BURNT BREAD AND CHUTNEY by Carmit Delman

BURNT BREAD AND CHUTNEY

A Memoir of an Indian Jewish Girl
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Born in America of Jewish and Indian parents, Delman ably evokes the cultural dissonance of a childhood divided among Ohio, Israel, and New York but has less success bringing her family to life in an often elliptical memoir.

Though the author heads each chapter with extracts from her Indian-born grandmother’s diaries and lards her account with details of Nana-Bai’s life, the older woman remains as shadowy a figure as Delman’s parents and siblings. What matters are the writer’s feelings; here, emotions are recollected in detail and mere facts like specific dates and places are scanted. Delman is the descendant of the Bene Israel, an ancient Jewish community shipwrecked during the pre-Christian era in India. There they prospered and continued to be observant, with some modifications. While still a child, the author learned that her grandmother was actually a second wife, polygamously married off to a sister’s husband and treated as an inferior even in death (the marriage is not mentioned on her tombstone). Nana-Bai lived in a hovel where her husband beat her on his visits. She immigrated to Israel with her daughter, who met and married Delman’s father, the descendant of Russian Jews. When they settled in New York, the author’s parents worked hard but were so poor they depended on handouts from their synagogue and no-frills groceries. As she describes the family’s various moves, her grandmother’s life, and the delicious Indian food they ate, Delman recalls how difficult it was for her to fit in: she wasn’t Indian enough for Indians, and Jews thought her too dark. After mild adolescent rebellion (rock music and necking) against her family’s strict rules, she gained more sense of self in college. Now troubled by her Indian relatives’ treatment of Nana-Bai, she finds it difficult to connect with them but understands the importance of family and community bonds.

Elegantly written, but disappointingly short on insights.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-345-44593-7
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: One World/Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2002