A copy of this book arrived at the start of the pandemic and the book has just been released by the publisher. It turned out to be the perfect pandemic read, lifting one’s spirits when they needed lifting, making you smile and also making some deeper revelations in charming ways. I took my time through its pages, and by the end of it, the book and its characters had left a sense of comfort and familiarity, one could hazard to say, somewhat like Enid Blyton did for us when we were children.
Those Delicious Letters, by Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta aka The Bong Mom, is the kind of book that is funny, carefree, enthralling and not preachy, and does not carry a political message (thank god for that), and where Shubha, the main protagonist, is everywoman or everyman in her anxieties, hopes and beliefs. It is a book that one might want to go back to now and then, not only for the recipes if you are a culinary enthusiast but more so for reliving those moments with Shubha and her family, and for the best parts of its feel-good.
Recipes in the mail
For a Bengali person living in north Kolkata and eating Bengali food on most days, this book started out with a sense of déjà vu. Bengali recipes and another Bengali re-telling of Bengali nostalgia – don’t we already have enough and more of that?
Yet, as the story of Shubha, Sameer and their daughters moves forward, and that of the unknown old lady Didan in the mysterious letters that Shubha starts to receive, it takes you out and beyond its envelope of Bengali nostalgia and becomes a more universal tale of marriage, inter-generational love, and of life coming a full circle. And within that tale of self-discovery and home-coming is the utterly comforting presence of food, food that is not just about the delectable delicacies, but really the feel of bygone times and of childhoods now lost, and of mothers and grandmothers who have cared for us.
The author is clearly in her element when she writes about food, its sourcing and provenance, and the rites and rituals that evolved around its preparing and consumption. All of it woven with the story of Shubha and Didan, who tells Shubha her own story in her letters, punched with her own best recipes. Food here is about courtship, how children remember their mothers and grandmothers, the changing seasons and how people rediscover themselves and find a new calling in their lives, all of it through their memories and love of food.
A mysterious old woman
Parts of the book are like a fantasy – Shubha making her trip from where she lives in the United States back to present day Kolkata to find out if Didan really exists, her efforts to trace the old lady in the bylanes of the city, even as she trying to manage her new found media presence thanks to the book she is now writing from Didan’s story (as written in the letters) and the recipes sent to her by the old lady. We are left desperately guessing who Didan might be, and if it is all going to turn out to be a wild goose chase for Shubha.
Yet, somewhere early on in the book, it is also hinted quite clearly that Didan’s appearance is no accident, and that her sudden emergence in Shubha’s life and at a time when Shubha is going through a classic early midlife (in her forties) crisis is for some purpose. And that purpose turns out to be nothing less comforting than the reassurance of love itself!
One or two minor things challenge logic, such as why Sameer’s cousin in Kolkata had to write him a letter, which he then tore up, when she could have very easily called him, as she clearly did on another occasion. However these are insignificant complaints about a tale that is like a fantasy – and fantasies are allowed to break everyday logic. Actually, Those Delicious Letters and Shubha’s tale of self-discovery are like a fantasy of the everyday.
The book with its utterly identifiable characters, and their ups and downs, with the mysterious old lady and her own old-world love-story in the background, could in fact make for a good film. It certainly does have the ingredients of one.
And here’s hoping readers pick up the book without pigeon-holing it as a Bengali thing, because it is really much more than that. In the present Indian literary scene where some of the most hyped fiction writing seems to be more of political and social commentary, this book is like a light breath of air, with its tugging at your heart, and its basic idea of telling a good story. That’s something we seem to be missing out somewhat these days, and this book does its task of storytelling only too well.
Those Delicious Letters, Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta aka The Bong Mom, HarperCollins India.
Sharmistha Gooptu is a historian and fiction writer.