An Enduring Diva

Madhur Jaffrey picCelebrity chef and accomplished actress Madhur Jaffrey talks about her latest food memoir, her forthcoming movie about mental illness in the South Asian community, and her plans for the future. (Khabar Magazine, January 2007)

By Shiwani Srivastava

Madhur Jaffrey’s evocative memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees, and her starring role in the newly released film, Hiding Divya, show that this veteran diva of Indian cuisine and cinema is still going strong. Here, in an interview, Jaffrey shares family recipes, secrets, and stories.

Madhur Jaffrey, the accomplished actress and reigning queen of Indian cuisine, recently ventured into the difficult territory of writing a memoir. She has managed to navigate this new terrain skillfully in her charming yet insightful book, Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India (Knopf, 296 pp., 2006), which combines her mastery of vivid description from her culinary writing with her flair for engaging storytelling from her training as an actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Using recipes, family stories, politics, and childhood memories, Jaffrey weaves a complex portrait of what it meant to grow up in Delhi around the time of partition.

Coming of age in an era of turmoil

Jaffrey talked about her experience of partition when she sat down for an interview at the University of Washington Bookstore in Seattle, where she kicked off her book tour: “You’re torn asunder, literally. Your country’s torn asunder, and you are torn asunder when you see everything that you hold dear just breaking up into pieces.” It was a revealing time that shaped who she is today – as both a human being and a political animal – quite profoundly. “Those days were very telling times,” she said. “You saw people being driven to extremes very quickly and you thought, ‘Yesterday you were normal, what’s happened to you today?’ And then there were other people who just stayed steady and calm in the center. That’s when I learned that you just don’t rush to conclusions about anyone quickly.”

But for Jaffrey, who left India for London as a young adult and now lives in New York City, the book is more than just a story of India’s independence. It is also an exploration of her own independence and the childhood experiences that led to her decision to go abroad. In fact, she sees this book as an untold story of the NRI experience: “This is an interesting period that people need to know about?most Indians who are writing in America write about their life as immigrants. But nobody writes about their lives before they left India – and there was a life before that. This book really is about a period before America.”

This “period before America” is about much more than the politics of partition and emigration. Jaffrey, neither a political scientist nor a historian, digs deep into the humanity of 1940s and 50s Delhi, telling stories of being forced to choose between Hindi and Urdu at school (and between Hindu and Muslim friends during partition), of their family’s first dog (a German shepherd left behind by one of her father’s German factory workers, who was interned in India during Word War II), and of huge family picnics at the monuments of Delhi, like Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb.

Family and food take center stage

When Jaffrey talks about sifting through the memories of her childhood, stories involving picnics and food seem to be the ones she remembers the most vividly. Perhaps it is because mealtime was such an event for her joint family of at least 40 people. “There was the main table at which the grown-ups sat, and then attached to it was another dining table for the older children, and then a smaller dining table with benches was attached when more children came along,” she said. “For years, I didn’t know that my grandmother was a vegetarian because she sat at the other end! All I could see was my grandfather’s white beard bobbing up and down at the head of the table.”

But when she first sat down to write, Jaffrey wasn’t intending for food to figure so prominently in the stories, nor was she expecting to include family recipes. “[Writing a memoir] is a very peculiar process, and I didn’t think it could happen. But suddenly one thought leads you to another thought and a whole world opens up,” she said. “Memories of food triggered memories of my life a lot. So it just was a very natural, organic part of my writing. I never thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be a food memoir!’ at all.”

Aside from politics and food, Jaffrey’s upbringing in a joint-family plays a central role in her memories, and therefore in the book as well. In particular, she writes a great deal about her tenuous relationship to an uncle she and her siblings called Shibbudada. “He was not a very nice man, in some ways,” Jaffrey told her audience at the bookstore. The reason was that as a young man, Shibbudada married the woman he loved despite warnings from the community that the horoscope predicted her death if they married. “But they still got married,” she added, “and within six months, she got typhoid and died.”

Seeking a new life abroad

While Jaffrey remembers Shibbudada’s skillful storytelling, she also remembers him as an impetus behind her leaving India. “He was so important, and if he made you feel unimportant, then you were nothing. And he chose my sisters or my other brothers to love – and not me. It just made me think that I was not loveable,” she said. “And it can happen in these large families – a large, spread-out version of the loves and hates and confidences and insecurities of a nuclear family. This book is actually filled with all aspects of growing up in a joint family.”

