Nandita Godbole marries fact and fiction in Ten Thousand Tongues, a food book influenced by memoirs

Editor's note: Writer's Room is a new books column, curated by Krupa Ge along with 15 writers across India. The column seeks to introduce new works as well as allow a peek into the writer's studio, accompanied by recordings of book readings.

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Nandita Godbole grew up in India, in Mumbai, and during her undergraduate and postgraduate years, friends would often find her with her “nose buried in Botany books, sketching or painting, or writing poetry". Food and food-related businesses were part of her family for most of her childhood. “I spent a good chunk of the year on our mango and coconut farm, which kept me connected with nature and I got to experience the nascent version of the ‘farm-to-table’ phenomenon even before it became fashionable,” she says.

Nandita used to host secret suppers in Atlanta for many years, and her guests would ask her why there weren’t books that included recipes for foods that were “traditional Indian celebratory or festive meals". Her guests asked her to write one. However, it wasn’t all that easy for Nandita. “Traditional book agents did not see potential in an Indian cookbook by a homemaker, so they passed it on. I decided to dive into crowdfunding, and ended up publishing my first book as an independent author,” she explains.

Does indie publishing make most sense in the food writing domain? “Yes, and no. Cookbooks, like other genres, thrive on the interest of niche audiences. Most traditional publishers look for potential sales to commit to a book project, because their investment is multi-tiered and includes a complicated network of many people. Many traditional publishing houses have a larger footprint to sustain, and therefore may not have the ability to nurture lesser known voices. Imagine a pyramid, with the author at the very top, probably the smallest piece of the pyramid and everyone else below. He or she essentially represents the least important piece of that pyramid. The publisher’s strategy affects cookbooks and food writing the most. Not everyone is a celebrity chef. Non-celebrities seldom land a traditional book contract, unless they have a large business or social media following, or have an influencer status. The audiences for regional cuisines are even smaller, only compounding the problem,” she explains.

 Nandita Godbole marries fact and fiction in Ten Thousand Tongues, a food book influenced by memoirs

I resonate more with those who share stories greater than the food itself, says Nandita Godbole

Nandita presented her first book A Dozen Ways to Celebrate at a food writing panel in New York alongside Chef Vikas Khanna, Chef Suvir Saran and Chef Saransh Goila – all celebrity chefs with unique profiles. She was stunned when Vikas Khanna said that five of his first books were self-published, and that it took his current publisher several years to evaluate his success before they ‘offered’ him a book deal. Nandita also talks about the thing a lot writers don’t openly acknowledge when she says, “As glamorous as it sounds, authors may be at the top of the pyramid – but they are also the least paid people in the entire pyramid of publishing, if one accounts for the many hours they spend writing, testing recipes, and later marketing it. Multiply this effort a few times for indie authors and one will understand that they settle for the satisfaction of doing something they love. I personally wish that traditional publishing houses would consider showcasing diverse and unique voices with remarkable stories via limited-edition print runs, so that all these stories are shared farther out into the world, and we are all culturally richer for it.”

But what is DIY publishing like? “DIY publishing is like taking on any other challenge, except adding on a heavy layer of thrilling and exciting moments, as well as disappointments and the feeling of being alone,” she says. Writing is in itself a lonely affair, and self-publishing can be further daunting. “The learning curve is really sharp and one must have a faithful set of people who support the process whole-heartedly, redlines, deadlines and all. DIY publishing experiences vary, most definitely by gender, age, family dynamics (single vs married, number of children, household income), the moral support, geographic region, genre of work, as well as the strength of ones’ peer/professional network. I find most of the process extremely enjoyable. There is an indescribable joy in connecting with people who believe in supporting entrepreneurship and enterprise, it allows me complete creative freedom and control.”

In today’s publishing world, authors are expected to also double up as a book’s marketing agent, promoting their own selves and their work across social media and elsewhere. “Marketing is a top ‘pet-peeve’ of any author, traditionally published or not, so this is not exclusive to DIY publishing, but indie authors experience their own challenges. Much like a small family-run business, every penny and paisa must be accounted for without cutting corners. The margins are very tight on indie books, so it is impossible to offer discounts or free books that many people (readers, family members, reviewers) assume a DIY published author has available to give away. This practice is perpetuated under the review-copy culture that traditional publishers offer to bloggers and reviewers. Those who do not know the dedicated amount of work that goes into DIY publishing often discount it as being unprofessional. Any indie author who has given away hundreds of free books to reviewers and influencers will attest that most reviewers don’t feel obligated to even read indie books, and another free book will not change that. Today, social media presence plays a large role in public perception. Unlike traditionally published authors, many indie authors are secretly more comfortable with readers who truly love and appreciate their work, over a large following of people merely looking for free content.”

