Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a translator, writer and literary historian. She has published over 25 books and written over 50 academic papers and essays. Her book on the lesser-known monuments of Delhi, Invisible City, continues to be a bestseller. Her recent works include: Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive WritersMovement in Urdu (OUP, 2014); a biography of Urdu feminist writer Dr Rashid Jahan, A Rebeland her Cause (Women Unlimited, 2014), a translation of The Sea Lies Ahead, Intizar Husain’s seminal novel on Karachi (Harper Collins, 2015), and Krishan Chandar’s partition novel, Ghaddar (Westland, 2017); an edited volume of critical writings on Ismat Chugtai called An Uncivil Woman (Oxford University Press, 2017); in the past year a literary biography ofUrdu poet Shahryar for Harper Collins, The Great War: Indian Writings on the First WorldWar (Bloomsbury); and most recently, Kaifiyat, a translation of Kaifi Azmi’s poems for Penguin Random House and Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses in Prose & Poetry (Niyogi Books). Her latest book ‘But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim’ (Harper Collins), is a collection of 40 essays on religion, culture, literature and identity. She was awarded the Kaifi Azmi Award for her contribution to Urdu and the First Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-Hindi Translation. Here she talks about life and times in contemporary India, food and cooking, survival and nostalgia, amidst the stressful lockdown, pandemic and quarantine. In his second conversation with Amit Sengupta of Hardnews

Obviously, you love cooking all kinds of food from all across the world. What kind of non-Indian food you like best?

Learning to cook is a fairly recent experience. I have always been interested in food, its links with culture, food stories, family recipes and anecdotes related to food but was not very adept in the kitchen. Being a hands-on cook is fairly recent. It seemed logical to ‘get one’s hands dirty’ as it were and move on from simply talking or fantasising about food to actually making it. Though I must say my favourite food has always been aam ka achaar and paratha — and that’s something I still cannot make. The bar was set very high. A friend in school used to get the most incredible achaar-paratha in her tiffin and I know I can never match it.

My favourite non-Indian food is West Asian. I love its simplicity, its burst of unexpected flavours, its lightness and lack of overwhelming spices. I like the way they incorporate a lot of vegetables and make the dishes look colourful and varied. Yes, there’s meat but then there are different kinds of legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and so on, making it wholesome and varied. And each course is interspersed with the very civilised notion of palate cleansers in the form of sorbets.

You also make bread and cakes. Why are we stuck in India with only one kind of bread, unlike the bread in different sizes, shapes and flavours in Europe? Why are special breads restricted to the elite, unlike the bread (roti, tandoori roti,  etc,) in our local cultures, or those inherited from Mughal cuisine?

I wouldn’t agree that we are struck with only one kind of bread in India. While it’s true that large parts of the country have predominantly rice-eating populations, there is a fair amount of variety not just with breads but with the grains used to make them. Yes, the tandoor came from Mughals but different kinds of unleavened breads were being made…. roti, puri, paratha, tikiya made from wheat, chana dal, besan, jowar, bajra, etc. Even within these broad types there are many variations with different kinds of stuffings, different shapes and sizes and, like everything else in India, differences of social-economic class.

Till before the Green Revolution, the poor could not afford roti made of wheat; they ate what were considered the coarse cereals such as jowar and bajra. Today food activists like Vandana Shiva and her Slow Food Movement have made those same cereals fashionable and in many cases, depending on the packaging, more expensive than wheat breads!

If anything, I am struck by the sheer variety of breads, leavened and unleavened. Take the paratha:  look at its mind-boggling variety, from the Malabar parotta to the paneer/gobi stuffed kulcha. Then there is sheermal, baqar-khani, rumali roti, naan, roghni tikiya, missi roti…  it goes on and on and this is not taking into account local delicacies such as litti-chokha.

There is an opinion that while simple recipes were being celebrated during the lockdown, the show of rich and expensive food was a bit disconcerting, even perhaps obscene, when tens of thousands of starving and thirsty migrant workers were on the streets, their pictures and stories reported all over the social media. Do you agree?

In the early days of the lockdown when we were inundated with images of hungry and thirsty people trudging home with small children and elderly people, going without food and water, yes, it seemed insensitive to post images of what one was eating or cooking in the comfort of our well-appointed homes. 

But, remember that the lockdown was a prolonged one and with time, I won’t say we got numbed or blythe to the distress, but certainly people began to actively look for ways to cope with the distress. (I use the word knowing that distress is relative!)

Social media serves many purposes; it can sensitise, but it can also provide relief from overwhelming grief and gloom. At some point, images of people going back to their roots to discover lost recipes, learning to make labour-intensive dishes in the time-honoured way, or making dishes from whatever was available became stories of resilience too. They helped to make many of us ‘aatmnirbhar’! 

Meat was not available for weeks as the borders were closed and many Muslim butchers were just too terrified to open their shops; so people came up with interesting forms of gastronomic masquerade of dressing up vegetables to taste like meat. With more time on one’s hands, both men and women began to show greater improvisation in the kitchen. Food consultants like Sangeeta Khanna would post interesting recipes of traditional foods, some that recycled food scraps; one that I liked very much was her probiotic pickle made from the rind of a water melon that is usually discarded.

