‘Days of My China Dragon’: Eat, pray, serve

Insatiable: The sensory anchoring to the sounds, smells and flavours of a Chinese restaurant proves to be one of the book’s greatest strengths   -  ISTOCK.COM

Author Chandrahas Choudhury’s latest collection of short stories centres on a Chinese restaurant and its inhabitants

One of the best meals I ever had was with a college friend who was slowly losing his mind. We ate the most scrumptious aloo parathas late on a wintry night at a relatively new canteen. We were 20, and ‘mental health issues’ did not exist then. All we had was madness.

As we ate, my friend T held up seven fingers; that’s how many parathas he wanted to eat. No way, I said, laughing, you’re hammered and you’ll throw up. He kept repeating, “Seven, it has to be seven, Mr Jha.” A month or so down the line, he had a very public meltdown.

It so happens, that was the last meal T and I shared (he passed away in a road accident a few years ago). But that meal was not merely pleasing — it was enough.

“Sometimes a single meal can sustain a human being for an entire lifetime.” When I read this line from Delhi-based novelist Chandrahas Choudhury’s latest short story collection, Days of My China Dragon, my mind went immediately to those precious aloo parathas.

Pithy as the line is, Choudhury couldn’t have picked a better leitmotif to kickstart this cycle of 12 stories, all set in and connected by the titular Chinese restaurant run by the inimitable Jigar Pala, restaurateur-slash-raconteur extraordinaire. The stories follow the lives of not just the customers who flit in and out, but also the men who work there.

Days of My China Dragon; Chandrahas Choudhury; Simon & Schuster India; Fiction; ₹399

 

‘Pala’, incidentally, refers to the indigenous Odia style of balladry (Choudhury belongs to Odisha, and his last book Clouds was partially set there), a lively cross between performance poetry and bhajans — and the character of Jigar Pala certainly makes for a lively sutradhar. He’s the kind of man who bluntly tells a dear friend that they’re being a jerk — and turns down a young sex worker’s solicitations in the wittiest, most respectful of repartees.

She thinks he’s in the red light district looking for a good time, whereas he’s waiting to see a large ceramic dragon he wants for his restaurant. He tells her gently: “I’ve come here... let’s say I’ve come in search of someone. Someone full of fire and sparks, who I want to take away with me.”

Whether he’s listening to an old-timer advising him on expansion strategy (“...ten thousand rupees per day. Write that figure above your bathroom mirror and meditate upon it every morning”), firing a pair of stubborn Bengali cooks who insisted on imposing their food on the staff (“even their rajma tasted like it was made by a housewife in Sealdah or Medinipur”) or offering sage romantic advice, Pala is hardly ever uninteresting or unsure of himself.

The stories here are of two lengths, basically — longer, three-course stories that unfurl gradually, such as ‘Shivbhakt’ Pintu Masurkar or My Father is My Friend (‘Ya Ya Come’) — interspersed with two- or three-page-long hors d’ouevres such as A Report From China and A Meditation on Fried Rice. Among the longer stories, Kedar Deshmukh: A Love Story feels like the standout — a typically genteel, Hrishikesh Mukherjee-esque comedy of errors about a newly-wed couple whose romance is aided and abetted by Pala and his array of Indo-Chinese delights.

In perhaps my favourite moment in the book, Pala gives Deshmukh (from the Kedar Deshmukh story) tough love about his inability to cook, especially because his wife goes out of her way to learn how to make his cherished noodles and black bean sauce with chilli oil. Pala says, “The point is how you see food, sir, the point is how you think of food... It’s very easy, sir, to go out and buy a bunch of roses. It’s changing something about oneself — about one’s entire sex — that’s hard.”

It’s a bit ridiculous that this needs to be pointed out, but a straight man calling out another over the latter’s conduct with women almost never happens in Indian pop culture. And while writers shouldn’t be handed out cookies for this alone, one cannot help but stop and notice; the rarity of it makes it noteworthy by default.

Chef Atul’s Bandana, A Dragon for My Dragon and The Lady Who Loved Small Dimsums are the other stories here that hit the sweet spot between standalone narrative strength and episodic relevance.

As we progress through the book, we see the fortunes of Pala’s restaurant fluctuating, but the strong sense of place Choudhury establishes persists. Ultimately, this sensory anchoring to the sounds, smells and flavours of the China Dragon proves to be one of the book’s greatest strengths. Which isn’t to say this is not a flawed work — some of the shorter stories err on the side of schmaltzy, a common pitfall when writers attempt extreme brevity. And its insistence on an overall redemptive, feel-good air, even in stories that technically end in low-key tragedy, will not sit well with many.

But why shouldn’t some books be stubbornly feel-good? There are dozens of well-written, well-regarded recent books that swing the exact opposite way — dystopias (Leila), geopolitics-fuelled tragedies (Exit West), pitch-black bildungsromans or coming-of-age stories (Eileen).

Surely we have room for the Jigar Palas of the world, whimsical narrators who remain rigorously nice, no matter where the narrative action takes them?

Published on July 12, 2019

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