New | Book Review | A Bite in Time by Tanya Mendonsa

 Food has always been central to human existence. Our development as a species has been closely linked to the growth in our skills to procure food for ourselves. The greatest civilisational shift occurred when we stopped hunting and gathering and took to farming. Agriculture paved the way for other important civilisational landmarks – the rise of the State, for example, which was powered through agricultural surplus, and availability of young men of a peasant stock for recruitment as soldiers. Agriculture also gave rise to the notion of property, and a desire to control its ownership, which led to patriarchy, among other things, as Simone de Beauvoir has shown in The Second Sex.

Other than these big-scale associations, food offers, other than its nourishing quality, a sensual experience, connected to its aroma and taste. This experience, due to its ubiquitousness, is impossible to replicate through any other means and hence, its centrality to our lives.

Tanya Mendonsa’s new book, A Bite in Time, deals with the sensory aspects connected to food, which, often become part of our memories. We all have that one meal, or two which we enjoyed unlike any other, and no one can really replicate our mother’s cooking.

Mendonsa, who is one of the finest poets from India writing in English, grew up in Calcutta of the 50’s. It was a heady time, with Calcutta’s famed cosmopolitanism still in existence. As she writes: “When we lived there in the 50’s, Calcutta was still a merchant city, though no longer the capital of India, and had a large population of Jews, Armenians and Chinese.” There were others too, such as the Burmese, for example; and of course, a sizeable number of Muslims, with their own cuisine.

 Through her descriptions of growing up in Calcutta, though mostly related to food, we get a glimpse into her development as a writer, which, as is often the case, features a precocious young child devouring books by the dozen. She writes: “My mother was endlessly patient,and read to us all the time. She brought me a series of ten enormous books, hard covered in royal blue, called From The Tower Window, which I treasured and dipped into for years…They had excerpts from The Pilgrim’s Progress, Alice in Wonderland (with the Tenniel drawings) and many other classics”.  

She goes on to describe how poetry came to her, in a sublime passage: “Something about all that time – the utter security of the atmosphere created by my mother, the parijaat tree she planted in the garden, which dropped all its intensely scented flowers at night in a perfumed litter of starry white petals with orange tipped stems and hearts, the wide stone stairways, the seemingly endless afternoons on the vine-shaded verandah on the first floor, all the stories I read and listened to that wove their webs around me – planted the seed of poetry in me which was to grow many years later.”


In chapter four, she briefly mentions the Chinese who used to live in fairly large numbers in Calcutta of those days, and their food. While the Chinatown still exists in Calcutta, it has lost its past glory. The reason was that in 1962, the Indian government, facing an attack from China, decided that the Chinese living in Calcutta and other places in India, were a security threat to the country and interned many of them in a prison camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, for years, even after the short war ended. It is a blot on India’s record as a nation and hopefully, an apology can be made one day by the powers-that-be.

In Chapter 6, we learn about Mendonsa’s move to France, to study painting. We learn that it was a period of transition for the family as her mother moved back to Goa, her original home, being a Goan, along with her father.

Her love for Paris shines through in her descriptions of the city, although we get a glimpse of her struggle too, to make her way in it. “After almost a year doing odd jobs, I found a job at the Indian embassy in Paris as a local employee and moved out of the Moreau’s house, although we remained in close touch for our entire Parisian sojourn. For the first time, I started living on my own, renting a room in a beautiful apartment on the very chic Rue du Bac, near the Gare d’Orsay, which later housed the famous Impressionist museum. My room was small,but had a little balcony that looked out over the interior courtyard of the building: the walls there were covered with a mantle of what is called vigne-vierge  (literally ‘virgin vine’) – the leaves are large and the most ethereal green – in autumn, they turn every shade from pink to blood red, a stunning sight. Naturally, I had never cooked, so I simply ate out as much as I could. From the front of the apartment, one could see Paris spread out like a magic carpet, with the blue and gold dome of the Invalides rising like a Faberge egg in the middle.”


The next few chapters delve into her long stay in Paris, where she lived a charmed life, full of gregarious friends, outings to the French countryside, wine and exquisite French food. Somewhere along the line, she became involved with a language school, thus finding herself a vocation, and she also started to learn how to cook.


After two decades in that ‘moveable feast’ of a city, Mendonsa decided to return to India, in order to write and paint and has lived here since 1995. Initially, she stayed in Bangalore, then Goa, before finally settling in the Nilgiris. She writes about her life there, in the final chapter: “We were lucky enough to find a plot of land in the middle of an untouched tea plantation – alas, after more than ten years now, it is no longer untouched! – and proceeded to build a house. The site overlooked a valley through which a river ran…

Living in the Nilgiris, in a remote area 6000 feet up, full of wild animals, we have many fewer guests than we did in the ten years we lived in  Goa… It is wonderful being able to eat fresh salads from the garden and pick armfuls of roses, but difficult to get quite a lot of things that were easily available elsewhere, not to mention alcohol.”             

Along with her memories of her childhood, her stay in Paris and other details of her life, the book contains a number of recipes, painstakingly collected by Mendonsa over years, featuring a wide variety of dishes. There are recipes for Anglo-Indian staples, Goan dishes, French delicacies, Chinese food, and many others. While this reviewer could not try the recipes out, others may find it a rewarding exercise to do so.   


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