IT IS DIFFICULT to categorize Madhushree Ghosh’s intelligent and absorbing new book, Khabaar. Equal parts memoir, political commentary, and cookbook, this collection of essays braids food and memory and loss into a single compelling strand. In the vein of the 2019 memoir Savage Feast by Boris Fishman, who finds comfort and connection to his native land through the cooking of his grandfather’s Ukrainian caretaker, Ghosh writes, “I didn’t appreciate what triggers memory in a refugee or immigrant’s brain until I became an immigrant myself.” Food is the trigger that “makes us believe we’re still part of the land we left.”
The book takes us through Ghosh’s life journey — and it is a remarkable one — from a childhood as the daughter of East Bengali refugees resettled in New Delhi to her current role as scientist and vice president of a global biotech company based in San Diego. Educated in an all-girls Catholic high school, she leaves India at the age of 19 to earn a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Maryland, later advancing her education in the fields of global conflict resolution, women in leadership, and diversity, equity , and inclusion. Putting aside these stellar professional accomplishments, Khabaar focuses on the intensely personal: we travel with Ghosh on the first plane ride leaving India, sit in her family’s living room during the sectarian violence following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and witness the divorce court proceedings during which she detaches from her cruelly negligent husband. She is tenacious, goal-oriented, and simultaneously vulnerable and intimidating. In one revealing chapter, she is trapped inside a hotel bathroom during a business trip and she claws her way out just in time to give a career-advancing presentation to the US Food and Drug Administration.
A fiercely intelligent renaissance woman, Ghosh negates the simple identity that mainstream America imposes on the recent arrival, whether near the top or bottom of the social hierarchy. “Many immigrants from South Asia come here to fill a particular role that this country gives us,” she writes. “A doctor. An engineer. A scientist. To bank. We try to be what America wants us to be.” Ghosh’s personal history is familiar to me — not because it parallels my own but because it is similar to those of many loved ones in my family. Her tale is not a rags-to-riches story. Instead, it speaks to how success in one realm does not necessarily translate into success in others, how a polished woman of the world — educated, ambitious, and financially flush — may nevertheless be demeaned and devalued in her home. She tells of a husband who randomly withheld love and conversation for days or weeks, then showered her with affection and good humor. The marriage seemed happy only when his tennis idol, Roger Federer, won his Grand Slam tournaments. As her marriage soured, her career grew sweeter. She flew around the world on business trips, led teams of scientists that made life-saving instruments, held executive management positions on ever-higher runs of a career ladder. I admire her honesty about the humiliations she experienced in her personal life, juxtaposed with her professional prowess.
This book is deliciously engaging. One learns, through a scientist’s point of view, how to make a damn good lamb curry or raita or guava jelly. Ghosh’s descriptions made me want to enter my long-abandoned kitchen and try the recipes myself. She is non-vegetarian and refreshingly straightforward about it. “We absorb the fish’s life,” she quotes her deceased father. “We live because they did.” She shows how food influences politics and how politics influences food. Especially enlightening to me, a daughter of a South Indian family of tea-drinkers, is a chapter on how the trade of tea, through British colonialism, defined so much of the modern world. She follows the manner in which the creation and sharing of food is embedded with deep emotional connection. The description of her loyal patronage of a Punjabi restaurant in San Diego during the pandemic is infused with her memory of what New Delhi’s Sikh community endured after Indira Gandhi’s death.
Ghosh introduces us to her heroes: famous chefs like Samin Nosrat, but also dedicated suppliers of culinary comfort during the pandemic lockdown, sellers of prata in a Singapore kopitiam stall, New Delhi butchers and fish sellers, vendors of lamb bunny chow in Durban, South Africa. The important relationships in her life are negotiated with food: the long-ago initial connection with her ex-husband, the tense relationship with her former mother-in-law, the love between her father and mother and herself and even her pet Dalmatian. It is the language through which she communicates, creates bonds, and understands the world.
Even while depicting the importance of food from her uniquely personal viewpoint, Ghosh is aware of the ways in which food and language are defined through a white Western perspective. “Imperialism — and as a result colonialism — has the dubious distinction of evangelizing spices and cuisines of colonized lands.” She is writing here about how we understand the definition of what we eat. Language expresses our understanding of the world, and it also helps promote that understanding. To define a thing allows us to own it and express it to others through our perspective. If our perspective is the dominant one on the world stage, then our language (or our food, our clothing, our beauty standards) may well provide definition for a global population. In the United States — a nation of immigrants and the indigenous people who preceded them — some foods are seen as “ethnic,” other cuisines as less so. How this distinction evolved is a compelling political question that she does not address with depth in the book. Rather, she mentions it in her author’s note, inviting us to read her work in that context. More broadly, she addresses the use of language as a way to connote insider and outsider status. “Should we italicize the words that our mothers raised us with or not?” “How normalized is italicizing words of our own language, that it takes us years, if not decades to unlearn?” The point is a meaningful one, given that India absorbed English in colonial days and made the language one of its own. In the book, the only non-English Ghosh has italicized is khabaar, the Bengali word for food. As a bilingual writer, I grapple with these same issues, and I appreciate how Ghosh has brilliantly transferred these same issues into her language of food.
