In 12 short stories, with a hors d'oeuvres piece, Sharma brings alive characters and recipes. There is the unforgettable grandmother Dida, who "liked to circle the table" as her family ate, dropping delicious loochis and mishti onto their plates. "She always stood a little away, taking care not to touch the table" because it reeked of all the things she hated—red meat, curries lashed with onions and garlic and where her sons entertained strange non-Brahmins. There is the intimidating Buaji, who had a daily conference with the kitchen staff that could teach a thing or two to an army general. She doled out rations based on gender, class and caste. Children and servants were given half, women a little more but it was the men who got generous amounts of everything. Bala (famed for her spinach pakoras) was the poor relative tossed from one household to another, forever cooking, living on charity but always cheerful and helpful.
In this strange world of spices, ingredients, ritual and rules, it is not uncommon to find that food assumes a human character while human faces are reduced to lifeless
objects. Aubergines acquire a malevolence that induces dyspepsia and flatulence, the discarded wife who makes bharta for her sullen husband is a pale figure beside the plump, glossy, purple aubergines she cooks. In this topsy-turvy world, dead men are fed vicariously while living widows are forced to starve. In "Constant Craving", a widow dreams of choley and crushed samosas.
Written with the characteristic detachment of a good story-teller, the book is nevertheless a ruthless indictment of the cruelty perpetrated on Hindu widows. Set in contrast to it is "Food to Die For" where Sharma describes the frenetic preparations that her grandmother made to celebrate her dead husband's shraddh (death anniversary). The family has to hunt collectively for the priest who could eat the most. Watching him polish off a vast mountain of food, the grandmother "wept tears of joy", confident that her dead husband had imbibed this feast of love by a complicated transfer.
The dessert served by Sharma ("Sweet Nothings") is a modern tale of love and betrayal. There is Reshma, whose husband Ajay has a mistress also called Reshma. So that when he called out the name in passion, the wife tortured herself by wondering which one he was addressing. Reshma has a weight problem and is forever on a diet, something Amah her maid and Raha the cook cannot understand. As she does aerobic exercises in her bedroom, Amah and Raha cower in the kitchen downstairs afraid the house is going to fall on their heads. Finally, when Ajay decides to go off on a secret holiday with the mistress, Reshma decides to go on a binge to soothe her bruised ego—stuffed parathas, dal makhni, kheer, halwa, mountains of burfi, laddoo, cashews, almonds and rasmalai. Liberated at last from the tyranny of self-control we see her in the end, dancing like one demented amid the bursting firecrackers, stuffing laddoos into the mouth of the bewildered Amah.
More than the recipes and the stories that Sharma has written, it is the eternal story of this country's complicated but abiding love for food that she celebrates in this book. Kali has once again published a winner.