The hundred-foot journey
Richard C. Morais
First published 2008. Harper Collins Publishers, India
Hassan Haji, the protagonist of the story, makes the titular 100-foot journey in the French village of Lumiere on the Alpine foothills, from his position as the chef in his father's loud and garish Indian restaurant 'Maison Mumbai', across the road to 'The Weeping Willow', a 'haute cuisine' French restaurant, where he is appointed sous-chef by the owner, a curmudgeonly old Frenchwomen named Mallory. This is the crucial journey in the book, and is framed by longer journeys before and after. His father has moved with family from Mumbai, where he had expanded the family's small time food business into a successful gourmet restaurant, unlike one day his wife, Hassan's mother, is murdered in Hindu-Muslim riots. Unable to stand this 'betrayal' by his countrymen, Abbas, the father, moves first to London, and then, after a kind of grand European tour, to Lumiere. This whole series of moves is rather improbable, and it ignores all the practical difficulties that would come in the way of any such undertaking - visas, immigration papers, money, etc. In Lumiere, Abbas, again improbably, establishes immediate rapport with the village folks, though he is looked at suspiciously, and with disgust, by Madam Mallory. The disgust turns first into jealousy, and then into a depressing admiration when she realizes that Hassan has cooking skills far above anything she can aspire to. She undertakes a hunger strike, that the author terms 'Gandhian', in order to persuade Abbas to let Hassan make the 100-foot journey. [The hunger strike is actually not at all Gandhian - it is simply blackmail. Gandhi's hunger strikes were much more profoundly thought out, and never for anything selfish or trivial, never just blackmail.] After a few years at 'The Weeping Willow', Hassan makes the longer journey to Paris, where he sets up a restaurant, that eventually, towards the end of the book, attains great success.
The book is amusing, lighthearted and easy to read, being less than 200 pages long. The inter-racial interactions are sensitively dealt with throughout. Descriptions of Bombay of the 60's and 70's are familiar, if somewhat exaggerated. There is a great deal of descriptions of food, sometime just verging on the tedious, but never actually falling into that mode. Descriptions of the butcher's and the fish-monger's shops, and Crawford Market in Mumbai are sometimes almost scatological. Food, as an art form, is implied as being practiced only in the West, especially in France. Other cuisines, even when they are very good could never rate a Michelin 3-star. Though there is a lot about India and Indian food, the book would, I think, would have worked equally well if the immigrants had been from, say, Algeria, or Vietnam, instead of India. France, however, could not have been substituted.
Morais has a job with the Forbes group of publications that allows him to write on whatever topic he wishes and go anywhere in the world he pleases. Lucky guy! He's used that freedom to write this nice book.