Monday, September 17, 2007

Vegemite Vindaloo by David McMahon and win a copy of Richard B. Wright's Giller Nominated "October"

Published by Penguin Books India
Published: March 2006

Pages: 336
Classification: Fiction/Immigration

I have read a lot of East-Indian fiction and through those books I have been introduced to some delightful characters from the various different communities of India, but one community that remains elusive in Indian fiction is the Anglo-Indian community, so when I saw David McMahon's book "Vegemite Vindaloo" which features an Anglo-Indian family , I knew I just had to read it! Before I go on to give you a synopsis of the story perhaps I should tell you who the Anglo-Indians are:

The term "Anglo-Indian" is commonly used to describe people who have mixed Indian and English ancestry (not to be confused with Indo-Anglians an adjective applied to literature in English produced by Indian authors.)
When Britain ruled India they imposed a hierarchical racial order, one that favored people with European heritage and lighter skin, so the Anglo-Indian community (with their fair skin, English manners and education) did very well for themselves during the British Raj. When the British left India in 1947, many Anglo-Indians followed suit (most went to Britain but many also left for Canada and Australia), the ones that were left behind felt out of place in the new nationalistic India because they were more aligned with a western way of life, and over the years they have learned to embrace local customs and traditions. However, Anglo-Indians continue to immigrate to the west and their numbers in India have dwindled over time.

David McMahon's entertaining first novel "Vegemite Vindaloo" chronicles the immigration to Australia of one such Anglo-Indian family. Steve and Hilary Cooper are a well-to-do couple living in Calcutta with their son Clive. When they decide to make the move to Australia, in an altruistic gesture they legally adopt, Azam, their house help's son so that he can avail of the opportunity for a better life. Anyone familiar with the caste system in India will be aware that such a thing is almost unheard of. Adopting kids is fine, but most Indians would draw the line at adopting a maid's child (because maids are much lower down on the hierarchical ladder) Despite the odds, the Coopers persist with the adoption and their dream of a better life in Australia is realized.

While a chunk of the story revolves around the Cooper family, they are just 4 people in an ensemble of very fine characters in David McMahon's story. Also blended in is the story of Ismael (Azam's father) who had to run away from his village in Bihar after he stole money
to buy medicine for his sickly son and due to a lack of funds was forced to become a pavement dweller on Calcutta's busy and dirty streets until in a happy synchronicity, he meets Steve who employs Ismael and his wife to work in the Cooper house.

David McMahon is a very fine storyteller and although Steve Cooper struck me as a little naive and his wife Hilary a little vain, I would say David crafts some delightful and interesting characters... what makes the story really moving is that he places them in situations that make it necessary for them to abandon all that is familiar to them and to courageously take on the challenges of a brand new world.

This book held many charms for me. As I have mentioned before, I loved the story and the characters, I loved learning about Calcutta a city I know so little about, the cultural assimilation of the Cooper family in Australia, but best of all I loved learning about the Anglo-Indians and their way of life. So, if, like me, you love discovering another culture with its different rhythms, tastes, smells, lingo and ways of being human, allow the Coopers and friends to be your guide.

David is a Melbourne-based journalist who's as adept with images as he is with words. Check out some of his photographs at:


The Scotiabank Giller Prize long list was announced today. I'm thrilled to see that Michael Ondaatje ("Dividsadero"), M.G. Vassanji ("The Assassin's Song") and Richard B. Wright"October" are among the authors that have made it to the list.

In addition to Ondaatje, Vassanji and Wright, the authors on this year's longlist are:

I have a copy of Richard B. Wright's "October" (courtesy Harper Collins, Canada) to give away, so if you are interested and if you think you can read and write up a review for it before Oct 30th, please leave me a comment, thanks! The draw is on Thursday. Next week I might have another book by a Giller Prize nominee to give away so please stay tuned!


Radha said...

Love the name of the novel: "Vegemite Vindaloo" :-)
Very fusion....just like the Anglo-Indian characters of the book I'm sure!
And would love to participate in the draw for 'October'.

Sanjay said...

Lotus, I truly loved your review of "Vegemite Vindaloo"! What makes your reviews more fun is how you provide your readers information which at once helps them have the right context which in turn makes the book and your review both enjoyable. The case in point here being the background about Anglo Indians which a lot of us from the sub continent might know but perhaps not your other readers. Heck I must confess to not knowing what Indo - Anglians were!!!

The Australians really love their Vegemite don't they?

The book surely sounds interesting and explores very relevant topics around identity and culture. Often times people who adopt maybe from one country and adopt from another, but what makes this more challenging is not only is the kid going to a foreign land the parents are too, so there is some added dynamic at work here? Maybe I am wrong.

