Friday, November 16, 2007

Ishq and Musq

Excuse me?, you'll say? What's she been taking? Can I have some of that?

'Ishq and Mushq' is a book by Priya Basil - gee, she is only just 30! I suspect she has passed through Berlin recently since that's where I was given a very personally signed copy for my birthday. Thanks, guys.

'Ishq and mushq' means 'love and smell', and the heroine of the book (hmmm, heroine??? not totally convinced about that!) is told that these are two things she can't hide. Though the evidence suggests that she hides the first one very well, even from herself, though with the second she is not so successful.

The book is the life story of a woman, Sarna, from India, who marries a Kenyan Indian just after the partition, and as life gets complicated for the Kenyan Indians in that country, they move to the UK. Sarna is a young woman with exquisite tastes both in clothes, picking the most vibrant, flamboyant saris, and has a knowledge of cooking and spices that surpasses everyone's skills.

And yet. And yet. Her downfall begins as she moves into her husband's family, as is the custom, and finds another daughter-in-law already there. Two noses are well out of joint. Her husband goes off to London 'to study' but it seems he also had some extra-curricular activities as she discovers in the bedroom. He is never forgiven for this.

Somehow he manages to make enough money in Kenya or Uganda to buy a house in London, and the whole family moves into the house with two lots of sitting tenants. Sarna does not speak English at first, and since her cooker and spices do not arrive for weeks, they have to eat take-aways - this lays the foundation for bowel problems that plague her for the rest of her life (....mushq....). Nothing much pleases her; her children adapt to British life, including her Sikh son with the little topknot, and life looks like it might go on in a dull kind of rut.

But then her dark, very dark, secret from the past catches up with her, first causing her to take to her bed for weeks, and then she begins to cook her way out of the crisis - with the whole family/neighbourhood being assaulted by food and smells. The family relationships grind along against each other with her getting on with no-one, what with her speciality being blaming others for her own problems. Actually, she's a right bitch, and quite a conniving one, too, but there are people who live in their own universe like that! Let me start the list.....

It's a lovely book, very readable, and very funny, with some lovely turns of phrases. It's not quite the class of Monica Ali's 'Brick Lane', perhaps also because as the reader you don't engage so much with the main character (heaven forbid!) - and it does not quite have the same level of detail, spanning a much longer time period; one can also tell that Priya Basil has not herself experienced most of the historical period she writes about. The story of the dark secret is eventually rather skipped over - the situation could have been dramatised much more. But it's a fun read and quite unputdownable.