Too much to stomach

A TV show doesn’t always translate well into print. ‘India on my Platter’ shows why


‘Aloo-bedmi’ in Varanasi. Photographs: Courtesy Om Books International.
‘Aloo-bedmi’ in Varanasi. Photographs: Courtesy Om Books International.

As Saransh Goila covers the kilometres and I finish chapter after chapter of his chronicle India on my Platter, only one thought keeps recurring to me. Such. A. Wasted. Opportunity.

In concept, there’s nothing to fault with the book: A companion piece to Goila’s television show Roti, Rasta aur India, which showed in 2012 on the Food Food channel. I never watched the series but I was still looking forward to this book; looking forward, specifically, to a fresh, young voice, new ways of considering classic dishes across the country, discovering little-known ones, insights into the ways India eats, how food travels—all of it bound up in an infallible narrative thread. How can you go wrong describing a 20,000km food-oriented road trip across the length and breadth of India?

Let me count the ways.

First of all, the format. The moment one breaks down a book into a diary, one risks diluting the narrative into bullet points. The entries become mere recordings of what one did, who one met and where one went. India on my Platter is a textbook case. The standard chapter begins with Goila and his truck—affectionately called Tamatar because, hold your breath, it is covered with stickers of tomatoes—rolling into a new city or town, the author getting down to business in a langar or home or temple, meeting a few local worthies, possibly cooking up a dish, and leaving. Such a template works for television: A show has its own immediacy and urgency which the camera can capture very well and a deft editor can transform into compelling 20-odd minutes of viewing on the post-production table. In a book, the literal translation of these experiences into words makes for reading that is as exciting as flatbread.

Next, there’s the narrative voice. Much as I want to be gentle on the 28-year-old author, after a point one runs out of excuses for his apparent immaturity and ignorance. I don’t put myself down as an ageist, but when a trained chef demonstrates himself to be wide-eyed about basic elements of cuisines or restricts himself to merely laundry-listing the components of thalis he tastes across the country without any analysis or questioning, his story ceases to be interesting to anyone but the most uncurious of readers.

To be fair, there are multiple signs that the book is addressed to the basic reader. Consider the painstaking, if glib, explanations for popular dishes like dal makhni “(popular dish made with whole black lentils and kidney beans)” and naan (“a type of leavened bread, typically of teardrop shape and traditionally cooked in a clay oven”) or gems such as this (in the section on Nasik’s Sula Wines): “For someone who is not familiar with wine, it can explained as the fermented grape juice that is filtered and bottled.”

Even if one attributes the simplistic approach to the evils of television show-making—after all, no one can be expected to know anything about any place after a one day-halt—my brain froze over at some of the dishes Goila chooses to make for his hosts. In the coastal town of Mandovi, Gujarat, for instance, he plates up something called Kashmir ki Kali, flavoured rice cooked with fresh fruits, with saffron and apples and saunf.

A Bengali meal at Kewpie’s, Kolkata
A Bengali meal at Kewpie’s, Kolkata

Insensitivity might be a strong word—and what does the reader know of the pressures of making a television show?—but even more than this apparent tone-deafness to the surroundings, it is the lack of curiosity, of layers, that is the most irksome part of the book. One rushes through places and meals, from the north to the west to the south to the east, being introduced to people who are barely fleshed out, and foods that are described perfunctorily at best, and one yearns for a breather, a pause, a single insight. Alas, one is left wanting.

That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the failure of the book is not entirely Goila’s fault. His earnestness is written all over India on my Platter. But to document Indian cuisines by travelling across multiple states over 100 days is ambitious, to say the least. It might work for half-an-hour of television but, in cold, hard print, without any of the crutches of the author’s (presumed) camera-friendliness or people skills, it lies exposed for the travesty that it is. The sloppy writing and careless editing certainly do not help its cause. With time, Goila might grow into a better writer but this book is such a wasted opportunity.

This one’s only for the fangirls.

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