Ghosh has difficult choices to make as a writer. She is an immigrant to the United States with a global consciousness. Several times during my reading, I found myself wondering about whom she felt was her audience. Her writing encompasses the South Asian diaspora and the ways in which the syncretic mixing of cultures, in the context of colonialism and imperialism, resulted in some of our species’ most delectable cuisine. Sometimes she includes jokes that only a Hindi or Bengali speaker would understand, such as a play on the Hindi word teak, meaning “okay,” and the English name of the wood teak. But at other times, she addresses those to whom the South Asian culture is unfamiliar. Readers of South Asian descent do not need the explanations she provides for some of her common themes — how Indian sons are expected to care for their parents, for example. Other times, when addressing her mainstream American readers, she offers explanations connoting inside/outside, some of them overstated. “Bear with me — we Indians are storytellers,” she says in one aside. However, “No self-respecting Indian will ever refuse tea.” Statements such as these create a cultural boundary, too, a belonging and othering just as italics do. What needs to be explained, and what does not? I am not sure there is a correct answer for these conundrums. Yet, there is some inconsistency here in terms of seeming intent and voice.
The essays are interestingly constructed, thematically bridging personal narrative with seemingly unconnected anecdotes. Many of the anecdotes depict the creation of syncretic cuisine, even while centering the South Asia diaspora. Some of the interwoven narrative lines are inherently rich and satisfying and, like a good curry, become more than the sum of their parts — such as the story of the demise of Ghosh’s marriage interlaced with reportage of a young chef’s murder in New Jersey. But others seemed choppy, such as Ghosh’s father’s teachings about the preparation of fish set against the narrative of Chef Samin Nosrat’s rise to stardom. I had to go back and reread, find the connection. However, later, when I considered those same passages, I thought perhaps that was the point. Immigration severs personal narratives. Cultures jump from continent to continent, both influencing and being influenced by those whom they brush against. The immigrant must go back and find the connection, and when it’s found, she discovers that she belongs neither here nor there.
In a compelling chapter late in the book, Ghosh writes of trying to bridge this gap in her life by reconstructing the festival of Diwali in her new home, the first that is purchased only for herself after a failed marriage. She heroically tries to describe the purpose of the festival, which has so many meanings and versions by subpopulations on the subcontinent that it is almost indescribable. She chooses the meaning that is most compelling to her: “[W]hen the people of Ram’s kingdom lit lamps to guide him back home and then set off fireworks to celebrate his victory alongside food — and lots of it.” She does not cook the food herself. Instead, she orders in from the same Punjabi restaurant to which she would be loyal throughout the pandemic. She wears one of her mother’s saris. She asks each attendant to bring a favorite poem to share, an undertaking that has nothing to do with Diwali in India. She has made her own tradition — a combination of the old country and the new — that every new immigrant must accomplish in some way.
During one of the great waves of immigration to the United States, much attention was paid to the use of the hyphen to depict one’s immigrant identity. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.” The statement excluded indigenous populations and was meant to encourage immigrants to discard references to their nations of origin; one should be merely American, not German-American, or Irish-American, or Japanese-American. The hyphen was anathema.
In our age of greater self-awareness, we know that we cannot cut off a portion of ourselves and still be whole. Decades ago, we called it assimilation, but now we know it is a form of surgery performed without anesthesia. Ghosh refuses to give up that hyphen, and for her, the refusal is grounded in food, language, memory. A strength of this book lies in the manner in which she shows that her singular experience, despite its particularities, applies to all:
[E]verything I feared would happen, happened. Parents died, husband left me. Don’t have a family. I’ll die alone. Didn’t think I’d be living in America. Didn’t think I’d live so far from India. But here we are. Here we are. Sometimes, when the biggest fears come true, we have no choice but to carry on — and carry on well.
Rishi Reddi is the author of the novel West Passagehas Los Angeles Times “Best California Book of 2020,” and Karma and Other Storieswhich received the 2008 LL Winship /PEN New England Award for Fiction.