Anjali Purohit, Ragi-Ragini

I picked up Anjali Purohit’s book at the Yoda Press stall at this year’s Delhi book fair. It turned out to be nothing like what I expected, in a mostly very good way.

From this week’s column:

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There’s a lot going on in Ragi-Ragini. Subtitled “Chronicles from Aji’s Kitchen” the book appears at first to be, and is at least in part, a collection of recipes that use ragi (or nachani, or kelvaragu, or finger millet) as their base interspersed with personal accounts of life with the grandmother from whom most of them were learnt. Recipes for laddoos or savoury porridge are scattered with little personal interjections; Aji would add salt here; this custard is named after Ragini herself because she likes it so much. In an introduction to the book Ragini explains her own connection with ragi recipes and some of her choices for the book itself (such as the use of verses by the poet Bahinabai Choudhari to begin each section of the book). It would be a completely ordinary introduction were it not for the fact that this is not the autobiographical work it projects itself as. Ragi-Ragini is a story by Anjali Purohit – “Ragini” is a fictional character.

In the gaps left between the recipes themselves we are also given the story of Ragini and the women who raised her. Ragini’s mother, we are told, was a disappointment to her wealthy, sophisticated in-laws, and crowned her iniquities by giving birth to a sickly girl-child and dying soon after.  Ragini was raised by her maternal grandmother and aunt, who kept the weak child alive with ragi-based recipes and shared stories of the mother she never knew.

Ragi-Ragini is very much a book about women’s spaces. Men occasionally enter the household upon which the book is centred as friends, but Ragini’s grandfather is barely present even before his death. In a short author’s note, Purohit dedicates the work to her grandmothers and mother. And the very format of the recipe book as memoir is another example of shared women’s space; not because women have any particular predilection for kitchens (Ragini describes herself as a reluctant cook at best) but because it has for centuries been such a social space. Bahinabai’s poems are in the “ovi” metre, traditionally sung by Maharashtrian women doing traditional women’s work ; Ragini claims to have learnt the songs as she poured grain for the two older women to grind into flour. A constant theme in Bahinabai’s poems is that of the maher, or maternal home. Marriage and career do not weaken the bonds these women have with their mother’s home; at the end of the book Ragini too has decided to return to her Aji’s village to work, along with two children who we can only assume are her own.

There are three parallel stories of women’s lives running through Ragi-Ragini. One of them is Ragini’s own, another, the story of her mother Shanta as told through her grandmother’s words. And the third, in a way, is Bahinabai Choudhari’s as she develops from the young bride of the first poem to the wife of a household that has fallen on hard times to a grief-stricken widowhood.

The book’s big flaw for me, though, is that it’s sometimes poorly executed. It’s hard to tell whether it’s Ragini or Purohit herself whose prose is so overly effusive in some sections — I’m inclined to blame the fictional character, since this style seems so completely at odds with the book’s clever structure. At times it reads uncomfortably as if Purohit is parodying a particular cliché of food writing, particularly when we’re asked to leave something roasting until “it starts giving out a fragrance so heavenly that you begin to hear violins”. Then there’s the unfortunate moment where the book jokingly casts Aji’s insistence on putting salt in laddoos in Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis terms and then, not content with having made a weak joke, repeats it twice.

Yet Ragi-Ragini is structurally ambitious, women-centric and interesting in ways that few books dare to be. It’s easy enough to forgive such a work some over-written recipes, particularly when said recipes promise laddoos.

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