| ISHQ AND MUSHQ |
By Priya Basil
Sarna, the entrancingly stormy "culinary seductress" at the core of Priya Basil's debut novel whips up exotic aromas in her kitchen as furiously as she stir-fries chalaako ideas in her head. Both skills are deployed continually with surprising success to run rings around her family, friends, admirers and enemies, even while neither yields her the extravagant love and adoration she craves. But it is Priya Basil (a name fittingly redolent of fragrant cuisines) who succeeds where Sarna finally (fictively) fails, to charm and disarm with a delectable dish of a novel.
Ishq and Mushq is the product of a light, deft hand that mixes an engrossing narrative with unexpected dashes of magic realism, spices it with chilli-hot secrets and sprinkles it liberally with home-truths about colonial hangovers and diasporic dilemmas, before serving it all up with impressive élan. So much so that we are almost unmindful of its weightier lessons: the histories it is burdened with, the psychologies it aspires to penetrate, the philosophy contained in its afterword: "Because the stories of our forbears are inevitably ours as well, and until we know them we can never completely be ourselves." We know to our peril how the new Indian English novel has often been quite unable to wrench itself away from the potent inspiration of "our past", replete with dire, doleful dogma and a vengeful determination to regurgitate grimly its leaden legacies for our collective enlightenment. But Basil's achievement on the potency of Ishq and Mushq-Love and Smell-that seeps into our souls as dramatically as the aroma of Indian spices spluttering in hot oil, is that she is able to impart some of the old, familiar history lessons with a surprising freshness, pegged upon an intriguing family drama compellingly, and lucidly, told.
| PICTURE SPEAK |
|ENGROSSING NARRATOR: Basil brings freshness to the familiar |
Traversing three generations of a sprawling Sikh family, three cities- Amritsar, Nairobi, London-on three continents, and many histories-the horrors of Partition, the Indian diaspora in Kenya and Uganda, Queen Elizabeth II's coronation and Churchill's funeral in London, and the racism-battles-multiculturalism ethos of present-day England-one would be forgiven for expecting, at best, old wine in a new bottle. What is quaint about Basil's aromatic offering is that neither the wine nor the bottle is excitingly new, but the concoction whips and churns its ingredients of plot and style with the panache of a born storyteller, into a fusion food that is at once quixotic and curiously riveting.
At the heart of the tale rests the beauteous Sarna, a restive soul who creates magic in the kitchen and believes that the spices she blends into her curries and casseroles will burn a trail of love around all those she possesses and desires to protect. Caught in her web of culinary caring, her family is helpless. Her husband Karam, a small-time clerk in Kenya who had returned to his ancestral India to bring back Sarna as bride and got briefly engulfed in its violently-unfolding history of Partition, dreams of "finding" history for himself and takes off for England after marriage and the birth of twin daughters-for England, as we, ever the post-colonials, know, is where history always lives.
When Karam returns, tragedy has already struck, and one of the twins is dead. This death exhumes for Sarna the un-nameable misery of giving up her illegitimate daughter Nina in her youth, who is being brought up in India by grandmother and aunts. Distress threatens to unravel their lives, when Karam takes his family away to London, where their children Pyari and Rajan struggle into their diasporic personalities while Sarna battles memory, nostalgia and the English cold. Her past drops into their present, and life emits new flavours and fumes. Oskar, their tenant, wafts into their family, drawn to both Sarna and the sensitive, green-eyed Nina who has come to stay. At the end, there is a death and a birth, an illness and an acknowledgement of a past mistake: in other words, life and history, tangling and un-tangling, as it is wont to do. That Nina's new-born daughter is named Umeed (Hope) points us toward unfolding tales, yet untold. If they come from Basil, we can certainly await them with pleasurable anticipation.