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‘I wanted my character’s voice to be the collective voice of a modern-day woman’

Posted by Paromita Chakrabarti | New Delhi |

October 14, 2020 2:50:37 pm

In this interview, the author talks about her foray into fiction and learning to reconsider food during the pandemic.

When she started her blog, Bong Mom’s Cookbook, in 2006, documenting the Bengali recipes she grew up on and which her daughters should treasure, New Jersey-based blogger Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta never suspected how exciting it would be. Over 15 years and a very successful cookbook later, Mukherjee Datta has now published her debut novel “Those Delicious Letters” (Rs 299, HarperCollins), which focuses on food and a 40-year-old mother of two trying to keep everything together. In this interview, the author talks about her foray into fiction and learning to reconsider food during the pandemic. Extracts:

Food, recipes, stories – your first novel, Those Delicious Letters, seems to stand out from your own journey into Bengali cuisine. To what extent was the novel autobiographical?

(Laughs) Other than the food, it’s not autobiographical at all. However, many readers tell me how much they can relate to the protagonist Shubha. I wanted Shubha’s voice to be the collective voice of a modern woman, her little trials and joys in everyday life, her sense of Hiraeth as she moves farther from her parents’ home, and her sperm to take risks and take every second chance on the come her way even when she least expects it. I think that goes down well with a lot of Indian women.

When did you get the idea for the book?

A million book ideas keep bubbling away in the back of my mind, mostly on my hour-long commute to work. The challenge is to get it on paper, between two covers of a book.
I love reading food novels and food memories. When I wrote my first book, I wanted to read a food novel set against the backdrop of the Indian diaspora, with Indian food playing a role. However, there weren’t any. There were food reminders, essays, cookbooks, but no food novel about Indian food. You must have heard of the quote “If you can’t find the book you want to read there, write it”. I took that to heart and wrote a food novel that I would love to read. It took almost four years for the young idea to blossom in its current form just because I am writing between a hundred other things and taking my time.

How different was it to write a novel from your anecdotal cookbook (Book Mom’s Cookbook, 2013)?

It was much fun. Fiction allows you to take liberties, and sometimes you feel like God who can make or break life! It’s scary, a lot of responsibility, but fun.

How have you seen the attitude towards regional Indian cuisine in the diaspora since the beginning of the blog?

When I started blogging, Indian food wasn’t as regionally divided as it is now. There were a handful of dishes that represented India to the masses. Gradually this changed and we became more aware of foods from different regions. Pop-ups of regional cuisine grew – at least someone from northern India now knew that Aloo Posto is a Bengali dish. I myself learned something about Kashmiri cuisine that goes beyond Rogan Josh or more, such as Konkani home cooking. Over time I see more and more niche kitchens. It’s absolutely fantastic and you can learn so much about different cultures through food, but I have a feeling that sometimes it creates a gap between people too. Sometimes people can get very territorial about their food.

Mukherjee Datta has now developed her debut novel “Those Delicious Letters” (Rs 299, HarperCollins), which focuses on food.

Can you show us how your relationship with food has evolved?

Like most people, I loved food but never paid close attention to it until I left home. The further I went from home, the closer I felt to eating.

The need to bring my daughters closer to childhood food became more intense and I began to cook more. Gradually as I found my groove, I wanted to know more about where a recipe came from, why we ate what we did, and I got down to reading essays, memoirs, and food history. Now I look at food with a lot more love and respect, but I also eat mindfully.

I’ve also become more open to what I eat. I try to order obscure things from the menu and often regret it later! Whenever we make travel plans for a new place, I spend a lot of time researching the local food.

The pandemic was a time of great inequality, especially in India. One of the criticisms is how the middle class has made this a source of food porn on social media while a larger population is starving. You posted about it on your Instagram feed, but how do you reflect this trend?

The pandemic was devastating on many different levels. As I said in my post, I sometimes felt guilty about sharing food and what we cook at home while a pandemic raged on. However, this story has two sides. On one side were the heroic frontline workers, their families, the migrant workers who had lost their jobs and their income. On the other hand, there were people who were depressed about staying at home, some didn’t understand the importance of social distancing, some weren’t happy with online school, some were afraid of losing their income, some couldn’t get to loved ones travel, others just wanted to go out.

If this second group of people benefits in any way from the positive content on food, art, music, etc. that has been posted on social media, I see no harm. The bottom line is that it has helped people stay home and stay safe.

Has the pandemic affected how you handle ingredients now?

During the height of the pandemic, our food visits were restricted and we had to carefully plan what we would cook and eat. Often times the things I would expect from my online delivery were out of stock and we had to do without them. It actually turned out to be a valuable life lesson. We didn’t buy unnecessary things and got used to what we had. I hope that I can continue like this in the future.

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