Market Making – Guest Post by Richard C. Morais, author of “The Hundred-Foot Journey”

Richard C. Morais is the author of “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” which I reviewed yesterday and a reporter for Forbes magazine for 25 years. Please see the end of this post for a giveaway.

I learned the value of food as cultural commentary when I was Forbes’ European Bureau Chief, stationed in London. That job routinely parachuted me into remote cities in China, rural villages in Hungary, jungle outposts in Madagascar. The difficulty was, staggering jet-lagged off the plane, I had to quickly get up to speed to write a credible and accurate story on the country’s business or economic scene – even though I had never before set foot in the place. In other words, I had to learn how to convincingly and instantly fake it.

It was under this pressure to produce credible copy in far-flung corners of the globe that I developed my personal reporting technique: I always headed, first thing, to the local food markets and had a meal. When needing to quickly understand where a country is on the global scale of economic development, there is nothing like seeing and smelling and tasting the foodstuffs found at local markets, where the stalls are lorded over by colorful spice merchants, butchers, and fishmongers, and the very air of the market is filled with the farmers’ lively chatter and vicious gossip. It was like magic. You couldn’t help but absorb the country’s state-of-existence – right through your pores.

In the Ugandan capital of Kampala, for example, I went to Rufula, the city’s livestock market. Mesmerized, I followed brown-hide longhorns into the abattoir, where the walls were splattered with blood and the steers’ hacked-off hooves were stacked and sold as a culinary delicacy. An animal was felled before me, hoisted up on hooks and hauled along on chains. When the butcher’s ax fell into the steer’s chest cavity, blood splattered across my shirt. The sickly sweet smell of death hung in the air an stayed in my nostrils for the rest of the day.

From there I went to Nakasero, the vegetable market, where the teenage “coffee boys” guided the newly-arrived farmers, for a fee, to the merchants offering the highest prices for arabica and robusta beans. At the basket-filled spice market, a hallucinatory mix of bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and vanilla pods greeted me. Meanwhile, over in the 20 square blocks that made up the Owino Market, a kind of biblical-era department store, I watched fascinated as the locals got their hair cut and dyed in the open air. Under the flame trees, women sipping milky tea shelled beans and sold Nile Perch broth or a peanut sauce to go with a starchy-green banana mush called matoke.

It was through these markets that this hardscrabble African nation entered my soul, and the descriptions in the subsequent article made Forbes’ readers in New York or Seattle viscerally understand Uganda’s economic landscape, far more effectively than the dry recitation of per-capita GDP statistics every could.

My senses were aflame. That same trip, near the headwaters of the Nile River as it flowed from Lake Victoria, I had a lunchtime red-curry with the prominent Madhvani family. This was an entirely different sort of an experience. Here we dined on white tablecloths on the family’s homestead’s porch, overlooking their 25,000-acre sugar estate. Pointy-eared Scotties scampered through the garden; strutting peacocks shrieked and fanned their tales. In the far distance, the hills of Africa were airbrushed with a purple hue. The servants served us tea.

It is this tactile taste for ripe-smelling markets and savory meals that mysteriously came to my aid when I turned to fiction. Consciously or not, it helped my protagonist, Hassan Haji, find his way through the culturally diverse worlds of Bombay, London, Lumière and Paris.

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The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais – Book Review

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

When Hassan Haji’s mother is killed by a mob in the family’s restaurant in Mumbai, his family flees the country so as not to be constantly reminded of their loss. After a brief stop in England with family, the Hajis move to Lumiere, a small town in France with the intent of opening an Indian restaurant. The town’s primary restaurateur, Madame Mallory, is not at all pleased with this arrangement, particularly as the Hajis’ boisterous restaurant is located directly across the road from her stately restaurant, so she begins a campaign to shut them down.

You won’t hear me say this too often, but I actually think that “The Hundred-Foot Journey” was not long enough. I would have liked to spend more time getting deeper into many parts of Hassan’s young life. As it was, I felt like the story was progressing too quickly from plot point to plot point so that I wasn’t able to spend enough time with Hassan to truly get a feel for him, which kept me from caring as much about him as I would have liked. I really appreciated what an authentic feel of memoir Morais imparted on Hassan’s fictional story, but I wish I could have been made to care a bit more about Hassan and his story.

I also really liked many of the details of food and the restaurant business but, again, I would have liked to dwell on many of these things longer so as to get a fuller picture of it all. Still, the idea of looking at cultural differences and adaptation through the lens of food is a fascinating one.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey” is an interesting book with a great premise, but I think it could have been improved by being fleshed out a little more fully.

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*
Amazon.*

This review was done with a book received from Inkwell Management.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda – Book Review

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

In rural India, Kavita Merchant’s first child is born a girl, causing her husband Javu to take the baby from her and give it to his brother to dispose of. Javu rationalizes that they need a son to help in the fields, and they would have to pay a dowry to get any girl married off, a daughter would be nothing more than a burden. Kavita does not accept this reasoning so easily, however. When her second pregnancy comes to term, she first hides her labor from him, and then demands to be given one night with the baby she has named Usha. Instead of allowing her second daughter to be killed as well, this newly delivered mother walks from her rural village to Mumbai in order to place Usha in an orphanage where she might have hope of a better life.

Meanwhile, in California Somer and her husband Krishnan are struggling with infertility. Krishnan was born and raised in Mumbai, coming to America only for undergraduate and medical school, until he fell in love with and married Somer, also a physician. After Somer repeatedly fails to get pregnant, or to carry a pregnancy to term, Krishnan suggests that they might want to turn to adoption, and recommends that they use an orphanage his mother patronizes in Mumbai. Other than bringing home their precious Asha, however, their trip to India is somewhat of a disaster. Somer feels ignored and left out, that she doesn’t fit in, and this remnant of her time in India carries over into her life with her husband and child going forward, leads her to attempt to keep both of them away from India.

This was an incredibly moving book. I nearly cried for both Kavita and for Somer within the first 50 pages of the book: Kavita for the loss of her first daughter and the deep sadness of having to give up Usha; Somer for the pain of being able to have the child she wanted so dearly. Somer was a bit of a cold character for much of the middle of the book, which made her somewhat hard to connect to, but she felt very real to me, regardless. She was so afraid of losing what she had that she all but pushed it away for her.

I loved Gowda’s writing and got completely carried away with the story she was telling. Often Somer’s coldness would keep me from immersing myself fully into the book, but the emotional beginning to “Secret Daughter” pulled me in before I had a chance to get turned off by my lack of connection with one of the main characters. It let me see Somer as a real person whose motivations I could understand, even if i didn’t always agree with her behavior.

This was a fabulous story from a very talented debut author. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound
.*
Amazon
.*

This review was done with a book received from a friend.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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