In her book Ten Thousand Tongues (2018), fact and fiction meet. “It is a biographical fiction work based on five generations of women of my family, who have bequeathed me a very complex, rich and diverse culinary heritage. Seven of these eight women shaped the comfort foods in our home, lived rather simple and unglamorous lives – but in doing so, they paved the way for the next generation of young women and men and gave them the comfort and security of home, to rise above their social circumstances. The protagonist, Ana, is of this generation, based on my own life experiences. Her story describes the culturally nuanced journey of being a child, a daughter, a wife, a mother and then an author, of being an immigrant in a foreign land. In a world only too eager to keep a woman subservient, Ana struggles to make room for herself, and hopes to pave the way for the success of her own child.”

ten-thousand-tongues-cover

The protagonist of Ten Thousand Tongues, Ana, is based on Nandita's own life experiences

Now, Nandita has another book out. “Many readers had asked me for a book on Indian rotis and naans. When I looked through classic Indian cookbooks, I spotted only small sections with perhaps four to eight recipes. Many young adults of Indian origin can rattle off the names of 30 different kinds of pastas and their complimentary sauces, but can’t identify more than five kinds of breads of Indian origin – much beyond rotis, parathas or naans. Even if I were to count the basic kinds, there were at least a few dozen. So, I wrote my most recent book, Roti: 40 Classic Indian Breads & Sides (2019).”

About her food writing inspirations, Nandita says, “I resonate more with those who share stories greater than the food itself. They take readers on an unforgettable journey, are not egocentric but respectfully inclusive and educate us along the way. Such writers share context, relationships, and discuss seasonality and spirituality – as it relates to the existence of even a single grain or morsel on a plate. Seasoned writers like Madhur Jaffrey, Neelam Batra offer classic insight, whereas Suvir Saran’s ever entertaining and informative social media feeds get me excited about our wonderful Indian cuisine. When preparing for Ten Thousand Tongues, I read many food memoirs and food essays on current issues and continue to find joy in new emerging voices that offer refreshing perspectives.”

An excerpt from Ten Thousand Tongues: Secrets of a layered kitchen

Chapter Twenty: What’s In A Name?

“By the end of the dinner, Ana and her dinner mate, the funny chap, had fallen into polite conversations of their own, in their vernacular, common, and comfortable Indian English, dropping the strained mechanisms they had trained themselves to use around others, because it was unnecessary with each other. Starved for an easy going conversation, Ana and the boy had happily ignored the faculty speeches and chatter around them, because it was after all, white noise.

Dinner ended at 9.00 pm, Ana and her new friend were still talking, laughing and deep in conversation. They stopped at the local coffee shop to continue, it closed at 11.00 pm, but the evening was not over yet for them. They each paid for a hot chocolate and decided to walk home in the cool May evening, but found a breezy outdoor patio instead near an old theatre. They sat down to chat some more.

For the first time since Suhas, Ana had spent an entire evening with someone who was unpretentiously simple, easy to talk to, and who was enjoying a conversation with her. They were not rushed, had nowhere to be, their conversations had unfolded.

Ana’s companion was not flamboyant like the other young men who courted her, or met in India or on campus, nor was he like any of those America-returned alliances who thought they were looking for a wife, but were in fact searching for a presentable and educated housekeeper. Although he had lived in America a few years, this young fellow simply was not bothered by appearances. He appeared extremely practical and was oddly aware of his own shortcomings. He came from a middle-class home like she did. He was from Pune, like Suhas, but his Marathi was terrible, because he was a transplant there, a Tamilian whose family was still tied to the muggy and hot Southern India even thirty years after they first moved here. Hearing what he had to say, it felt like they lived and breathed in a time and space that was elsewhere from where they were, never really coming to terms with the change, constantly bound by a longing, a homesickness, a malaise of a different land and its people.

But Ana decided not to judge for she had never met them.

Their evening carried on until 1.00 am on that breezy patio of the theatre building until campus police reminded them to go home. They walked several blocks to a late-night shuttle, he walked her up to her apartment and then to his own apartment a few more blocks farther.

This was Ravi.”

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Updated Date: May 22, 2019 09:33:46 IST