Naben Ruthnum

In Curry: Eating, Reading and Race, Naben Ruthnum takes a bite at what he calls “currybooks” – food-centric memoir and fiction from the South Asian diaspora. Their recipe, as for curry itself, he explains, is flexible. Most, however, contain the basic ingredients of a mother, a mango and a sari, preferably with one or both of the latter two on the cover. Seasoned with nostalgia, currybooks project tantalising wafts of authenticity to both “brown” and “white” readerships hungry for exotic truths.  

The son of Mauritian immigrants to Canada, Ruthnum dives into the diasporic culture around curry and comes up sputtering. Despite never having been to India and only once to Mauritius, as a child, and confessedly being not much chop in the kitchen himself, he happily pronounces on the authenticity of the books he surveys. Quick to judge, he calls out Amit Chaudhuri, for example, for eating food in India prepared by servants who earn “a minuscule portion of his UK writing and teaching income”. It’s not clear what Ruthnum would or could do differently in his place. He also freely ascribes intentionality, assigning dubious motives to everything from the wording of author bios to the tastes of readers and the choices of publishers. He doesn’t test his hypotheses by interviewing any of them.

As a young man, Ruthnum tells us he avoided “currybooks” and “brown authors” like the plague. He identified with Kumar in the 2004 stoner flick Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. This helps explain his embrace of a certain male adolescent vernacular (“Mom makes the masala with large, motherfuckering onion chunks”), which blends oddly with the captious pretension of the narrative as a whole. More curious is Ruthnum’s brown-and-white view of the world, in which “brown” writers and readers are driven by nostalgia for the “homeland” and “white” readers by the pursuit of exotic authenticities. Questions of hybrid and intersectional identities aside, it would have been interesting to know how non-“white” readers consume “currybooks”, and what the genre has in common with other diasporic literatures, Jewish and African, for example.

In the coda, we learn that Ruthnum once wrote a prizewinning “curry” story. To his frustration, publishers were largely uninterested in his other fiction. Curry is his revenge on the genre he wanted to escape: “I fear internalising the outside pressure to create and enjoy the story that you want to read.” Curry: served with a chutney of sour grapes.  CG

Text, 208pp, $19.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 27, 2018 as "Naben Ruthnum, Curry ".

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Reviewer: CG