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Published on: 07/17/16 6:22 AM

Book review: Love, Loss and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi


 A tasteful tell-all

If Padma Lakshmi’s memoir is more memory and less food, it does not matter. Warmth and honesty infuses this candid account of her life and times; it is, quite literally, an answer to everything you wanted to know about her but didn’t know who to ask.

As the whole reading world knows by now, the author opens with that one compelling hook: her state of mind immediately after leaving her husband Salman Rushdie. Rushdie comes off as boorish, uncaring, an ‘equal opportunity derider’, even nasty-tongued. This, despite a line that runs thus: ‘the man I left… could illuminate any room, no matter how dim.’ However, there is life after Rushdie and that is what the book explores; once we are done with the Salman saga, the book gets quite interesting.

The subject of much ridicule as an Indian girl growing up in America, Padma had to face much racism from her peers in school. ‘Black giraffe’ was one of the epithets she had to confront and face down; is it any wonder then, that for four years, she actually changed her name to Angelique? She looks discrimination squarely in the eye now, with age, maturity and hindsight.

And that’s not the only thing she dissects. ‘I’ve always felt like a truck driver trapped in the wrong body,’ she admits with frank candour and the reader just cannot help but be charmed. Padma makes no secret of the fact that she loves food (thair sadam being a special favourite), loves cooking, and even in her heyday as a model, did not shy away from eating heartily.

Later in the book, she is equally candid about a post-baby body and the immense effort required to work that weight off. However, she is clear-eyed about how this baby is a real gift, suffering from endometriosis as Padma was. She went on to become a co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America.

It didn’t help that she had father figure (or mentor figure) issues; her biological father left the family when she was a baby and later on, she started off as a trenchant critic of the man her mother chose to marry. This is a woman who invariably chooses adventure over decency,  in her own words, but one who owns her actions; she even calls herself a female Casanova at one point.

Talking about the men in her life, while she makes clear her total devotion to Teddy, Theodore J Forstmann, 30 years her senior; where Adam Dell,  the man she was seeing at the same time as Teddy, and the father of her daughter Krishna, is concerned, she presents the facts unvarnished and unembellished.

Though there is a stab at understanding and compassion, and the promise of an amicable relationship at co-parenting for the future, we still see a man who, like Padma’s former husband, has no compunction about harassing her when she is down and out, one who takes her to court for custody of the child.

In fact, that forms a leitmotif, that her choice of men was not always the most felicitous, but feisty woman that she is, she rises above it all quite gracefully. It’s not that she isn’t affected by the vicissitudes, it’s that she reaches into herself and tries to bring to the fore some resources to deal with the issues at hand, and seems to succeed most of the time.

This model-turned-author of cookbooks turned food-show host makes lemon chiffon pie from all the lemons life gives her. Or better still, to quote the author herself, she used the sauces she makes to bring sunshine back into her life, to lift herself gastronomically from the grey.

One heartwarming (well, to us Indians) factoid: Padma Lakshmi embraces her Indian roots in good times and bad, and celebrates it. She actually says tindora is her favourite veggie; says the flavours of India are the standard she holds any food she eats. When talking of desi food that invariably carries a smell, she prefers to use ‘perfumes’ instead of ‘stank up’! Her Memory Lane rambles about her Chennai-based family too, keeps the reader engaged.

Here and there, stray and oddly-used terms crop up: the term ‘lotus eater’ is used to tell us she dined on shoots and plants; she tells of owning a ‘myriad of’ eye and lip pencils, etc; there is an extra ‘a’ in chatpati, which may irk the fastidious reader. However, all of that no way detracts from the authenticity of Padma Lakshmi’s voice.

This is the outsider’s tale told in a self-aware, yet self-deprecatory manner. All through, there is a faint echo of wistfulness, especially when Padma owns up to more than a touch of the imposter syndrome. The humour is wry but gently so. The recipes seem an afterthought, scattered few and far between, but like I said before, food plays a muted accompaniment to life as lived by Padma Lakshmi.

Love, Loss, and What We Ate/ by Padma Lakshmi/Harper Collins 2016/ pp 325/ Rs 699.

This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 17 July 2016.

Related Links:

Feature: The Padma Lakshmi Interview


FoodLoss and What We AtelovememoirPadma LakshmiSalman Rushdie

Sheila Kumar • July 17, 2016

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