Greetings from Chennai, formerly Madras, where today’s author was partly raised. My friend and I have been here for a few days and are heading out tomorrow. It’s safe to say that the highlight of my stop in Chennai happened last night. My friends and I had a chance to take a private South Indian cooking class in a lovely Brahmin woman’s home, so we got to learn a little more about Tamil culture on a personal level. It was amazing: great food, great spices, great coffee — OMG for real, the coffee — and great conversation! To be honest, it’s been one of the highlights of my entire stay in India! I didn’t want the night to end.
I came to know Padma Lakshmi the way a lot of people did. Lakshmi started her career as a model, has some acting and cookbook credits under her belt, and was once married to Salman Rushdie, but most people probably recognize her as the host of Top Chef on Bravo. Back then, I sometimes wondered about her connection to food, something that she admits to having second-guessed herself about as well. Any doubts about her “food cred” are put to rest in this memoir.
Lakshmi’s mother comes from a conservative Tamil culture, but after failed relationships, including the one with Padma’s father, she moved to New York to start over. Padma was left in India in the care of her grandparents, and once her mother had a stable income, Padma immigrated to the United States as well. She writes of all the new foods she was exposed to, including some interesting concoctions she and her mother came up with since they were Brahmin vegetarians in an area that was decidedly less vegetarian friendly back then.
Greetings from Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta! I’m actually not staying here long at all because my travel plans changed recently; I’m just here on a short layover, and I’ll probably be gone by the time you see this post. I read this book in advance of my trip, though. As you’ll see, this Saroo Brierley’s Calcutta story is so mind-boggling and extraordinary that it’s hard to believe it’s all real!
When he was five years old, Saroo Brierley snuck out with his brother to tag along while his brother cleaned the local rural train station. His brother told him to stay put and wait for him to return, and Saroo fell asleep on a bench. It was night when he awoke, and here was no sign of his brother. Scared and disoriented, Saroo got on a train and fell asleep. When he woke up again, he got off the train, and not recognizing anything, jumped on the next train thinking it would take him back home.
Instead, he arrived in Calcutta and became one of the thousands of children who live on the street. He cried for help, but he didn’t know his full name or the name of his village, so there was little anyone could do to help him. He was more fortunate than most to be taken into an orphanage, and even more fortunate still to be adopted by a loving Australian couple. Still, his past and the questions about what happened to his family haunted him, and with the advent of technology, he got the idea to scour Google Earth to look for landmarks he remembered to track down his village.
Greetings from Darjeeling, India! In a perfect world, there would be no clouds and I’d be able to see four peaks, including Mount Everest, from an observation point a couple of hours away. Unfortunately, I’m high up in the mountains during monsoon season and there are clouds everywhere — a few times a day, I’m even walking right through them. Oh, well…I still can’t complain! I get to drink locally grown Darjeeling tea whenever I want.
In spring of 1996, Jon Krakauer joined Rob Hall’s Adventure Consultants, one of the commercial outfitters taking amateur climbers up to Mount Everest. Krakauer is a skilled climber who had always dreamed of climbing Everest, and he wanted to write a feature on commercial expeditions to Everest for Outside magazine. Such companies were still a relatively new and controversial concept at the time. But for those companies trying to entice new customers to pay upwards of $65,000 for the experience, getting featured in Outside was a publicity boon.
Rob Hall was a respected climber with an excellent track record of getting people up and down Everest safely; even other teams looked up to him. That year, after seeing the financial possibilities, many new commercial outfitters set up shop on Everest. Many of those groups tried to summit Everest on May 10, 1996 when the weather window looked best, and Hall’s team was no exception. After a brutal storm, the weather cleared and Hall’s team, Krakauer included, set out to summit Everest under ideal conditions. Many of them made it to the summit, Krakauer included, but a surprise storm rushed in when most of the oxygen-deprived climbers were making their way back down. Several people on the team, including Hall, perished. So did sherpas, guides, and climbers from other expeditions. It was the deadliest event on Everest to date.
In 1994, Jhumpa Lahiri was a college student in Boston studying Renaissance architecture. She and her sister decided to treat themselves to a trip to Florence, Italy during Christmas break. She writes of the experience:
What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instantaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction. It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the same time, completely external. It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is. It seems, strangely, familiar. I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.
That feeling never left, and throughout the following years, she tried her best to become fluent in Italian. As anyone who has tried to achieve fluency knows, that’s almost impossible without full immersion — and even then, achieving true fluency in another language gets more difficult as one gets older. So in 2012, Lahiri took a yearlong leave from her teaching duties in the United States and moved to Rome with her family, determined to finally become fluent. She read books in Italian at a painstakingly slow pace, stopping constantly to look words up in the dictionary, and in her journal, she jotted down her thoughts in Italian as well.
In past blog posts, I’ve mentioned that I hate books written in epistolary format. And in each of those posts, I admitted that I enjoyed the epistolary-formatted book in question. I guess it’s time to grudgingly concede that, no, I probably don’t hate epistolary novels (but yes, I still do hate Dear Mr. Henshaw).
For her writing debut, actress Mary-Louise Parker — probably best known for her starring role as Nancy Botwin in Weeds — has released a memoir that’s presented as a series of letters to different men in her life. Her fierce love for her father is a big theme throughout the book, but she acknowledges men both real and symbolic who have nonetheless shaped the person she is. She doesn’t usually name names — the letters are addressed to people such as “Movement Teacher,” “Lifeline,” and “Future Man Who Loves My Daughter” — but whether she’s writing about specific or hypothetical interactions, a startling amount of her own history is revealed.