Alienation and food

Blues from the Malabar Coast

By Jill Rollins

A review of Blues From The Malabar Coast by Nalini Warriar

Published on April 1, 2003

Blues From The Malabar Coast
Nalini Warriar

TSAR
$18.95
paper
136pp
0-920661-99-8

The twelve linked stories in this debut collection (winner of the QWF McAuslan First Book Award for 2002) encompass five generations, three continents, and about forty years. Modern times force the members of a South Indian family to scatter; home is a teeming, comfortable womb from which almost all the family are eventually ejected into an implacably changing world. Through their narratives Warriar has depicted the painful but necessary processes of growing up, emigration, alienation, and adjustment that so many have experienced in moving from older societies to newer ones.

Krishnan Variyar introduces his extended family through his memories of his long-gone life as a favoured child. His opening narrative, in the title story, establishes patterns and cycles that permeate and unify the collection; in particular, the rituals of food preparation are strikingly depicted, and food generates memory in subsequent stories. Krishnan’s grandmother performs timeless kitchen routines and produces mouth-watering meals from the plenty of Kerala’s lush countryside. Warriar’s writing is at its best when she evokes this plenty; in language as rich as the “delicious surprises” he recalls, Krishnan evokes his home’s attic, “this culinary paradise (of) jaggery-coated banana chunks pungent with ginger and nutmeg, dried string beans, bitter gourd and lady’s finger, papadams and ladoo.” Abundance and ritual express the family’s confidence in both itself and its hereditary local standing.

But as successive generations of the family are born and dispersed, food variety and preparation, along with other traditions, are increasingly consigned to the less nurturing attic of memory. In “From Heidelberg to New Delhi,” Krishnan’s nephew Ven, a student transplanted to pretty but impersonal Germany, searches out the ingredients and prepares the beloved Indian meals of his own brief Kerala childhood. The comforting routine does soothe his premarital sexual longings for Seema, the cousin he will marry in accordance with an ancient custom that ensures the family line, but cooking also makes him homesick, inspiring him to take his German friend Karl back to Kerala. Here, while pink-and-white Karl is the comical alien, Ven now finds himself suspended between two worlds. Still later, in the ironically titled “Greener Pastures,” Ven grumpily cooks and remembers in his family’s kitchen in cold, bleak, and unwelcoming Quebec City. In “Perceptions,” Seema struggles to break Ven of his compulsive bulk food shopping for a family of four that cannot possible consume all that he buys.

There is a commonality in the experience of displacement that readers have encountered through writers as varied as Moodie, McCourt, and Mistry. Nalini Warriar’s own use of autobiographical detail has discernible impact on her stories’ uniqueness and varying success. Interestingly, the variations correspond to the stories’ settings. The Kerala stories are mostly vivid and assured. The characters are complex and lively, the style and dialogue (with some lapses) natural, the narratives are both sensitive and humorous, and the natural settings are lyrically evoked. In the Quebec City stories, however, credibility is strained by narrative that is much less coherent, and often awkward in expression. Into “Greener Pastures,” narrated by Ven, the author crams the perils of academia in a hostile environment, a molecular biology lecture, ruminations of recent German history, and a confrontation with a Francophone colleague (a caricature who actually addresses a roomful of students as “pipples” before he hastily corrects himself). No wonder Ven feels the need to indulge in the occasional “Labbat (sic) Blue.”

Clearly, Nalini Warriar’s strength as a writer depends on where her heart is. At its best, Blues from the Malabar Coast allows the reader a glimpse into that heart. mRb

Jill Rollins is Director of the Pre-University Programme at Lower Canada College, Montreal.

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