I’m so excited! I’ve been reading Damyanti Biswas with amazed admiration for years, and today she’s a guest on my blog!! !!! !!1!1!!
Take it away, Damyanti!
Food. Glorious food. When Marian asked me to write about the role of food in my debut crime novel, You Beneath Your Skin, I was thrilled because no one else has asked me about it thus far. I’ve always expected the unexpected from Marian who has been a friend and supporter for almost a decade now.
So without further ado, here’s a bit of an excerpt of food from the novel.
(Anjali Morgan, a psychiatrist and single mother is in an affair with Jatin Bhatt, a much-married Police Commissioner, and they’re meeting after she’s seen a dead body disfigured with acid at a morgue):
‘Grewal’s sister is planning to design a trousseau for you, he says, for when you get married.’ Jatin said.
‘Right.’ Anjali dipped a warm piece of parantha in the pickle, then in the yogurt, and popped it in, letting the clash of spices fill her mouth. Warmth, at last, after the creeping chill of the last hour spent with Kusum at the morgue.
‘Any marriage plans I don’t know about, madamji?’ Jatin copied Grewal’s accent.
Anjali laughed as she ate. She watched Jatin polish off his parantha, pack the trash, tie it up, and chuck it into the backseat. He changed gears and joined the traffic heading back towards Safdarjung Enclave. The police found the woman in a trash bag secured with twine—the report said that the rapists had tossed her from a moving vehicle. A sob escaped Anjali.
I’ve used food here for contrast. The scene right before that is chilly and chilling as Anjali encounters a disfigured dead body, and here, her lover is trying to bring her back to normal by treating Anjali to her favourite Indian street food but doesn’t quite succeed. It brings texture to the world, and by bringing in taste, the reader is (hopefully) given an experience of Delhi. Delhi is a foodie’s paradise. Those who can afford it like to eat well.
In another scene we have a list of food items:
Mutton do-pyaza, chicken tikka, pudina parantha, and biryani seemed to do the trick for Nikhil. He finished dinner in record time and called Sakhi to share.
Here, the food is a way of bringing in local colour and characterisation. Nikhil has autism, which makes him particular about what he eats and has other supposedly ‘weird’ habits, but he loves North Indian food, which makes him relatable to the people around him.
In other instances I’ve used food to create a sense of nostalgia, and then break it, providing narrative tension where plot tension is not present. In the scene below, Maya is very upset with her brother Jatin, but has not been able to express it out loud. The use of food here is to portray a relationship and how it has changed:
Maya braked hard and parked across the road from Nizam’s Cafe. Bhai used to bring her here when she was upset, or if she did well at school. Maybe that was why he had chosen this place to meet. Entering the cafe now, she was surprised to find that her brother had arrived, but not placed an order. She ordered at the counter, their usual: a double-egg mutton kathi kabab roll for him and a single-egg chicken roll for her.
She returned to her seat to find him on a call, his long black overcoat slung over the back of a nearby chair. He spoke softly in English, not mentioning names. With the fitted grey sweater on his broad shoulders and chest, his neat haircut and moustache, he was handsome. Maya only ever thought of him as Bhai, but for the first time, while pretending to check her phone, she noticed the slanted looks the women at the surrounding tables sent him. Anjali must have glanced at him the same way.
When their order came to the table, she bit into her roll and sighed. The fluffy roll and the spice of the meat remained the same over the years. Her brother cut his call and stared at a spot behind her. She turned around, and his gaze dropped when their eyes met in the mirrored wall. Had he been talking to Anjali? A rush of anger turned the juicy bite to a glob Maya must swallow. How could she have ever liked this place, with its dim yellow lights, its red table-tops, greasy food, and loud lunch crowd?
Food can also be a great relationship builder or breaker—this is a universal quality irrespective of culture: in the following excerpt, Anjali builds up a nice relationship with a little girl.
Anjali took Sakhi’s roti, tore a piece, dipped it in chicken curry, and held it to the drooping mouth. Sakhi looked up, surprised. She opened her mouth and Anjali popped the morsel in, like with Nikhil more than ten years ago. Most of the time he’d spat the food out or howled, or both. Sakhi, on the other hand, seemed to have no enmity with food, only a disinterest in life. Anjali watched as Sakhi swallowed and stared down at the table, making no move towards her plate. She had picked at her breakfast, and, according to Ira’s report, not eaten much for lunch. So Anjali fed the little girl her dinner.
In another, Varun loses respect for his mother, also around food. Food and feeding are equated with parenting and nourishing in the following excerpt:
‘Breakfast is ready!’ Mummy knocked at his door.
‘I know,’ Varun called out. ‘I’m brushing Laddoo.’
Laddoo, his chocolate cocker spaniel with the melty eyes, looked up at him at the mention of her name.
‘I have to leave soon, Varun. Come out now.’
By the time he finished powdering and grooming Laddoo and walked to the table, Mummy was done.
‘Ask the cook to get you your breakfast.’ She patted his shoulder and picked up her scarf. ‘I told her to get it when you come out so it is hot.’
‘And no more parties before your exams.’ She made a stern face, but that was all it was, a face. She didn’t have the time to sit down and be stern with him. All that discipline shit was beyond her, unless it came to her assistant, who she shouted at on the phone non-stop.
‘Make sure you eat well,’ she called out over her shoulder as she picked up her things. ‘Don’t forget your karate clothes.’
Even the freak’s mother was better than this. Varun had seen her sit down with a plate and spoon-feed her son, even when he had one of his hissy fits.
So, without consciously thinking about it, I’ve included food in You Beneath Your Skin–and despite the fact that it is a pretty dark crime novel involving acid attacks, the snippets about food make for lighter, more domestic intervals. They give the reader some respite from the tension-filled pace of it all, creating a sense of atmosphere, and the local colour of New Delhi.
lives in Singapore, and works with Delhi’s underprivileged children as part of Project Why, a charity that promotes education and social enhancement in underprivileged communities. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. You can find her on her blog and twitter.
All the author proceeds will go to Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks.
‘You Beneath Your Skin – beautiful writing, strong characters and a story that will stay with me for a long time. Set in New Delhi, this novel tackles important issues as well as providing a tension-filled read.’- Jacqueline Ward, Bestselling author of Perfect Ten
BUY YOU BENEATH YOUR SKIN
I very seldom read anything with “gritty” in the description, or anything involving violence against women, but I gladly read this, because I trust Damyanti. My trust was well placed. Yes, it’s disturbing, and it should be. It’s also beautiful and weirdly uplifting. Courage and resilience, compassion and commitment are more than a match for the darkness.
On Fatal Foodies this week, I’m just sending people here.
A WRITING PROMPT FROM ME TO YOU: Use food to communicate something instead of saying it directly.