‘Not Another Brown Nostalgia Tale: A Review of Naben Ruthnum’s “Curry: Eating, Reading and Race”’, by Sonia Nair

Whichever corner of the world you find yourself in, there is nothing as immediately synonymous with South Asian cultural identity as curry. Restaurants specialising in food hailing from the subcontinent more often than not have the word ‘curry’ in their titles – Curry Café, Punjabi Curry Café and Curry Vault are a few I can recall just off the top of my head. McCormick’s Keen’s Traditional Curry Powder is a proud pantry staple for Australians wishing to recreate the heady flavours of a curry in the safe confines of their home. On the other end of the spectrum, the derogatory term ‘curry muncher’ and accusations that they ‘smell like curry’ are levelled to exclude and demonise people of South Asian origin.

But despite it being the catchall for South Asians, curry doesn’t exist. Or at least it didn’t exist in its current permutation until machinations of international trade and centuries of colonial rule made it so. As Sucharita Kanjilal writes in Quartz India, the homogenised term ‘curry’ is a figment of the British colonial imagination that reinforces imperialist power structures every time it is used in an Indian context:

The continued use of a colonial term to categorise a complex nation is both reductive and factually flawed. It takes a country, obscures it and creates an imagined community on the coloniser’s own terms.

In his razor-sharp, searing book Curry: Eating, Reading and Race, Canadian writer Naben Ruthnum similarly argues that a singular South Asian literary narrative doesn’t exist. Despite common themes of connection, nostalgia and homecoming pervading many diasporic narratives for a reason – they are truths that constitute the lived experience of many a South Asian migrant – neverending stereotypical encounters with just one story means they become the only story, and one static narrative can’t possibly begin to capture the multiplicities inherent in the fifteen-million strong South Asian diaspora.

Ruthnum coins the term ‘currybooks’ to describe an explosion of literary works where salvation for the displaced South Asian person in the West is only possible amid the banyan trees, clutched mangoes and tangled red silk saris of the subcontinent. His loose definition for this genre is “nostalgic, authenticity-seeking reconciliation-of-present-with-past family narratives”.

“And if you’re a brown writer, it will be presumed to be your default genre, and you’d best recognise that”, writes Ruthnum on the strictures the publishing industry places on South Asian writers. Ruthnum is well aware of these limitations, publishing thrillers under the pseudonym Nathan Ripley to allow himself to “come to people’s desks under a different identity that’s not associated with his racial background”.

Stock standard meditations on the overlap between personal and familial identity find as much of an adoring audience in white readers who crave the exoticism of a faraway, mysterious land as they do in brown readers who seek a salve to their feelings of alienation – tales of a heritage rediscovered, secrets unearthed and the mystical properties of spices are a dime a dozen in a genre that counts Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Shilpi Somaya Gowda and Monica Pradhan as some of its most well-known authors.

Ruthnum kicks off his book with a mawkish ode to the country of his parents’ birth, Mauritius, which he visited for the first time at the age of nine. He recounts the oppressive heat, the unanticipated Hindu funeral of his grandmother and curry “that left a sting that lasted”. We expect this lilting reverie to continue as it charts the minutiae of the immigrant’s homecoming experience, and its subsequent revelatory qualities, but Ruthnum proceeds to pull the rug out from under us – challenging the common tropes we’ve come to expect from the classic diasporic South Asian novel:

There’s no comfort or Truth to be found in my story of ‘going home’: only a series of incidents that revealed how isolated from the country of my family’s origin, how Westernised, I was at the time and, in many ways, still am.

In a way, this book is very much for South Asians like me – that is, South Asians who have no tangible connection to the “core that we scattered from” but who, by virtue of inherited brown skin, belong to one of largest diasporas in the world. Our family history could not be more different, but like Ruthnum – whose antecedents’ migration path landed them in labour and administrative roles in Mauritius – my cultural identity can only be considered in light of the journey that propelled my grandparents, alongside hordes of other South Indian migrants lured by contract labour arrangements in rubber plantations and the promise of better life, to the British-colonised Malaya.

