Manju Kapur's Difficult Daughters. And, Indian food glossaries

Manju Kapur's Difficult Daughters was released in the U.S. in 1998, shortly after Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. I remember seeing it in U.S. bookstores everywhere; perhaps the publishing house thought they could cash in on the success of Arundhati Roy with something that could be packaged and marketed similarly.

It didn't work, largely for the reason that Difficult Daughters is a different kind of book, a quite sober and in some sense deeply conventional story set in Amritsar and Lahore around 1940. It's about a young woman named Virmati, who falls in love with a young Professor (Harish). He represents modernity and opportunity for her -- enlightenment, education -- but he's a bit of a "rake," in the 18th century sense of the term. He seduces her through culture, sending her Petrarchan sonnets, and casually drops references to Machiavelli and Greek tragedy. Predictably, the relationship goes deeply bad, for reasons that are only too obvious (he's a married rake).

Difficult Daughters is well-plotted and has truly convincing characterization (like many classic English "rake" stories, its villain is in some ways more likeable than its heroine). But it is also interesting for reasons that are not just literary; Kapur has an unusual angle on the involvement of women in Gandhi's Swaraj agitations.

It's one of those strange, contradictory moments in Indian history. The fact is, traditional Indian values had barely modernized at all when, in 1930, Gandhi began to encourage women to participate in civil disobedience actions. By November 1930, 360 out of the 29,000 Indian nationalists imprisoned by the British Raj for expressing their political beliefs were women. The number would grow throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, and a small number of highly educated, independent women were highly visible members of the nationalist movement.

Such progress overlapped with a profound backwardsness -- for the vast majority of Indians, dehumanizing practices such as child marriage, polygamy, and dowry would remain widely practiced (legal until the 1950s). The contradictory progress and non-progress with regards to women and gender roles is one of the great contradictions of Indian modernity, and it's one of Manju Kapur's central preoccupations in Difficult Daughters (just as it was Tagore's preoccupation, nearly 90 years earlier, in novels like The Home and the World and Chokher Bali).

* * * *

As I've been teaching Kapur's novel this spring, I've been noting the Hindi and Punjabi terms I think my students are unlikely to know. Kapur, who is based in Delhi, wrote this novel with Indian readers firmly in mind. The liberal use of Hindi phrases, vegetation, and food here has nothing to do with exoticization (which is often discussed by readers of contemporary Indian literature). If anything, the terminology ("Indian English") is part of Kapur's realism.

I've been surprised to find that many of the fruits and spices mentioned are things I myself don't know (perhaps inevitable growing up in a country where it's easier to get Poblanos than Bhel Puri). So I've been looking them up in some of the following dictionaries and glossaries:

Word Anywhere

Platt's Dictionary (University of Chicago)

An Urdu glossary at the University of Wisconsin

Glossary of "Chai" spices

Spice pages
. Polyglossic! You can find out what "Ajwain" is in German!

Mamta’s Kitchen glossary

And here is a short passage from the novel, followed by my own compilation of Kapur's terms:

The preparations in Sultanpur began. There would be fifty to sixty people in the barat to house and feed at regular and steady intervals. Some of the barat intended to stay at least a week because they meant to make a holiday of the whole expedition. Lala Jivan Das pored over the menus, consulting for hours with the halwais. He was a wholesale merchant who dealt in spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, and cumin; sherbets of kewra, rose and khas; dry fruit, especially almonds, pista, cashews, walnuts, raisins, figs, and apricots; pickels, mainly mango and lemon; sweet morabbas in huge jars containing carrots, amla, mangoes, apples, pears and peaches preserved in sticky sugar syrup. His godown was now ransacked for the best it had to offer. There were to be at least four varieties of barfi in different colours -- green pista, white almond, brown walnut and pink coconut -- for the guests to eat as a side dish with every meal. The freshest spices, rose leaves, and saffron were to flavour the daily glasses of milk they would drink, Special feasting things like dhingri and guchchi to put in the rice and paneer were ordered from the Kashmiri agent in Sultanpur.

This is a passage describing the feast for an arranged marriage that the heroine avoids by attempting suicide. I think Kapur is playing the richness of the wedding celebration against the emotional hollowness it surrounds.

But -- at the risk of sounding a little silly -- she's also describing a lot of tasty food, clearly with no small pleasure at the specificities. The density of the references to food suggests that she's interested in the food items themselves... Here's a mini-glossary:

Barat (“buh-RAAT”): Groom’s wedding party. These are usually quite large affairs, with dozens of people dancing in the street for hours while approaching the bride’s family’s house.
Halwai: Sweets seller
Khas: Probably poppy-seed extract (sweet); usually "Khas-khas"
Kewra: Sweet, rosy flower, used as sweetener (in English, this is called “Pandanus”)
Morabbas: Dried fruit dipped in sugar
Amla: Olive (UPDATE: Wrong! See comments)
Godown: Factory, warehouse
Pista: Pistachio
Dhingri: Mushroom (mushrooms are rare in India, so it makes sense that Kapur would mention them as food for a wedding feast)
Guchchi: A kind of wild mushroom
Paneer: Indian-style cheese

Anything wrong in my glossary?