What is the significance behind using “Aftertaste” as the name of your book?
‘Aftertaste’ comes loaded with many meanings. Literally speaking, it is a reference to the mithai shop, Bimmo di Barfi, that is at the center of the book’s plot. Much of the book revolves food, taste and, of course, aftertaste – the flavour that lingers on long after the actual food has been consumed, sometimes even triggering off different and special emotions or memories. But for me, aftertaste has much deeper resonance – it is based on the fact that, most often, the remembered experience is more important than the experience itself. Much of this book is based on how the characters’ desires, appetite, choices and miseries are informed by things that take place in their childhood or sometimes even in a previous generation. It’s like the past is always the present. So, aftertaste is about that continuity that lingers long after – sometimes not so obviously, in one’s subconscious space.
Taking your background into consideration, when did you take to writing?
I started writing columns from the time I was in college – at Princeton University, where I was one of the editors of the campus daily. When I moved back to Mumbai, I started working with The Times of India, and have been writing for this paper on and off for the past 18-odd years. The skills and discipline of journalism have played a big part in contributing to my book writing.
Although, nowadays, nuclear families are prominent in our society, yet you have focused more on joint family in your story. Why is it so?
As you know, the book is set between the sixties and eighties and, in those days, joint families were the norm. The whole underlying premise of the book is to gently unravel the workings of a joint business family and reveal its darker underbelly. I compare the joint family to a tangled up bougainvillea bush, where there are both pink flowers and sharp thorns on the same stem, and every one has to coexist and be part of this larger whole. Of course, within the joint family, there are satellite nuclear families, which is what had started happening in the generations that followed.
Difficulties in relationships has been explicitly discussed in your story. Hence, what is your idea of a true “relations”?
One of my favourite lines when it comes to explaining relationships in a family is: A family becomes dysfunctional the minute there is more than one person in it. It is a dark cynical take on what is perhaps the most important fulcrum in our lives, but what I am trying to suggest is that relationships are inherently complex and difficult, and there is no getting around that. Every one comes with some baggage and the relationship itself comes with its own baggage – so two people may be perfectly fine as individuals but the chemistry between them may go haywire. I think the only way a relationship can really reach its best potential is when both people enter a spiritual connect and understand the meaning of universal unconditional love. But that can take a lifetime to achieve!
Money can make or mar relationships. Give your views on it.
Whether we like it or not, money is a very important ingredient in relationships -- between husband and wife, between siblings, between parent and child. This perhaps explains why most billionaires in the west give away most of their wealth to charity. We, in India, need to start acknowledging and discussing money issues more honestly within the family. For example, most people feel bashful about creating a will and ensuring that there is clarity on inheritance matters, even though it is actually the most practical thing to do. Similarly, there are always undercurrents of tension between spouses because no one comes out and discusses money with practical sense.
Since time immemorial,we have been aware of a woman's position in this society. By presenting a strong character like “mummyji”, did you want to redefine the position of a woman in this society?
By presenting a strong character like Mummyji I think I was trying to show how, in most Indian families, the most important person behind the scenes is the woman. She is the one who keeps the family together and also bails it out when there is financial collapse. Clearly, while we live in an overtly patriarchal society in the public domain, within the private domain of the family, the woman is the decision-maker. But it is not as simple as that – for example, the minute she becomes a widow, she loses control. So a woman never quite has full control over her life or assets.
The character of the “mother” is beautifully presented in the story. What is the significance of this character in the book?
I think the mother figure in India, both in real life and in mythology, is a very interesting and powerful figure. She can be both extremely nurturing and highly destructive at the same time. But the interesting – and somewhat disturbing thing – is that her children remain attached and dependent on her long after they have suckled on her breast. Indeed, right through their adulthood – she has the ability to emasculate her sons, control her daughters, and compete with her daughters-in-law. And no one is to blame – it is a carry forward of her own history. It was this paradox that I wanted to unravel through mummyji’s character.
“Miracle” has played a small role in your story. Can miracles truly affect anybody's life?
I truly believe that, if we look closely enough, our lives are but a series of ‘miracles’. There is a strange inter-connectedness and meaning to most significant – and sometimes seemingly insignificant – events that take place in our lives.
Do you think,our society or families are losing out on the elegant mythologies and epics of our ancient times, as told in your book?
I am not clear which mythologies and epics you are referring to in the book. But no, I think many of these stories are being refurbished and recast in contemporary language – so you have Gurcharan Das reinterpreting the Mahabharata or Devdutt Pattanaik retelling so many different myths and helping us understand how they still exist in our lives.
What is the reason for projecting the young characters in the story so differently?
It suited the plot! Plus it showed the generational differences and conflicts.
Why did you choose “Diwali”, as a festival of eminence for your book?
Diwali is an extremely important festival in the world of the bania community – because it represents the new year. It revolves around the worship of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, and wealth is an enormous part of the lives of most banias. Even the Diwali ritual that takes place in the offices and shops of this community involves the consecration of account books or vahis, as they were called in the old days. So Diwali seemed like a lovely point to bring the family together and then flash back into all its members' lives and machinations. Plus, food is a big underlying theme in the book and Diwali is an excuse to gorge – in more ways than one.
How has concept of sweets come into your mind?
I love the idea of using food as a metaphor – so the mithai shop and the mother’s role in creating it seemed to fit in beautifully. The funny thing is that I actually came across a sweet shop called Trupti, in Mumbai, which has a similar story to Bimmo di Barfi. It was started by the current owner’s grandmother because her husband could no longer work after a physical disability! And like our mummyji, she too came up with innovative sweet ideas and turned the shop into a roaring success! In fact, they were kind enough to host ‘Aftertaste’s’ launch party in Mumbai and even conjured up one of mummyji’s specials – the bournvita barfi!
Your writing engages long descriptions, which authors have influenced you greatly? Who is your favourite author?
I really don’t have one favourite. My list would include the usual canon – Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, John Yates, Ian Mcewan, Evelyn Waugh and – for plot – I am currently mesmerized by Steig Larsen’s trilogy.
Your plans for your next book.
None at present. I need to go blank for a while before something starts emerging…