Keith St Clair Butler (Bay Road Media 2014, Trade Paperback)
Mr. Ghosh was a Hindu, but sometimes as he sat in the Catholic Church attached to the school whilst supervising students, he gazed at the figure of Christ crucified on the cross and had the sneaking suspicion that Jesus was Indian. The hanging figure wore a loincloth that looked like a dhoti, and he legend above the cross partly read “NRI.” Nonresident Indian. Now, as Mr. Ghosh analyzed what the Modern School language examination, Bengali 1A was asking these Anglo-Indian students to do in the next few hours, he had a vision of himself unemployed, hanging on a cross. He wiped his brow again.
In keeping with the above excerpt’s themes of religion and language, allow me to start with a confession. It has really only been within the last ten years or so that I have been exposed to the robust humour and intriguing storytelling of the Indian sub-continent. The delights I have found have led me to curse my past confinement to works from North America and Europe. There is so much more to be found out there. Rather like cuisine, I must say.
Keith St Clair Butler, currently a teacher and author in New Zealand, was born in India and has translated his experience into the best comic novel I have read this year. Butler presents the life of his main character, the Anglo-Indian food critic and detainee Puttla Marks, from 1948 to the present in a series of vignettes worthy of Scheherazade. You see, Puttla has lost his temper in an Indian restaurant in Melbourne, Australia. This in turn leads to his arrest and subsequent questioning by the Immigration Inspector Claude Anttick. While Anttick administers a test of Marks’ knowledge of Australia, each question gives rise to a memory which is told to the increasingly spell-bound interrogator.
The stories are brilliant, wonderful, intriguing and funny. Behind them is the context of the collision between Indian and Anglo cultures. Each seeks to adapt to the other in a seductive way. Yes, sometimes quite literally seductive as in a marvelous scene wherein a female Australian Embassy official is presented with little jars of Indian cooking oils which are wrapped in illustrations from the Kama Sutra. Naked bribery, indeed and don’t try and tell me that outrageous pun didn’t occur to Butler.
The cover of The Secret Vindaloo also contains a motto: ‘Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.’ I suppose that is true, although having just finished my tea before writing this review, I don’t think I resemble either a pork roast or a potato wedge. (thinks) The succotash however is a possibility. All such nonsense aside, Butler’s novel is dotted with tastes and spices of India. The food of England pales in comparison, as in the following comment by a more than slightly drunk character named Denzil:
‘Don hurry me, don. Okay, okay? Tell you in a mo.’ Denzil swayed. ‘Some of them wanted only dosas and vadais and pepper water. Bloody Southies never change, eh?’ He made a dismissive wave with his hands that unsteadied him further. ‘The Pomeroys wansh roast ‘n’ Yorkshire pud. Bleddy stuck-up lot.’
Comedy is a tricky genre to write, as there are very few comic voices that appeal to virtually everyone. Butler, I dare say is one of those rare few. The only cautionary note is that, The Secret Vindaloo will leave you hungry for more.
Be seeing you.