Saturday, February 11, 2006

Book Review: One Hundred Shades of White

Format: Paper Back

Publishers: Harper Collins

ISBN: 0-00-714346-X

Genre: Literature & Fiction

"...The only way I can describe our arrival was that it was like being taken from bright technicolour into a silent black and white film. No rickshaw noise or horns or buffaloes or cows crowding the street blocking traffic. No grasshoppers or croaking toad lullaby or screeching chickens, just a mute,inoffensive calm..."

It's the 1970's and this is how 9-year old Maya Kathi describes her first impressions of England when she, her brother Satchin and her mom, Nalini arrived in the UK from India to join her dad who was already working there.

Despite the dull first impressions, Satchin and Maya grew to like England and treated it like one big adventure. Their father was an affluent man and they had a nice Victorian house and they attended a school for well-to-do kids. But one day, their entire world turned upside down when their mom came to collect them from school with the grave announcement that their father had been killed in an accident.

Nalini, the mother, contemplated going back to India but felt it would be a selfish move especially since the kids had grown to love England so much. Instead, they moved from their palatial home to a one- room bed sit in the poorer East End of London. Nalini took up a job in a garment factory to make both ends meet, but after a short stint and with the help of her Irish landlady's son (who I believe was half in love with her), dived into her one big passion - cooking. She started a cottage industry of home-made pickles which allowed her family to move out of the bed sit into a slightly larger apartment. It also afforded Nalini more time with her children, the opportunity to take English classes, and led to the chance encounter with her new husband-to-be.

Being an immigrant myself, a lot of Nalini's story was familiar to me - the foreignness of an adopted country, the yearning for the home of your childhood, the panic you feel when you see your kids imbibing the culture of their adopted land rather than the land of their parents, the obsession with foods from home, and so on.

The other prevalent theme throughout this book is that of food and how food is the answer to everything - it is medicine for the body and emotional comfort for the soul. We use food to socialize, we use it when we're bored, we use for nutrition, we use it as an artist would creating new dishes by using spices like colours. Food has mystical and magical powers and is often used to create spells. Food is such an important part of our lives, but how often do we sit down and take notice of the role it plays?

But back to the story - the author narrates the story of the Kathi family through the perspectives of Nalini the mother and Maya the daughter, and so this is as much about mother-daughter relationships as it is about veiwing life through first and second generations of immigrants, but the underlying theme of the book , is not food or mother-daughter relationships, but is that of truth. The mother tells a lie to protect her children,but many years later, that very same lie comes back to destroy exactly what it was meant to protect. According to the author, there are no absolutes in life and truth itself can present itself in many guises, hence the title of her book, "One Hundred Shades of White".

Preethi Nair has written a neat little novel (294 pages) which will appeal to most women on account of the many women's issues she deals with in the story - parts of it, especially when Maya visits India for the first time, read like a finely-crafted travelogue. A great read also for readers who enjoy foreign cultural experiences.

"...It was intensely humid when I got off the plane in Mumbai. A smell lingered in the air; I couldn't quite make it out but it was like sweat and sadness. You push it away by not inhaling properly, but it follows you. At first you cannot see very clearly, everything is blurred with dust and heat. The distant sound of ringing comes at you from everywhere; bicycles and cowbells, scooters and car horns, all keeping you alert so you will not go back into slumber..."