from my childhood, in the original language (Urdu, Hindi, Bhojpuri etc.) e.g. Should the King say that it is night at noon,/ Be sure to cry, Behold the moon. or Don’t be such a Laat Sa’ab.
Throughout the book, we hear of events through her but we never somehow seem to see them for ourselves. It feels like a map of her past but it is a two-dimensional map just marking her passage with the X and Y coordinates. Perhaps this book just comes too early in her life, or an autobiography is more what we all want rather than a memoir. What we lack are the colorful personal memories to make it all come to life, as when she tells of the fairy tale version of how her mother married her father or to what results she tried to scare the crows away from around the churning butter – basically, anytime her personal emotions are expressed. We want more of these inside stories, the personal thoughts fraught with the whys, whens and hows of her extraordinary life journey. We want to know how she has reached where she is today. But alas, at least this time around, Ms. Jaffrey has chosen not to confide in us fully.
That is why, at the end, it is the family recipes that bring a sort of reprieve to a book that could have been so much more in its entirety.
Book Description: Madhur Jaffrey grew up in a large family compound where her grandfather often presided over dinners at which forty or more members of his extended family would savor together the wonderfully flavorful dishes that were forever imprinted on Madhur’s palate.
Climbing mango trees in the orchard, armed with a mixture of salt, pepper, ground chilies, and roasted cumin; picnicking in the Himalayan foothills on meatballs stuffed with raisins and mint and tucked into freshly fried pooris; sampling the heady flavors in the lunch boxes of Muslim friends; sneaking tastes of exotic street fare—these are the food memories Madhur Jaffrey draws on as a way of telling her story. Independent, sensitive, and ever curious, as a young girl she loved uncovering her family’s many-layered history, and she was deeply affected by their personal trials and by the devastating consequences of Partition, which ripped their world apart.
Climbing the Mango Trees is both an enormously appealing account of an unusual childhood and a testament to the power of food to evoke memory. And, at the end, this treasure of a book contains a secret ingredient—more than thirty family recipes recovered from Madhur’s childhood, which she now shares with us.
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