Monday, November 28, 2016


I enjoyed Balli Kaur Jaswal's debut novel 'Inheritance'. Bought her second novel 'Sugarbread' the moment it was released a few months ago in June, and it has sat in my e-pile till now. The author began writing the book a decade ago when she was a student in America, facing questions and dilemmas over where home is, over race and religion and self-identity. In the above interview with Epigram Books, she mentioned,

In a conservative culture, in a conservative community it’s the women whose honour has to be protected, it’s the women who could potentially shame the family...

The protagonist in the novel is ten-year old Punjabi-Sikh girl, Parveen, or Pin as she prefers it. In first-person narrative and bits of a throwback to her mother, she slowly uncovers family secrets and strives to understand why she mustn't be like her mother, Jini. That was 1990. When her ill grandmother moves in and brings her set of traditions, Pin struggles against conservative opinions within her family, community, with God, and to establish her own independence.

We find out about why Pin 'mustn't be like her mother'. Pin also learns about her deceased Second Uncle Bilu. Jini seems to be not that conservative when compared with her own mother or the community at large, illustrated by the gossip at the Sikh temple they once attended every Sunday. Jini's backstory is the stuff of childhood nightmares, fighting against closeted opinions within a narrow-minded village, superstitious beliefs and trying to stand up against stupid irresponsible men abusing their position of power and trust. The racial prejudice has to come in the form of the ignorant fellow classmates and the school bus attendant. I rolled eyes. Those are the worst. Insidious comments that count for nothing.

The author said that "a big part of the novel is also food". Her Ma cooks, and her moods are obvious through the foods she cooks. I suppose food plays a big part in one's sense of belonging and sense of satisfaction. But it isn't the focus in this story. I was wondering what the heck is 'sugarbread'. Readers will find out exactly what that is. It's not a food unique to Punjabi cuisine. Any child could make it, when driven to extreme hunger in the face of inedible food. Read the book!

In our house, food was not just prepared and eaten to satisfy our appetites. Ma created meals based on her mood, the weather or unusual events. I always chewed my meals carefully, tasting for clues. Cabbage leaves soaked in sweet coconut gravy told me Ma was feeling mellow. Perhaps it had rained that afternoon and I hadn't noticed it from the classroom window at school. Bay leaves and sour sauces were signs of sophistication—Ma was inspiring me to leave the narrow hallways of this block of flats where neighbors eavesdropped and tripped over each other's shoes. Cinnamon sticks were Ma's way of comforting me when she noticed a flaw in the way the world worked and she was softening the blow. The sharp tang of cumin added to any dish meant Ma was bothered about something. There were many cumin dishes.

No comments: