Food As Metaphor
Ranjana Kaul
SPIRITS IN A SPICE JAR by Sarina Kamini Westland, 2018, 332 pp., 499
July 2019, volume 43, No 7

Spirits in a Spice Jar by Sarina Kamini is a book about finding oneself, about reinterpreting faith and recording the poignant, emotive and deeply personal role which food can play in the life of an individual and a family. The autobiographical narrative is interspersed with traditional Kashmiri recipes but these are recipes tempered by the experiences and individuality of the protagonist. This subjective interpretation of a cuisine also marks the protagonist’s journey from rejection and uncertainty towards acceptance and belief.

The very first line of the book establishes the centrality of food as a metaphor and a reality in the life of the author. ‘I can tell you exactly when I stopped eating Indian food. It is the day I look Mum in the eye and can’t see myself inside her.’ The statement is a protest against a fate which has condemned her beloved and stylish mother to a slow descent into Parkinson’s induced disability and made her a liminal presence at a critical juncture in the author’s life, when she is hovering between adolescence and adulthood and just moving into a fledgeling friendship with her parent. It  also signals the shattering of Sarina’s belief that the Hindu pantheon of gods, which her family, the Ganju’s, believe in so fervently, will keep her and her family immune from any disaster. It marks the beginning of a journey by a young woman in her twenties, away from her family and her roots to a detached mental, emotional and even physical space.

In a family where khaana, as opposed to the western dinner, is the umbilical cord connecting the author to her heritage—‘an emotional language with its own vocabulary which only we understood’, Sarina’s rejection of the food of her childhood is her way of registering a protest against parents who she feels have not been able to help her address her grief over her mother’s illness. Her father’s unwavering faith is ‘a searing injury to my open wound’ and so is the fact that cooking has become, for him, a way of asserting his presence and a reaffirmation of his ability to face Parkinson’s.

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