Irreverent, breezy, and blessedly free of the common affliction of taking oneself too seriously, Shobhaa Dé’s Insatiable: My Hunger for Life is a memoir chronicling the year leading to her 75th birthday. Early in the book, Dé promises not to be three things – “profound, pedantic, and pretentious”, choosing instead, to be authentic, chatty, and chatpata.

In the course of the twelve months she plots on the plastic desktop calendar she claims to never travel without, and in the pages of her book, she brings together a very blended family, friends in very diverse places, the pursuit of writing, rituals and rhythms of both literary and religious/cultural fests and ties them all together with food. She is neither pedantic not pretentious, but I might be tempted to ask for my money back because despite her promise to the contrary, there is a wisdom and the threat of the profound that she brings to her understanding of relationships, human behaviour and even class dynamics.

Slyly subversive

Dé’s narrative opens against the backdrop of the pandemic and the long shadow it has cast, having changed many aspects of social behaviour forever. Trying to organise a party in the January of 2022, when the virus was still undismissable across echelons of privilege (not quite levelling the field but coming close), she writes of the isolation, the alienation, the sensory greed, the hunger to touch real people and hear real voices and smell real smells, even when they were only the toxic smells of an always-busy city.

Her reflections on mortality, her everyday fears and vanities, have been our own. We have all mourned our losses and worried for the future, even as we made mental shifts and plodded on with the banality of existence, while the pandemic raged and continued to change our social realities. It is therefore no surprise that a book that started in 2022, at a time when the world was desperately, almost defiantly, trying to get back to some form of normalcy, becomes one about connecting with people, celebrating the little things, and finding her Anuradha, her alternate self, the embodiment of an intangible, ineffable perfection.

Like her columns, Insatiable is written in classic tongue-in-cheek style, conversational in tone, rich in anecdotes, and slyly subversive. Confronting the question of why she brings politics into everything, Dé schools the reader:

“Because, you dummies, politics is everything! There is no such thing as being apolitical. Every act of ours, personal and professional, is deeply political – where we live, who we marry, what we eat or don’t eat, what we drink or don’t drink, what we wear, whom we make friends with, whom we shun, where we worship.... what we hold sacred.”

In a country where “the political has become personal” and relationships have ruptured because of differences in political ideology, it is only the privilege of the excessively insulated to lay claim to the apathy of being apolitical. That her political opinions, freely expressed in her columns and on social media have landed her in the middle of controversies way too many times, is not news to anyone. However, her absolute fearlessness in the face of what is quickly tuning into severe censorship often followed by punitive measures is admirable. The jokes are sharp, as is her ability to lay bare what hides in plain sight – prejudice, communal divide and dangerous, uncritical, hero-worship.

Luxe and class intersections

Dé’s world is obviously a well-heeled, well-travelled, plumply cushioned one. There is much luxe in her everyday; exotic destinations, lunches and dinners with writers and journalists and artists and one rather charming Nobel winner, but there is also some very interesting social commentary on the intersections of class. She refers to her maalishwali and her hairdresser, clearly from a class identity miles removed from her own, as her friends, and there is neither pretention nor patronising there.

Her conversations are as real as the awareness that the great Indian household would cease to function in the absence of house staff, as was made obvious during the early days of the pandemic-induced lockdown in India. “We used to call them maids or ayahs in politically insensitive times,” she writes, and insists that nothing has changed other than the terminology.

There is no legal protection, and no benefits in the domestic work sector. “We expect them to participate and rejoice with us. Mourn and grieve with us. Feel for us. But we will not have them sit at the table with us. We are prepared to share a lot with hired help – but not our meals.” There is admirable honesty in Dé’s detailing of class dynamics and a scathing criticism of the upwardly mobile who remain blissfully unaware of the lives of their “servies”, converting what is clearly a pejorative into a faux endearment.

Unapologetically strong opinions

The author’s personal experiences as a young woman negotiating hostile personal, professional, and social spaces, translate into some very specific advice for women. Women must be financially independent, she insists, outlining three goals – a home of her own, a bank account in her name, and a credit card that is not shared. Confronting the woman writer’s guilt, the terrible choice women are often forced into making between creative/professional work and domestic/nurturing responsibilities, Dé signals the dangers of martyrdom, and worse, of self-effacement, when she writes of her own compulsive need to underplay her writing, despite it being the most significant part of her identity.

Added to this is the public perception of the “socialite” writer as performing only some sort of “pastime”. Historically, similar concerns have plagued women writers across cultural, linguistic, and temporal contexts. It is to the author’s credit that she flags it, acknowledges it, and calls for a change.

All of the above, however, are only a sort of reading between the lines and not a definitive description of a book that sparkles with joie de vivre and voices unapologetically strong opinions, and, sometimes, is deliciously snarky. Over and above her politics, and her carefully sprinkled life lessons, Dé treats this book as a grand feast of life.

She pursues her “Ichigo Ichie” – the Japanese, mindful version of seizing the day and its unique pleasures – in connecting with her friends and her “brood”, in poking gentle, consistent fun at the parochial pride of her Bengali husband, in childhood memories of seasonal boxes of mangoes, in food cooked for special occasions and shared with loved ones, in adventures and misadventures in new places, in breaking rules, in saying impossibly politically incorrect things, and in never settling for anything less than authenticity. Insatiable seems perfectly appropriate as a birthday gift/memoir from a woman whose hunger for life remains insatiable.

Insatiable: My Hunger for Life

Insatiable: My Hunger for Life, Shobhaa Dé, HarperCollins India.