Ah, how happy is the child whose family dines well! And Madhur Jaffrey seems to have been particularly blessed in this respect.
In Climbing the Mango Trees, Jaffrey's meticulously seasoned memoir of her childhood in India, she recalls dinners of "venison kebabs laden with cardamom, tiny quail with hints of cinnamon, chickpea shoots stir-fried with green chilies and ginger, and tiny new potatoes browned with flecks of cumin and mango powder." Such meals were true events, with "forty or more members of the extended family sitting down" together.
It sounds idyllic and, Jaffrey assures us, in many ways it was. But, as she manages to remind her readers, dark shadows from the adult world are bound to flicker across the face of even the sunniest childhood.
"The innocent Indian honey of my infancy," Jaffrey concludes, "was now mixed with the pungency of Indian spices, the sour and bitter, the nutty, and the tingingly aromatic."
As a child, Jaffrey (who is today both an actress and a noted food writer) was blessed in many respects. She was born in 1933 into a sprawling family complex set in an orchard of "jujubes, mulberries, tamarind, and mangoes" in Dehli. Her family were members of a subcaste of Hindus known as Kayasthas ("writer-warriors.")
She grew up with a tribe of cousins, watched over by a phalanx of aunts and uncles. Life was sweet, secure, privileged, and – always – tasty. Jaffrey recalls the way she and her cousins would swarm up the family's mango trees during hot summer afternoons as the adults napped, garnishing mango slices with salt, pepper, red chilies, and roasted cumin to create a fabulous snack.
Jaffrey's background was as subtly varied as her diet. "My family was a hybrid," she explains. "It was Hindu by origin but heavily veneered with Muslim culture and English education; it considered itself very liberal but lived by the ancient rules of the joint-family system, whereby men dominated...."
And as Jaffrey grows up, she becomes aware that these elements will not forever peacefully coexist. World War II arrives, as does the burning question of Indian independence (a complicated matter for an Indian family very English in so many ways), and the impending partition of India and Pakistan. Partition was particularly painful for a girl schooled with many Muslim friends. But "as soon as talk of Partition began," Jaffrey recollects, "it was as if two icy hands had descended and split our class in two."
Even questions of Jaffrey's attachment to her roots ultimately become nuanced. So much in her daily experience "affirmed [her family's] deep connection to the land and its history, our sense of entitlement."
Yet even as a child she cannot completely shut her eyes to what is ugly in her tightly hierarchical existence. Her cherished parents, whom she portrays as "very loving and indulgent," live under the thrall of Jaffrey's grandfather, their own happiness bent to his desires. And one of Jaffrey's uncles allows his own emotional disturbances to spill over onto his nieces and nephews. It's lovely to be so closely tied to a family, Jaffrey realizes – except when it isn't.
Yet a certain quiet joy and gratitude remain the organizing principles of this lovely memoir. Jaffrey's voice is warm and intelligent and her love for home, family, and good food all ring so true. As a lovely coda, the book concludes with more than 30 of Jaffrey's family recipes. After all the tantalizing descriptions, these should be very welcome to readers.
Jaffrey left home as a young woman, she says, knowing "less than the rudiments of cooking." Her mother taught her by mail. The rest of us can be grateful that she did.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.