Curry: Eating, Reading and Race is divided into the three sections that make up its title. In ‘Eating’, Ruthnum traces the historical and contemporary truths that shape the elusive, evolving identity of curry, informed as it is by the centuries of continual adaption and spirit of reinvention. But the very idea of curry has a vastly different meaning for multiple hyphenated first- and second-gens like myself and Ruthnum if compared to a native-born Indian such as Kanjilal.

“Walk into a grocery store in India and you find that the singular curry powder does not exist, neither as material nor idea. In India, we use endless varieties of spice mixes instead”, Kanjilal writes in her excoriating takedown of the concept of curry.

And yet, commercial masala mixes such as Baba’s Curry Powder and Alagappa’s Curry Powder are staples in many Malaysian-Indian households (though they are a few steps up from Keen’s). The comforting green-clad packets of Baba’s Meat Curry Powder filled my suitcase to the brim when I relocated from Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne. They’re not ‘one-size-fits-all’ curry powders – variations range from meat and fish ones to sambar and rasam mixes – but they are still broad stand-ins for the thousands of different regional varieties of spice concoctions that constitute dishes in India. Ruthnum concedes as much in ‘Eating’ when he observes that every diasporic kitchen that he’s ever entered has curry powder.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, food is one of the few ways I feel unabashedly Indian. But if the elusive colonial construct of curry is one of the defining elements of the way I perceive myself as being Indian, how Indian am I really? Even my tolerance to spice, which I pride myself on, has roots that lie outside India – Ruthnum notes that chillies were transported from the Caribbean by Portuguese traders. They’re not native to India. And neither am I.

In ‘Reading’, Ruthnum highlights outliers to currybooks – Romesh Gunsekera’s Reef, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children, Anita Desai’s In Custody and Gita Mehta’s Karma Cole, to name a few – but they’re all written by authors belonging to South Asian diasporas in the UK and the US.

Closer to home, an advent of writing produced in Australia by writers of South Asian descent, as far as Ruthnum’s definition of currybooks go, are far removed from the nostalgic, reductive and clichéd narratives that Ruthnum derides. Sri Lankan-Australian writer Michelle de Kretser’s award-winning books interrogate questions of identity and dislocation, while Goan-Anglo-Indian writer Michelle Cahill’s recent short story collection Letter to Pessoa transports readers from one disparate milieu to another. Singaporean-Australian writer Balli Jaswal’s latest work Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows delves into the womanhood and sexuality of older Sikh women in a creative writing class.

But this wasn’t always the case. As Nicholas Jose writes on The Wheeler Centre blog, “imaginative engagement with the Asia Pacific region, despite its proximity, has been limited in Australia’s literary past”:

The cultural cringe was about Europe, and that’s where literary ambition and creative energy were directed. When Asia was a subject, it was usually to mark distance and difference…Even in sensitive and well-intentioned hands, otherness has been the predominant trope.

The romanticised place the homeland occupies in diasporic narratives owes itself, in part, to the physical and psychological distance that used to lie between the country of birth and the adopted country of choice. Before video calls and social media, as well as cheaper and quicker flight paths closed the gap between disparate locations, New Delhi-based poet and professor Makarand Paranjape says the “motherland remained frozen in the diasporic imagination as a sort of sacred site or symbol, almost like an idol of memory and imagination…Because a physical return was virtually impossible, an emotional or spiritual renewal was an ongoing necessity.”

Second-generation Indian-Australian writer Mena Abdullah was born in a time before Skype and Facebook bridged the distance between Australia and her parents’ homeland, but her collection of short stories The Time of the Peacock (1965) challenges straightforward understandings of what it meant to belong to an Indian diaspora during this time. A child narrator called Nimmi lies at the centre of all the stories – through her eyes, we bear witness to the fondness and longing with which her parents regard India. In one of the stories, however, Nimmi watches on as her Australian-born cousin Hussainbreaks rank with his Muslim father due to his desire to marry a Christian girl called Anne. Here, the alienation of being a migrant in a foreign country isn’t as acute as age-old cultural conflicts that have been transposed from India to Australia.

