Monday, 16 September 2013

The hundred-foot journey. By Richard C. Morais

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.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Wuthering Heights. By Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte

PDF e-book on Kindle. First published 1847.

This is a psychological study of how one man, 'to whom evil is done, does evil in return' (to quote W.H. Auden). The elderly Earnshaw lives in 'Wuthering Heights' with his son Hindley and daughter Catherine. Returning from a business trip, he brings home the orphan Heathcliff, who is badly treated by Hindley, though befriended by Catherine, when their father/guardian dies. In an earnest, though misguided attempt to attain a position where she could free Heathcliff from Hindley's authority, Catherine marries her neighbour Edward Linton of Thrushcross Grange. Outraged by his love becoming someone else's wife, Heathcliff disappears. He reappears after some years a rich man, marries Isabella, sister of Edward Linton, takes her to Wuthering Heights, where he first takes residency as a guest. He slowly gains ascendancy over Hindley, whose gambling habits drive him to yielding all his wealth to his hated, adopted brother. He has in the meanwhile married and has had a son, called Hareton Earnshaw after his father. He looses his wife to tuberculosis. Catherine, meanwhile has grown tired of Edward, though she has a daughter by him, also called Catherine. She supports Heathcliff when her husband and her friend confront each other. In the meantime Heathcliff has a son by Isabella, who runs away from him and raises her son, Linton, as a physically and psychologically weak boy. Now come a series of deaths, first Hindley, then Isabella, thus giving Heathcliff complete control of his son and the estate at Wuthering Heights. Unable to stand separation from her childhood friend and lover, Catherine dies. Heathcliff uses his great physically strength, his harsh temper and the financial powers he has acquired to make life miserable for the widower Edward, as well for Hareton, and to some extent for Linton his son. To further gratify his thirst for revenge, and his desire to gain control of the estate of the Grange as well, he maneuvers and gets the young Catherine to fall in love with, and marry his son Linton. He makes the two lead a miserable life at the Heights. Edward dies, and then Linton. Though he has now completely attained his crooked ambitions, Heathcliff dies a miserable death, tortured by the memory of his love Catherine, and the consciousness of his failure to attain her. The young widow Catherine now marries Hareton, who, despite the best efforts of Heathcliff to make him a brute, turns out well under her influence.

The entire action takes place in the two estates, which are about 5 miles apart. The setting of Wuthering Heights, especially as described in winter time, is a kind of 'House of Usher' (as described by Edgar Allen Poe), a gloomy complement to the personality of Heathcliff. There is very little description of any place outside these, bare references to a nearby village of Gimmerton, and some mention of the far-off town, which is where Heathcliff was found, and where he later made his fortune. There is however no description at all of the circumstances under which he was found. Why did the elderly Earnshaw adopt him? Was he his illegitimate son? There is not a even a hint to explain this background. Heathcliff, though, is always the 'other', a tough, unhappy, ill-tempered, physically powerful, uncultured man. He is presented however as essentially honest, and the others around him are presented as cultured, but dishonest, and weak, psychologically and physically. 

The book has powerful characterizations, but is somewhat limited in its scope and imagination. It is essentially a study of the ruin of two landed families for a quarter of a century due to the thoughtlessness, it is implied, of a sentimental old man who brought home a devil.