I wondered if Steve and Hilary had an easier time adjusting to their new home given that they were already straddling the East and the West given their backgrounds? Did you get that sense based on your reading?

Also the household help Ismael's son Azam actually sounds Muslim so aren't they just adopting from a different caste (assuming Muslims in India have something like a caste, I think they do but I could be so wrong) but also a different religion which is probably also not commonplace?

Also do altruistic people have a bit of the vain and naive in them?

And this maybe more a question for the author about the choice of the lower half of the cover, I guess that cup of chai represents a lot about India and that is so integral to the desi psyche (just as the elaborate tea drinking ceremony is to the Japanese, but in a different way).

I checked out the books on the Giller long list, thank you for telling us about these fine books. I think I would love to read all of them but in particular I like Zero Gravity, Helpless, The book of Negroes (I knew about their move to Nova Scotia but only that it was not the place they thought that it would be), Lauchlin of the bad heart, Conceit and of course The Assassin's song.

I am surely interested in reading and reviewing "October" so please enter me for the draw. Thank you for that and for another wonderful post.

Lotus Reads said...

@Radha ~ Yes, I think it's a great title too, adequately representing two cultures. Your name is in the hat!

Lotus Reads said...

@Sanjay ~ You know, growing up I thought everyone knew who the Anglo-Indians, Jains and Parsis were, and I thought I knew every community in the world, until I read a book by a Srilankan author that mentioned the "Burghers" and I found I had never heard of them. That's when I realized the populations of these communities being so small, they are hardly known and thus warrant a little background information.

YOu make an interesting point about adoption and the dynamics in this case, but I will say that Azam had been in the family from the time he was a baby, so his challenge was more about getting acquainted with the new country and learning to live away from his natural parents who were a part of the Cooper household when they lived in Calcutta.

I wondered if Steve and Hilary had an easier time adjusting to their new home given that they were already straddling the East and the West given their backgrounds? Did you get that sense based on your reading?

Interesting question and I would have to say no. They had a great support group (Hilary's sister and friends) but there were many things that were very strange to them culturally and it took them a while to get comfortable with the Aussie way of being. Their immersion into Aussie culture was a lot of fun to read!

Also do altruistic people have a bit of the vain and naive in them? I have no clue, but that is definitely something to mull over!

I would love David to explain what the cover meant to him. My feelings echo yours, Sanjay, so I have nothing new to add.

Your name is in the hat, Sanjay, good luck and thank you for playing! Also, thank you for a wonderful comment!

Asha said...

Lotus,there are plenty of Anglo Indians in B'lore too as you know.This book interests me very much,funny name too!:))
There is another book written by a Indian Jewish girl, Carmit Delman called "Burnt Bread and Chutney" too, I read it and liked it!

Lotus Reads said...

@Asha ~ I knew the title would grab your attention! ;) I had never tasted vegemite until very recently (we had guests from Sydney staying with us and the little girl only ate toast with vegemite). It's not bad tasting, but I think because of its rather "meaty" flavor it might be preferred by non-vegetarians.

I read "Burnt Bread and Chutney" a long time ago....wish there were more books written about the Bene-Israeli community too!

Tara said...

Wonderful review (as always!), you've made me want to read this book. I also love learning about different cultures through reading and this sounds great. Thanks.

Lotus Reads said...

@Tara ~ Thank you, I'm glad we share a love of cultures! The anthropologist in me is always wanting to learn more about other cultures and if it's done through remarkable story telling (as David does in Vegemite Vindaloo) it makes it that much sweeter! :)

tanabata said...

Great title! I always enjoy learning about different cultures so another one to add to the wishlist!
I'd love to read 'October', especially since the Harper Collins write-up says that fans of 'Clara Callan' will adore it. I loved 'Clara Callan' when I read it a few years ago. Don't add me to the draw though because even if I were to win, it would probably take too long to arrive. I'll definitely look for it when I visit Victoria next.

Booklogged said...

Lotus, again another wonderful review. You make books sound so scrumptious. I definitely want to read "Vegemite Vindaloo" even though I don't have a clue what either word means.

As for the drawing - don't put my name in the hat. I know I don't have time to read "October" before Oct 9. I'm adding it to my TBR list, though.

Lotus Reads said...

@Nat ~ hi! I think it's so important to learn about other cultures especially in this age of globalization. I am so sorry about the deadline of Oct 09, I guess I could extend late October, hope that will help?

@Booklogged ~ Vegemite Vindaloo is an intriguing title, isn't it? Vegemite is a kind of paste that kids love to use in their sandwiches and is as integral to Australia's heritage as the kangaroo or the koala bear! Vindaloo is an Indian curry, so the title is a clever way of marrying two cultures, the Australian with the Indian, which is what the main protagonist in this story does :)

I might extend the deadline for the book "October" until the end of next month, does that work for you?

