Feasting on the Food of Life
In conversation with author Shobhaa De on her latest release, Insatiable
Earlier this year, Shobhaa Dé celebrated her 75th trip around the sun with an Elvis Presley themed soirée. The party might be over but the celebrations continue with Insatiable (HarperCollins India), a diary of sorts that chronicles the post-pandemic year of 2022. She writes about ‘the brood’ aka her children; Ansariji the mutton-wala and Babita the maalish-wali (masseur); watching the late M. F. Hussain sketch in the middle of dinner; and fangirling over Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee. And, these anecdotes are peppered with food (so much food!). In an interview with Reader’s Digest, De talks about her writing process and why she’d always pick bhakri over foie gras.
The book almost reads like a year-long food diary. Why did you decide on this format rather than a biography?
Food is at the centre of all our lives, but we don’t always acknowledge that. The structure is interesting for me because I had done a memoir of sorts when I turned 50, then again when I turned 60, and then at 70. And I didn’t want to let this one go, the big one at 75, because it’s a big hurrah for me and for all who achieve this landmark birthday, especially post-COVID. I didn’t want it to be just another memoir that goes back and forth, the “I was born in Satara,” kind of thing. Searching for Anuradha [a name her parents originally chose for her, only to change it to Shobhaa at her uncle’s suggestion] was the working title, and the idea was to look for a Maharashtrian girl; where did I leave her behind? But that would have again turned a little maudlin and a bit too sentimental. Maybe that search was too personal; it may not be relevant to readers.
What is your comfort food?
It's a very simple Maharashtrian khichdi, almost semi-solid. It's what we'd give our babies when they weren't feeling too well and couldn't digest other kinds of food. To that I add tadka of heeng and jeera, curry patta, and ginger. It has to be piping hot, and I like to have it with either a very simple kadhi (not the Sindhi besan kadhi) on the side or a firmly set dahi. It's a very complete meal.
Through these decades you've commented on a variety of subjects and people. What are the core values that inform your writing?
A sense of integrity to not just your craft and your profession but to your own life as you've led it and to the way you've been brought up. And a sense of honour and sensitivity. But these are all very high-minded, high sounding terms. I don't know, I just write because I love writing. And when people ask me about things like legacy at 75, it's a very loaded word. I don't let myself be distracted or preoccupied by labels. It's difficult for me to answer this question.
Early in the book you write “I’m in a snarky mood”. You’ve been known as somebody who writes as she sees it. When was the last time that you had to rein in the snark?
Only in today’s environment. Even while writing this book, there were more than just a few nudges in the right direction from publishers who are looking at legal [implications]. If the book has to pass that scrutiny, it also makes you much more aware and conscious of what you’re saying. And if ‘he who shall not be named’ is not to be named or referred to because it could land the publishers in a mess, then you do think about content in a more conscious way. All these years, I’ve never ever had that come in the way of what I wanted to say. But this is now across the board, in all the columns one writes, and certainly in this book; it’s very deliberately apolitical. Barring a few stray comments here and there, I’ve completely stayed away from something that has become very tricky terrain for all writers.
There’s a sense of 'been there, done that' world weariness through the book. What excites you today?
Travel continues to be the most exciting thing for me. It continues to enchant me because it takes me into all sorts of trips of fantasy. My husband surprised me with tickets to go to Brazil and Argentina to see the tail-end of the carnival because in my memoir at 50, I had mentioned that on my bucket list. I told him if he'd read the book carefully, the last line also says there has to be a ponytailed stranger who'll dance the tango with me in a public square in Buenos Aires. "I hope you manage to get Antonio Banderas or Javier Bardem at the very least. If you're doing the whole bucket list thing, it's very much a part of it." That sense of anticipation, going to a new destination – I don't think I'll ever tire of that.
What did the brood think of the book?
They're merciless and competitive. The brood chat is very carefully neutral about the book. But individually, they're messaging me to say, "so-and-so has got many more lines, more paragraphs. I can see who you love the most. So, don't lie because that representation is much better. And you've got so many facts wrong when you're narrating something about me." Then one daughter says, "What kind of passage is this? I'm either being scolded or crying. Is that really how you see me?" With family, you can never win. It's only Mr. De who’s loved every bit of the book and he told me, "Had I read it forty years ago, I would have known a very different woman but I'm glad I've read it now." I guess there's a lot of vulnerability in the book that's not been there in the earlier books, and sometimes women take so much effort to contain their vulnerabilities and not put them out there. I think we should. Real women do cry and that's what I pretty much acknowledge in this book.
Has your writing process changed?
Not really. I just write in torrents, it just comes like the Brahmaputra in spate. The words, they explode out of my head and heart. And my imagination is non-stop, I’m writing even when I’m not writing. Even in my sleep, I’m actually writing. Everything is about writing.
And do you still write by hand?
Not anymore. I started bullying my children into keying it in for me till one fine day when they had their final exams, they got a laptop, threw it at me and said, “You’re on your own. We can’t do it any longer.” A lot of the early books are handwritten manuscripts running into 1,00,000 words. I still enjoy writing by hand. I still journal, all of which is handwritten. I hope I never lose that because I find the physical act of writing extremely powerful.
What would Anuradha think of Shobhaa at age 75?
I think Anuradha would giggle and chuckle because Shobhaa Dé is to me, another creature. It’s like a brand name. It’s like an out of body experience, when I think of Shobhaa Dé, because I don’t really connect emotionally to that persona. I have become that persona professionally but within, it’s still Anuradha. At the core of my existence, it will always be bhakri over foie gras. It has always kept me grounded, and thank God for that bhakri I used to eat—and still do, every evening for dinner. It’s a way to reconnect, even briefly, over those five bites with Anuradha and keep her alive.