It is also filled with many photographs capturing some of the Jaffrey family’s happier moments – picnics, vacations in the hill stations, and family photo sessions at their beautiful home in Delhi. Having moved around quite a bit before settling down in New York, Jaffrey didn’t have her old family photographs. So she made a trip to India where she reconnected with her cousins – and found closure on the topic of Shibbudada. “I found out that my cousins had suffered under him too – it wasn’t just me,” said Jaffrey. “We thought, if only we’d talked to each other back then, maybe we wouldn’t have been so unhappy! But we never talked because he was such a god in our house.”

Then again, Jaffrey’s choice to leave India and make her mark in America was momentous. It was in New York where she first plunged into food writing – a step that would eventually make her an award-winning culinary master. It’s an ironic turn for Jaffrey, who couldn’t even cook when she moved to London and desperately wrote to her mother asking for recipes after tasting British cuisine. She tells the story with amusement now: “I came to America and I was acting Off-Broadway, but I wasn’t getting much work?So I started writing about anything I could, including food?People started asking, ‘Would you write another, would you do a cookbook?’ And it just grew from there. So I say that I was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of food.” Today, her mother’s letters containing those fateful recipes form the endpapers of Jaffrey’s first cookbook – one in a long series, written over decades, that has earned her a ranking as one of the world’s 20 ‘Most Influential Foodies’ by Britain’s Good Food magazine.

Playing a starring role in Indian cuisine and cinema

These days, food continues to play a significant role in Jaffrey’s life. Now that she’s finished her stint in Bombay Dreams on Broadway, she is primarily working as a restaurant consultant in New York. One of her goals is to break away from the monotonous Indian food that is found in so many restaurants and start representing the diversity of cuisine that India has to offer. So what’s Jaffrey’s favorite Indian restaurant? “My own!” she says with a laugh. “I work as a food consultant in New York at a restaurant called Dawat, where we are trying to serve authentic regional foods.”

Still, Jaffrey’s first love is acting. And with a resume including movies like Chutney Popcorn, Cotton Mary, and Shakespeare-Wallah, it is not surprising that she is as hungry as ever for roles that push boundaries. Her latest is in the newly released movie, Hiding Divya, which is about mental illness in the South Asian American community. She’s hoping her role as Divya, a grandmother suffering from mental illness, will raise awareness and openness about how the issue is discussed within the community.

But the South Asian American community is still struggling to gain mainstream relevance in American popular culture, as evidenced by Madhur Jaffrey’s involvement with the 2006 CBS sitcom pilot, “The Papdits,” a documentary-style comedy that follows the misadventures of a fictional Kashmiri family traveling across the country in their RV in search of the ‘American Dream.’ The show was eventually cancelled by CBS for being too “out there” for its mainstream audience (now viewable online at And much of the buzz, especially from South Asian Americans, has been that the show simply reinforced negative stereotypes about Indians in America. This is in contrast to BBC England’s “The Kumars at Number 42” – a show about a South Asian family that starts its own interview-based talk-show from a backyard studio – which has been both critically and popularly acclaimed throughout its six-season run. Shown around the world on BBC stations, it featured guest appearances by celebrities like David Hasselhoff and Elvis Costello. But compared to England, Jaffrey’s previous home, the South Asian diaspora community in America is relatively young and is just beginning to emerge as a creative and cultural force.

As Jaffrey discussed in an interview with on January 11, 2000, she is dedicated to helping young South Asian American playwrights and filmmakers respond to the poor representation of Indians in Hollywood with their own groundbreaking scripts and films. “We have had Scorsese with the Italian-American experiences and we have had Jewish-American writings for films,” she said. “Where are our writers doing the Indian immigrant experiences? … They are just starting now. It’s this generation that grew up in America. They are just coming out of colleges and writing for films. I love that.” Certainly, films like Hiding Divya show that in the seven years since Jaffrey gave that interview, promising young writers and filmmakers are emerging with work that challenges stereotypes.

For now, Jaffrey is enjoying the diversity of her work, particularly her involvement with emerging artists, and doesn’t plan on writing a second memoir about her adult life. But she considers the experience of having written this book to be valuable, particularly in terms of reconnecting with family, digging up old photographs, and remembering a time that was simultaneously tumultuous and wonderful. And of course, she’s grateful for the time she spent in India: “There’s a wonderful aspect to India – something stays the same. I always find that. They might build a few more roads, and have more telephones working?Though outwardly it keeps changing, the emotional and cultural aspect of India is very much the same.”

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