Les said...

I read the Harper Collins' blurb (and reader reviews) for October and it sounds like a fabulous book. I doubt I'll have time to read it in the next few weeks, but I'll be sure to put it on my TBR list. Thanks for pointing it out to me, Lotus. You're such an enabler. ;)

diyadear said...

wow u r so in tuen with books.. im awestruck!! calcutta is a lovely plce. have lived there for 3 yrs n i simply love it.. any author wd love to write abt that place..N a combination with anglo indians i'm sure it makes the vindaloo yummy :)

Melody said...

Hi Lotus Reads, thanks for visiting my blog! I'll add your link onto my blogroll as always delighted to explore other new bookblogs. :)

You've written a great review. It's always interesting to learn other cultures IMO. Recently I bought a book written by an Indian author, can't wait to read it.

And I'd love to participate in the draw as well. Thanks! ;)

Sanjay said...

Lotus, Just a quick thank you for your response.

And I think Vegemite is an acquired taste no? :)

Framed said...

Your reviews are always so intriguing. I will certainly be adding this one to my TBR list. Love the title.

I love the book cover for "October." What a beautiful picture. Please put me in the drawing as well.

Bookfool said...

I was thrilled to see Ondaatje on the list, too. I love his writing. Please throw my name in the hat. I can certainly squeeze in a read and review.

jenclair said...

The McMahon book sounds even better after your explanation of the phrase Anglo-Indian. Your review is great, and I'm certainly going to be looking for this one. Thanks for the link to McMahon's blog...

Lotus Reads said...

@Les ~ You're so welcome, the pleasure's all mine! :)

@Diya ~ You know, I have never visited Calcutta, but I sure would love to! I am told it is a place you either love or hate? David's descriptions of the place has me fascinated! I want to be able to see "Howrah Station", "Chowringhee Lane", Calcutta trams, "Howrah Bridge", "Loreto House" and so many other landmarks mentioned in the book! I am told the food is excellent too, so that's another incentive to visit! :)

@Melody ~ Thank you for the visit and for participating in the draw! What is the name of the Indian author?

@Sanjay ~ Yes, I think it is..I tasted a little and quite liked it! :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Framed ~ Yes, "Vegemite Vindaloo" is a clever title, it called out to me immediately when I saw it in a bookstore in India. I would be very happy to put your name in the hat, good luck!

@Nancy ~ I love that you're participating! Will definitely put your name in the hat. All the best!

@Jenclair ~ I went to school with a lot of Anglo-Indians and they are a delightful community. Their cuisine, which is a delicious blend of the east and west, is something worth trying, however I can't think of a single restaurant that specializes in Anglo-Indian food. Strange, huh?

MyUtopia said...

Great post! I love when I read blogs and learn something new.

~ I am sorry but I wouldn't be able to read and write a review for ya so don't put me in the drawing.

Melody said...

The author is Kavita Daswani and the title of the book is Everything Happens for a Reason.

Lotus Reads said...

@myutopia ~ I totally understand, besides you have that little bundle of joy to look after now! :)

@Melody ~ Ahhh, Kavita Dawani, I have one of her books sitting on my shelf, it's called "Arranged Marriage". You'll have to let me know what you thought of "Everything Happens for a Reason" after you read it.

gs said...

hi lotus
i enjoyed reading your review on vv brilliantly written by david..having lived in kolkata for many years and having interacted with the anglo-indian community it was going down memory lane when i read vegemite vindaloo.recently i visited bow barracks where many angloindians,chinese,parsees and armenians have been living since more than sixty years.also a film was released last month titled 'bow barracks forever' revolving round the community living in bow barracks.
kolkata is an amazing has a lot of history and is a throbbing city.there are many firsts like the tube and the cantilever bridge over must include kolkata during your next visit to india.

david mcmahon said...

Dear Lotus,

What can I say, apart from a very humble `thank you' for this review.

For one thing, I will definitely answer the queries in this comments section.

I'll post it as one of the regular `Telling Write From Wrong' segments on my blog, where I answer queries from writers.

Once again, my deepest thanks

Keep smiling


hellomelissa said...

you are always teaching me so much in your reviews! here at lotusreads, you get not only a book review but an eduaction as well.

Lotus Reads said...

@gs ~ Thank you for your comment! You make me even more eager to see Kolkata now. When I visit India this time I would love to travel up to the North East but not without getting some travel tips from you first. Thank you also for letting me know about "Bow Barracks Forever", I would love to see it but I have to look into where I can buy it from. Some Indian made, English language movies can be very hard to find.

@Melissa ~ Awww, thanks!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, David!

Thank you! You gave us a beautifully-written book to enjoy, how could I not let everyone know?

I look forward to reading the post you mention, thank you!

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