Monday, October 11, 2010

The Hundred Foot Journey - Richard C. Morais

This weekend I armchair-traveled to Bombay, London, flitted through most of Europe and finally landed in France courtesy of The Hundred Foot Journey. It could have been great too but somewhere between reading about the Mutton Korma at the family restaurant on Napean Sea Road and sewage smelling hair and finally, pretentious French food at his Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, Hassan Haji' story left me floundering.

The narration is by Hassan and the story opens with a recounting of how Hassan's grandfather came to Mumbai as a young man and became a dabba-wallah. He makes something of himself enough to build a tiny eatery in an abandoned plot of land on Napean Sea Road. The Haji family expands slowly into dad, mom and finally Hassan and his numerous siblings. They lead satisfied and full lives revolving around the food they prepare and their restaurant but tragedy strikes and the family forsakes Bombay and its terrible memories for London. From then on, Hassan and his family roam all over Europe before settling down, somewhat arbitrarily in Lumière, France. The Hajis buy a mansion and plan to open an Indian restaurant but they have formidable opposition from a renowned chef who owns a hotel just across the road from them. Madame Mallory views the gifted Hassan as her competitor and is out to do all she can to oust the Hajis from her town.

This story is basically the life journey of Hassan Haji and how he finds his destiny. In the course of his life the one constant is food. He and his family over come the odds and he finally establishes himself as one of the leading chefs in Paris with his restaurant Le Chien Mechant.

Sounds good doesn't it? Unfortunately the plot is not executed well enough. Many parts of the story are just plain unbelievable: for instance, the way the family goes traipsing all over Europe with a seemingly never ending flow of cash. Hassan Haji's attempt at insight and philosophy is a bit ridiculous and what are obviously meant to be deep soul stirring moments, fall flat.

The author has tried very hard to bring in all flavours Indian and that is precisely what doesn't work. They are not Indian. Describing in minute detail about pink sarees and gold lame sandals; hair smelling of sewage and the poor of Mumbai's slums does not mean it is authentic. In this case, the author has fallen into the pit all authors must try to avoid: don't present India, or any place for that matter in such cliched forms. It does not your story, hold. Some of the descriptive passages left me bewildered (like the above mentioned sewage smelling hair. Hassan and his family are about to board the flight to London and the lines that tell you that are something along the lines of, "There we were with our sewage smelling hair...." You see what I mean? It seems silly and nonsensical because nowhere in the book are Hassan and his siblings portrayed as so poor they don't have money for shampoo and soap) and I couldn't make out till the very last, what precisely was the point of this story.

Don't get me wrong: The Hundred Foot Journey is by no means a wholly unreadable book. I finished it quite comfortably all things considered. I loved Hassan's father Abbas's character as well as Ammi and Uncle Mayur and Madame Mallory. Just like how some descriptions are unacceptable, some others, especially about the food and the scenery were quite stunning. All the more is the pity because perhaps with a little more work this could have been a wonderful book.

The Hundred Foot Journey is in short, somewhat of a badly written fairytale. It's got all the elements but they inexplicably go missing every now and then.


Birdy said...

This is a very different review of this book! I have seen this book praised a lot. But I like your review. I can understand what you mean by "bring in all flavors Indian." It probably sounds forced...I am not much a fan of such books either... Lovely review!

Vaishnavi said...

Birdy - I really didn't like this book all that much. It just did no live up to its potential. It was just filled with too many cliches for me to enjoy it. A pity because like I have mentioned in the review, it could have been a great book!