Saturday, August 13, 2016

Climbing the Mango Trees - Mathur Jaffrey

Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in IndiaThis title came to me via the virtual book club over at The Deliberate Reader.  I've been following along via the club (which discusses via Facebook) but haven't actually read most of the selections because, well, I've been doing other things.  But July's book was The Cuckoo's Calling, which I read earlier this year.  I joined in the discussion and had such a good time that I decided to bump the other books up on my priorities list!  I won't be reading September's book, which is Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, because I read it a while ago and don't care enough for it to re-read, but I'll spend the rest of this month and next catching up on the other titles for the year that I haven't read, and join back in for October.

Madhur Jaffrey is apparently a chef and an actress, but I had honestly never heard of her until I picked up this book.  She grew up in India in the years of WWII and India's independence.  Her family lived in a multi-family setup in the area of Delhi.  Jaffrey was a fairly privileged child, as far as I can tell.  Her father managed various factories, but they could afford private schools and private drivers and could go on vacations in the hill resorts that involved servants packing picnics and renting out multiple houses for the family to stay in.  Because of this, I don't think this is a really good example of what "life in India" was like.  Granted, it's a memoir, and therefore limited to Jaffrey's view--but I'm also reading another memoir currently, that of Malala Yousafzai, and I think that one does a good job of including not only Malala's experiences but a broader view of how life in her area was in general.  I don't think Jaffrey quite managed to do that.

The memoir is very food-focused but not in the way that many food books are.  Jaffrey admits to not being interested in cooking until later in life, past the point in time at which this memoir occurs.  Why would she have been?  Her family had servants to cook for them, and while it seems like the family as a whole was more involved with food for special occasions, Jaffrey focuses more on other aspects of those--for example, the throwing of paint pigments and such during Holi--than on the food.  Consequently, there's talk of food but not a real understanding of it.  I know that Jaffrey possesses that understanding as an adult, but she keeps it entirely removed from the years of her childhood that are depicted in this book.  The last forty pages or so are recipes for some of the things that she discusses in the book, and I guess it's there that the real appreciation and understanding is meant to be conveyed; but as much as I love food and cooking, I'm not going to sit down and read forty pages of recipes, so that was kind of lost on me.

Something else that I found rather lacking in this was a larger sense of what was going on.  Jaffrey was in India for the time of both the second World War and India's independence, and yet, except for a few small excerpts such as going to watch Ghandi speak once, a sense of any of this going on is completely absent.  This memoir could have place at almost any point in history, because there's nothing there to ground it.  Even if Jaffrey didn't pay much attention to those things at the time, I feel like she could have put in a little bit of "looking back" perspective that would have helped to anchor this memoir in that specific era.

Overall, I didn't really enjoy this book.  I think that Jaffrey (or her ghostwriter; I'm always so skeptical of memoirs like this) didn't actually have a lot to say because she doesn't really have any compelling experiences behind her, at least not in this particular point of her life.  While that makes for a happy childhood, it doesn't really make for an interesting one.  It's the old "every happy family is happy in the same way, but every unhappy family is unique" thing, or however the quote goes.  The points that stood out at this were the unhappy ones, such as when her parents were so devastated that they had to re-join the bigger family because of her father's job changing, and knowing that it would put an end to the happy independence they'd had for several years.  But as for the's a steady stream of frolicking that I don't think really had much of a larger message or purpose lingering behind it, which made for boring reading.  The writing itself isn't bad, but there's not really any compelling content to propel it along.

2 stars out of 5.

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