A boy grows up in Rotterdam, in a family that seems to weld the fiendish with the angelic, tragedy with bliss, pure reason with the utterly irrational, brutal instinctiveness with the trauma of exile, ethnic and religious persecution, dire poverty, the yearning for kindness and the burden of loss. Overpowering ambition (whether for an illustrious mention in the form of the very last customer of a local grocer succumbing to a giant retailer, or for a gold medal in athletics in the 6 to 7 age group at the local sports club, for sons who are doctors or economists rather than writers or environmental scientists) is matched by fragile emotional equilibria and quiet genius. People and objects must cohabit a space of highly symbolic, blushingly embarrassing, deeply moving clutter, a hoarder’s lair of material possessions and bequests, of memories stuffed in dusty corners, of unbearable vital weights that will keep not one but many lives grounded and rooted – on occasion crushing and pulverising them for good measure, and with a hefty dose of bitter wit that is filled with almost transcendental perseverance.
A young Indian nurse called Veena emigrates to the Netherlands in 1969; she carries with her two suitcases full of trinkets – or, depending on the dismal anguish of the source, incalculable treasure. She also carries the shards of a broken heart, from an abortive romance that never happened – except in a version of surreal authenticity that surpasses any Bollywood production, past or future. She marries a Dutchman of old stock and even older habits, idiosyncrasies, emotional dynamics and humanity. For the first and last time in her life she will capitulate to another’s desires, and utter, albeit reluctantly, the anathema ‘yes’. From that moment on, she will exert full powers of domination over the smaller and wider constellations of her world with an iron fist – or rather with the occasional slipper and an endlessly reappearing, seemingly imperishable rolling pin.
An Indian rolling pin (or velun) is long, thin and tapered at the ends, so that rotis and poppadoms can be thin, silky, delectably brittle. Mama Tandoori must make do with the shorter, stockier, more inelegant Western version, just as she must make do with so many other, more or less ineffective, substitutes for her Indian disposition and perception of the world. And yet, each time, through hell and high water, she manages to achieve almost perfect harmonies, swooning Indian dishes, a concentric universe that even at its most outrageously extreme has never fallen apart. Mama Tandoori leads a chameleonic existence between ‘Mrs van der Kwast’ and her Indian soul, yet if the skin colour reflects alterations of appearance and circumstances, the dissimulations required by cultural and psychological survival, it will never reflect any alteration of the heart. To the very last page, Mama Tandoori remains indomitably charming, frighteningly endearing, ruthlessly indispensable.
Reviewed by Mika Provata-Carlone
Written by Ernest van der Kwast
Translated by Laura Vroomen
Published by Scribe (August 2017)
Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London. bookanista.com
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