More recently, Roanna Gonsalves writes about the discombobulating experience of belonging to the Catholic Indian diaspora in Sydney in her short story collection The Permanent Resident (2016). Although Gonsalves’ characters, as Yen-Rong Wong observes in her review in The Lifted Brow Review of Books, share the common sensation of “looking, and sounding foreign in a country they are not sure wants them in the first place”, their homecoming process is inverted as they migrate from India to Australia in search of that elusive sense of peace and belonging. For many of Gonsalves’ characters, being Catholic Bombayites is an inextricable part of their identity – such as in the chilling ‘Christmas 2012’ where the Albuquerques enjoy spicy turkey and the revealing ‘In the Beginning Was the Word’ where Angelina D’Costa steps foot in a church five years after renouncing Catholicism – but for others, it is simply an aside. Sunita in ‘Straight, No Chaser’ is a divorcee simply seeking absolution in a nightclub; Nitin and Nalini in ‘Friending and Trending’ suffer a loss they’ll only grasp the significance of later. Each of these characters left India for different reasons, and while not all of them encounter happy endings in Sydney, their salve is never “the ancestral tonic of a voyage east”.

Although Sri Lankan-Australian writer Su Dharmapala’s second novel Saree (2014) may dip in and out of the currybook genre, her first novel Wedding Season (2012) is anything but. Revolving around four city-dwelling Australian girls where three of them are of Sri Lankan heritage, the story chronicles their travails as they negotiate racism and sexism in the workplace, mental illness, and the weight of cultural expectations. There are sarees, curries and attempted arranged marriages, but the motherland is only evoked once and never spoken about with the spirit of rediscovery or homecoming so characteristic of currybooks – it is simply another place the girls visit in the novel. By allowing her characters to transcend the stereotype that they are lacking in some way because of their juggling of two identities at once, Dharmapala adroitly captures the experience of being a migrant, but one that is highly particular to the vagaries of the Sri Lankan-Australian experience.

None of these narratives concern themselves with the pursuit of authenticity under an orientalist, western gaze – instead, to borrow Ruthnum’s words, these multifaceted narratives are “differentiated immigrant existences, ways of being and tasting that aren’t about pursuing the lost, truthful flavours of generations past”.

The pervasiveness of the term ‘curry’ is something that we can control no more than we can control the immutable forces of transnational movement and colonisation that gave birth to the expression in the first place. But the homogeneity that erases nuance in favour of uniformity doesn’t have to be reflected in our ‘currybooks’ if we take a leaf out of Ruthnum’s book and see curry for what it actually is – “an ever-inauthentic mass of dishes that is a close parallel to the formation of South Asian diasporic identity”.

In Curry: Eating, Reading and Race, Ruthnum has written a currybook – the word ‘curry’ certainly appears more times than one could count – but it’s one where he explores what it means to be a brown person on his own terms. It’s not a brown nostalgia tale. There are no mangoes. There are no scattered cardamom seeds. There are curries, but they include the incongruous ingredients of kale and sour cream, and Ruthnum cooks them not to reimagine his childhood and practise age-old Indian cooking techniques, but to feed himself.

By defying what ingredients he’s expected to put into his curries, what he’s expected to read and what he should write about, Ruthnum issues to other brown writers a call to arms to break out of the box that the west insists on putting them in:

The realities of racism and the white majority dominance of life in the west defines how brown people are seen, how they must act, and what they are allowed to achieve – but this doesn’t need to limit our imagination of ourselves, or lessen the distinctness and individual nature of experience, especially as expressed in art, in memoir. As brown people in the west, out stories don’t have to explain ourselves to white people, or to each other – they don’t have to explain shit.

Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based writer and critic who has been published by The Wheeler Centre, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings and Metro. She blogs about how she never follows her food intolerances at www.whateverfloatsyourbloat.com and tweets @son_nair.