Book Two: The Lowland

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Another week, another book. My choice for this week could not be more different to last week…

The Lowland – by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland is the tale of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, so close in childhood, that they are almost one. They live in Tollygunge, Calcutta, in a house surrounded by ponds and wetlands. As they grow up, they begin to drift apart – Subhash is studious and obedient, whilst Udayan is curious and rebellious. As they finish university, Subhash decides to travel to Rhode Island to continue his studies, whilst Udayan remains in India and gets drawn into the dangerous world of the Naxalites (a Marxist guerrilla group formed in the 60s). The world of Rhode Island is dramatically different to the world Subhash has left behind – here he is free to have a relationship with a woman of his choosing, to live a life of his own making, away from the shadow of his younger, but more dominant brother. Meanwhile in India, Udayan secretly elopes with the beautiful and mysterious Gauri and continues to become more involved with the Naxalites – something that has tragic consequences for all of those in the story.

Subhash doesn’t return to India until he hears the tragic news – that Udayan has been killed. On returning to Tollygunge, he learns that he was shot by police. His parents are grief stricken and his bride, Gauri is pregnant and condemned to a life as Udayan’s widow in the family home. He does the thing he considers both honourable and despicable – he marries Gauri and takes her back to the States, away from the house, away from the tragedy and gives her a freedom that she would never be able to have if she were to remain in Calcutta.

This is a pretty epic book – it spans a good sixty years and the lives of four main characters. At times it’s so bleak as we see Subhash struggle to make his marriage to Gauri work, Gauri struggle to be a mother to their daughter Bela and put the ghost of Udayan to rest. Udayan is a ghost throughout the book – his death destroys so much more than just his life and the consequences are haunting for all those involved. I really enjoyed the book, but as I said, it is pretty bleak and tragic for a large portion of the book – there is so much misery within the pages that I wouldn’t recommend this as an uplifting read. That said, it is absorbing and powerful – the kind of writing that stays with you after you’ve finished reading and imprints something in your mind. There’s a definite coolness and distance in the writing that places the characters just out of grasp, leaving you desperate for more – that piece of them all that is missing, that they all yearn for. A brilliant book.

In terms of a recipe, it was easy for me to pick one this week – I opted for a Bengali fish curry. I found this recipe by the Big Fat Hairy Bikers and my was it delicious!

Bengali Fish Curry

Ingredients:

  • 2 sea bass fillets (but really you can use any white fish so I would recommend using the cheapest you can get!)
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 1/4 tsp mustard powder
  • 4 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 tsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 3/4 tsp black mustard seeds
  • 3/4 tsp cumin seeds (I keep forgetting what spices I have so have ended up with 3 pots of yellow mustard, 2 black and yet no cumin seeds so I used fenugreek seeds which worked well)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 long green chillies, sliced in half with seeds still inside
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp garam masala
  • 150g tomatoes, chopped
  • Rice to serve

Method:

  1. Slice the fish into strips then put in a bowl with 1/2 tsp mustard powder, the cayenne pepper and season with salt and lots of black pepper
  2. Mix the remaining mustard powder with 300ml cold water until you have a thin yellow liquid.
  3. Heat the oil in a pan and fry the fish for around a minute on each side. If it’s got skin on it should crisp up nicely. Remove from pan and rest it until later.
  4. Add all of the seeds to the oil and fry for a few mins – they will smell amazing! Keep stirring so they don’t burn. Then add the onion, bay leaf, chillies. Cook for a few mins before adding the turmeric, garam masala and the tomatoes. Cook for about 2 mins. I took a picture at this stage as it smelt amazing… so fragrant! I know you can’t smell it through the picture though which is a shame!
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  6.  Stir in the reserved mustard liquid then bring to a simmer. Allow to cook until the sauce reduces and thickens.
  7. Serve with rice, eat and get transported to Calcutta!

This curry is so good…it’s light and very tasty indeed. It is pretty spicy though so if you don’t like hot food, I would tone down the chilli! Really enjoyed cooking and eating this one! Here’s a pic of the finished dish, my iphone camera/I take shockingly bad photos sometimes so apologies it’s not that clear. Photos never do food justice so I’d say the best thing you can do is cook this yourself!

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Right, so long from me…. see you next week!!

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