Thursday, January 21, 2010

Just Rice

Not to be unnecessarily difficult here, but reading this essay on rice by Jhumpa Lahiri in The New Yorker do beg the questions why and when. First the why - why is this description of preparing pulao so terribly significant when it does not transcend the prosaic to become something larger than a grain (or bowl) of rice.

Given Sugar, Given Salt by Jane Hirshfield comes to mind as do some Odes to food by Pablo Neruda. Closer home (since Lahiri prefers to stick with all things Bengali), there is Sukanto Bhattacharya who wrote :"khudhar rajoye prithibi goddomoy, purnimar chand jeno jholshano ruti" translated very beautifully by Rini Bhattacharya Mehta as :

In the regime of hunger, the earth belongs to prose,
The full moon burns like a loaf of bread.

Now that is a way of looking at food a little differently. I recognize that Neruda, Hirshfield and Bhattacharya are poets and Lahiri is not but what a poet can do with verse, a competent writer should be able to do with prose. Basically what we have here is an intricate description of the process of preparing a desi rice dish by the author's father - which by the way is very similar to something Damayanti Basu Singh had written several years ago.

The essay by Buddhadev Basu which his daughter reproduces in translation is very much worth reading. Maybe that can serve as inspiration for Lahiri if she is absolutely determined to discuss the probasi banaglir handi-heshel ( non-resident Bengali's pots, pans and kitchen) in the most obsessive detail as has been her wont. There is a lot more work to be done to make such a piece of writing shine and become a thing of literary merit. Throwing a couple of Bengali words in for "texture" and "flavor" is not nearly enough.

Now for the when - when oh when is Lahiri going to say something that does not drip markeen probasi bangali (Bengali residing in America) like a over-soaked rosogolla. The drip is gooey, saccharine and yes very, very cringe worthy. Surely, she could employ her talents to turn out something more interesting than a really bland bowl of rice - and no, the raisins and almonds do not elevate it to anything more than that.

I asked my friend S who is a desi born and raised in NYC, what she thought made this kind of desi household minutiae unsupported by larger purpose so appealing. Her theory is that average American readers do not expect world class literature when they read the work of someone with an "ethnic sounding" name.  The best a desi could do is to satisfy their curioisty about what goes on inside a desi's home and mind. Lahiri and her ilk are enabling the vouyeristic in their western readers and it is the reason they are so marketable.


Sunil Deepak said...

I generally like reading you but this one sounds like you have got one of those bad days and you take it out on JH.

Agreed that particular piece is nothing to brag about but overall level of sarcasm about her writings is perhaps a sign something deeper, perhaps a shade of green?

Heartcrossings said...

Sunil - Shade of green :) Maybe not. I just have to search some of the excellent food blogs written by desi writers to find a much better written piece on food than this one. It's sad that they don't get featured on New Yorker and JL does. I respect Lahiri's ability to sense the pulse of the readership and give them what they want.

She is undoubtedly very talented and I would love to read something that makes the most of her abilities as a writer. I am just very disappointed that she continues to cater to her market and does not demonstrate her potential as a writer. Even more disappointing is that publishers paint desi writers into this corner where they can succeed only by being exotic and ethnic.

Quirk Quotient said...

I agree with SD here. She is written lot of good material to prove that she is a fantastic writer.

She is regular contributor to the publication and so it is quite obvious that they would turn to her and also give her lot of latitude. She has earned that through her work.

To say that there are lot of good food blogs out there and they don't get featured on the New Yorker is not the right way to look at it. Lot of times people are more interested in what a famous person eats along with an excellent recipe as well. I would be very curious to know what Sachin Tendulkar eats during lunch while he is pulverizing bowlers all over the field.

Heartcrossings said...

Quirk Quotient - Lahiri's talent as a writer has been always evident - even if a little too latently. I would love to read something she has written that is outside her microscopic sub-genre - the life of a Bengali in America. Being from the culture, I find that she has exhausted the possibilities of her subject a long time ago.

There is only so many times that a Bong can bear to read about the making of aloo posto, bhape ilish and such no matter how well crafted the prose.There is never a larger, more universal theme or sense of purpose to it.

As a fellow Bong and a clanswoman at that, I would love nothing more than to see Lahiri demonstrate her full potential as a writer - and I am still waiting. This essay just piqued my disappointment.

Curiosity about celebs is fine - your Sachin Tendulkar example is spot on. Now, JL being a Pultizer award winner, the expectations from her are a little different. A reader will expect her essay on rice to transcend the ordinary.

After all she is in the same league as Ernest Hemingway, James Michener,Saul Bellow, John Cheever et al. If Tendulkar writes a piece about his favorite food, the reader who is a fan is simply gratified to know what he eats - they don't expect any more from him. Very hard to give a Pulitzer prize winner the same latitude.

mads said...

I agree with you completely, heartcrossings. This essay was very disappointing. She's not just using the same formula, but the same, damn sum each time. I've seen writers who stick to just one particular style (or even topic for that matter). Didn't we all read Malgudi days? Even Harry Potter. The same guy, same set of problems, but each time the writing gets better. It evolves. This is the same thing everywhere.

Anonymous said...

I had read this article a while back when the New Yorker had showcased it on their main page. This is a blatant example of what you can get away with if you have been anointed by the literary establishment as a ethnic writer. While the bong-in-exile thematics might win her audiences abroad, its bound alienate the actual pulao eating brethren in India.

Heartcrossings said...

mads - Exactly my point ! There is no evolution after all these years. It's the same bowl of rice being regurgitated over and over.

Anon - 'While the bong-in-exile thematics might win her audiences abroad, its bound alienate the actual pulao eating brethren in India.' - Could not have said it better :) As it turns out the Bong brethren abroad are also mighty tired of the 'bong-in-exile thematics'

Anonymous said...

I agree with Heartcrossings opinion.

A famous tamil writer remarked :

" My name is so well established now , even my laundry list would be lauded as a great piece of literature by my fans & critics ".

Anonymous said...

Tremendous courage you have HC to not only detect the prosaic in a celeb like JLahiri but also articulate it so honestly :)

You have never come across as a jealous person.I see no "shade of green".