In a country as sharply divided between the haves and the have-nots at the best of times, there are no easy answers to your question, Amit. All I know is that these past few months have taught all of us to examine our many privileges, to not take many things for granted, to make do with what we have and, yes, squeeze every little bit of enjoyment from life in whatever way we can no matter how grim the circumstances.

As a connoisseur of food, how is food or cooking a therapy?

I wouldn’t use the word ‘therapy’. I see both food and cooking as a form of enjoyment — not a mindless, hedonistic enjoyment but a mindful, conscious, pleasure-giving activity. I wouldn’t put it in the same category as, say, yoga or a spa treatment.

What were you doing in the lockdown, apart from cooking? Was time a drag for a writer and translator like you?

I am far, far more active and more productive ordinarily. Apart from the fortnightly columns I have done very little work during these weeks and months  — not a fraction of what I ordinarily would have since early March. I find I have no band-width to either read or write. I binge-watch Netflix and Amazon when I am not cooking. So, while partly cooking is a necessity since the person who cooks has been away for four months, it is also something to do — something that does not require the sort of concentration that writing does. Having said that, time has not been a drag. If anything, days, weeks, months have slipped and slid into each other. I remember coming back from a holiday on March 12. Everything thereafter is a blur of sameness.

I am reminded of a short nazm by the Urdu poet Zehra Nigah which sums up my present kaifiat, though obviously it was written in some other context:

Mujhe fursat hi fursat hai

Sawerey jald uthna hai

Na shab der se sona

Kahi’n bahar nahi jaana

Kisi se bhi nahi milna

Na koi fikr lahaq hai

Na koi yaad baqi hai

Magar ye aakhiri misra

Zara sa jhoot lagta hai

How do you think people should cope with life, amidst state repression and injustice, death, dying, disease and tragedy, in this heat? 

Answering that would be magisterial! I am no one to tell how others should cope with anything. 

Also the things you list —  State repression and injustice, death, dying, disease, tragedy and heat — are very disparate. One can’t react to all in the same manner; nor can there be a blanket coping mechanism for all.

Speaking for myself, I would say speaking up would be a natural first response when it comes to issues of State repression and injustice; death, dying, disease would evoke sorrow, grief, care, concern for safety and so on.

Just as responses can’t be cut from the same cloth, nor can coping mechanisms. I read today that a dome of the 19th century, Mubarak Begum Mosque in Shahjahanabad  in Old Delhi, collapsed due to the heavy rains this morning. This is a tragedy — not in the same league as the human misery caused by loss of livelihood, dislocation and mass migrations – but, nevertheless, a tragedy because a bit of my city’s past tumbled down due to neglect and greed. Yes, an act of God had a role to play too.

What are the lessons of our own history, and that of other countries, to cope with such pandemics, which is not a war or an apocalypse?

I’d rather talk of lessons than how we have coped, or not. Ideally, there would have been many lessons, the chief one being ‘Less is More’ — but I am not sure whether they will have a lasting impact and change us as people in the long run. These weeks have taught us that there is a great deal that we don’t really need and can do without. We are not terribly deprived if we don’t exhibit a conspicuous consumption of wealth, if we don’t buy the latest gadgets, clothes or accessories, or eat out. In a word, the pandemic has taught us to value priorities: health (both and mental and physical), home, family, food on the table.

Nature has had a huge, unimaginable shot in the arm. Birds have returned to the cities. Trees have grown unchecked. The air seems cleaner and purer. These are tangible benefits of what is no doubt otherwise a great human tragedy.

There has been a lot of resurrection of nostalgia: cinema, songs, literature, memories, old pictures, old posters of movies, stories and biographies of great people including poets, writers, musicians and shairs, folk and oral traditions, memories of life and times inside homes and childhood. How do you look at it, since your last book documents so much of your mother’s recipes and memories of the past, always forward-looking?

Yes, I see a resurgence in what can popularly be called nostalgia, of looking at the past as a better time. I am struck by innovative marketing ideas such as the very successful Paper Boat entrepreneurs who have introduced Gen Next to Aam Panna and Thandai, even the humble Nimbu Pani. (It was being sold on board by several airlines.) There are several online portals like Masala Monk that claim to specialise in nani-dadi recipes and talk of using seasonal produce such as Phalse ka Sherbet or Karonde ka Achaar that have a limited shelf life. Taken together, I see all of this as being part of a ‘greater good’.

There is renewed interest in old movies; a portal called Cinemazi attracts a fair number of young and old subscribers. Taken together, this augurs well. Given our blind, headlong hurtling towards ‘modernity’, this nostalgia is not bad or regressive. It can replenish and nourish. 

Do you think the world will become better during and after the Pandemic?

Did the world become better after the Spanish Flu, the Black Death or any of the great plagues, famines and misfortunes that have afflicted large swathes of populations since Biblical times? People talk of learning from tragedy, but do they ever, really? 

Do you think India will become better during and after the Pandemic, and do you think this Pandemic will ever end in our country? 

Wish I had a crystal ball!


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Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a translator, writer and literary historian. She has published over 25 books and written over 50 academic papers and essays
Food During COVID: Less is More