The Chindian calling
Why do we love Chinese food more than the Chinese? Chandrahas Choudhury dwells on his latest book, Indo-Chinese cuisine and why Bombay will always be his literary mother
We can tell there's a difference between sniffing through the pages of any other book and Chandrahas Choudhury's Days of My China Dragon (Simon and Schuster India), which released this week. The latter makes us hungry.
No, we aren't just talking about a detailed meditation on fried rice, as outlined in the book. It's how every sentence is chopped evenly, coated in Bombay nostalgia with bits of humour clinging to it, and served piping hot — the steam, giving you a whiff of rich literary flavour. Welcome to China Dragon, a small restaurant in Prabhadevi helmed by restaurateur Jigar Pala, after revamping the Udipi joint passed down to him by his late father — so much so, that Pala thought it odd to have his father's picture hanging above the cash counter.
For Choudhury, 39, who was longlisted for the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature for his 2018 novel Clouds, the tryst with Indo-Chinese aka Chindian cuisine began 10 years ago, although he had savoured the fare before. Living as a tenant in a building in Prabhadevi, he became friends with the proprietor and staff of a small restaurant below his home. "I began to write there every morning, which of course only led to my becoming further involved with the day-to-day drama of the place: the analysis of a customer who had just left, discussions on Indo-Chinese food, stories about the family lives of the staff," he tells us in an email interview.
Then, one day the restaurant shuttered, and like Choudhury says, "... in Bombay, memory fades very fast; the next day a new establishment came up in its place. But the wonderful memories stayed with me and I thought it was time to make a place — on the page — where the restaurant could live forever." And this is particularly evident in Choudhury's treatment of Prabhadevi as a microcosm of Mumbai, where restaurateurs like Pala find joy and relief in hitting a tab of R10,000 for the first time.
But capturing all this wasn't easy. Choudhury says, "What was difficult was capturing a particular tone, a particular way of looking at the world that communicates the hope and energy and discovery that you noted while also being very worldly wise and philosophical," adding, "I wanted to give the reader a sense of how a single funny or emotional moment in the life of the restaurant could bring everybody together in the course of difficult times, or suddenly carry a profound meaning [which is why some of the stories in the book are only one page long and sometimes no longer than one sentence]."
The author maintains that stylistically, Days of My China Dragon largely differs from his previous works. "One of the challenges I like very much about writing books is that of finding a completely new style for each book, a style that is invented specifically for the material," he says.
An important insight that Choudhury draws from the book is Pala's motto i.e. "Always keep smiling" — the first principle of the hospitality industry that the writer himself holds close to his heart while interacting with the world. The book will have its launch in Delhi tomorrow, where the writer is currently based, followed by one in Mumbai on May 5. "I am through and through a Bombayite and a Bombay writer: I only left for Delhi eight years ago when I was 31, feeling like I need a new challenge in my life and there were things I needed to learn about India that were not possible while living in Mumbai. I have lived all over the city: I grew up in Borivali and Vile Parle, and afterwards, I have lived in Breach Candy, Wadala and Prabhadevi — which has a very interesting social texture and lots of long-time residents," he shares.
So, how much of the city will we be seeing in Choudhury's future works? He answers the question as if saying "Qing qing", the Chinese term for "bon appétit". Many courses are yet to be consumed. "Bombay is my literary mother: the wellspring of my books, and the provider of whatever identity and reputation I have in India today as a writer. I may have left it, but I am back there to visit every few weeks, and my books continue to be set there. I have yet many more Bombay stories I want to tell in the future. And by the time I tell them, I will have gained many more."
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