This month we went to India. Had two quite different experiences there. The people who climbed mango trees were rather well off and quite westernized. Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India by Madhur Jaffrey is a series of mildly charming stories about growing up in those circumstances. I found it mildly boring. (Maybe I just find living completely tidy lives kinda boring, and maybe it’s mostly envy that motivates my critique.)
Here’s a short description from Publishers Weekly:
The celebrated actress and author of several books on Indian cooking turns her attention to her own childhood in Delhi and Kampur. Born in 1933 as one of six children of a prosperous businessman, Jaffrey grew up as part of a huge “joint family” of aunts, uncles and cousins—often 40 at dinner—under the benign but strict thumb of Babaji, her grandfather and imperious family patriarch. It was a privileged and cosmopolitan family, influenced by Hindu, Muslim and British traditions, and though these were not easy years in India, a British ally in WWII and soon to go though the agony of partition (the separation and formation of Muslim Pakistan), Jaffrey’s graceful prose and sure powers of description paint a vivid landscape of an almost enchanted childhood. Her family and friends, the bittersweet sorrows of puberty, the sensual sounds and smells of the monsoon rain, all are remembered with love and care, but nowhere is her writing more evocative than when she details the food of her childhood, which she does often and at length.
The parts of the book I enjoyed most were the parts that described experiences when India and Pakistan were partitioned.
The book didn’t rock any other WSBG member’s world, either, though they enjoyed reading it more than I did. A bonus is the collection of family recipes at the end of the book. I’m sure they are quite fine and tasty.
Desai’s second novel is set in the nineteen-eighties in the northeast corner of India, where the borders of several Himalayan states—Bhutan and Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet—meet. At the head of the novel’s teeming cast is Jemubhai Patel, a Cambridge-educated judge who has retired from serving a country he finds “too messy for justice.” He lives in an isolated house with his cook, his orphaned seventeen-year-old granddaughter, and a red setter, whose company Jemubhai prefers to that of human beings. The tranquillity of his existence is contrasted with the life of the cook’s son, working in grimy Manhattan restaurants, and with his granddaughter’s affair with a Nepali tutor involved in an insurgency that irrevocably alters Jemubhai’s life. Briskly paced and sumptuously written, the novel ponders questions of nationhood, modernity, and class, in ways both moving and revelatory.
We were collectively stunned by the beauty of her writing. So many times we found ourselves just savoring phrases, sentences, paragraphs. And the portraits are so vivid, this was one of those books we felt transported by, we could hear and see and smell the story. Gawd, we live such sheltered, protected lives here in the beautiful northwest corner of the U.S. Let us not forget our experience is rare and privileged and do what we can to share what we have with others across the world.
I found it very curious that Inheritance of Loss only rates 3 stars on Amazon, while Climbing the Mango Tree has 4.5 stars?!? I highly doubt those readers would pass the WSBG entrance exam.