Precise descriptive writing offers much to savor in this bouillabaisse of a first novel from a former Forbes editor.
Written at the suggestion of Morais’s late friend, noted film producer Ismail Merchant, it’s the story of a Muslim boy born in Mumbai who grows up to achieve great fame in the rarefied world of French cuisine. Hassan Haji narrates, beginning with the tale of his grandfather’s profitable enterprise: a fleet of “snack-bicycles” delivering lunches to soldiers and laborers in the streets of downtown (then) Bombay in the 1930s. Innovations inspire Hassan’s ambitious father Abbas, whose mixed history of achievements and frustrations includes the creation of a popular restaurant (“Bollywood Nights”) and a bitter rivalry with a sleek, superrich fellow entrepreneur. When Abbas moves his family to a small village (Lumière) in France’s Jura Mountains, he learns he has trespassed onto territory appropriated by grande dame Gertrude Mallory, an imperious avatar of fine dining who will brook no challenges from brown-skinned “inferiors.” Madame Mallory is such a formidable presence (equal parts Lady Bountiful and Falstaff) that she very nearly rescues this repetitive tale from its many longueurs—especially when she inadvertently causes severe physical harm to the innocent Hassan, of whom she will reluctantly whisper “that skinny Indian teenager has that mysterious something that comes along in a chef once a generation.” Predictably, Hassan braves his father’s wrath, becomes Mme. Mallory’s apprentice-protegé and rises like a soufflé to prize-winning chef-hood in the appreciative atmosphere of Paris.
Will this book eventually become a Merchant-Ivory film, laden with choice roles for Indian actors and featuring (a no-brainer, this) Meryl Streep as Mme. Mallory? An appetizing idea, n’est-ce pas?