In the times of a thousand distractions, it is rare for me to finish a book at one go, let alone read it twice. Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan by Devang Singh and Varud Gupta managed to not only held my steady attention, but had me intrigued in a way that only the choicest favourites have ever managed to do.
It is a beautifully woven narrative that explores India’s relationship with its food, culture, history and religion. The title though, is polarising and can make one pick up the book expecting something else, and instead discovering something entirely different, and honestly, that’s the draw here! You need to read it through to understand the underlying narrative of the book, where rituals and practices around food are rolled together with cheeky banter, the occasional roll of the eyes and the more frequent chuckle. The beautifully shot images weave a separate tale altogether and bring together the narrative. It is great that these are made available as postcards with the book.
What makes it interesting?
Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan is free, flowing, effortless and very, very relatable. It takes up food in a way that we look at it everyday – conversational, matter-of-fact and yet omnipresent. It unites conversations to weave a silvery web of glittery emotions, and while the stories are enchanting to say the least, the beautiful, flowing prose makes it seem as if it’s a friend sitting and narrating their own experience with you, at a coffee shop.
I had the good fortune of meeting and interacting with the authors – Varud Gupta and Devaang Singh, last week at Mustard restaurant, in Mumbai. Here’s a small excerpt from our interaction:
How did the journey for Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan begin?
A passion for food. That’s where this all really started. I, Varud jumped ship from working as a consultant in the States to travel to different culinary cultures — bartending in Peru, grilling in Argentina — where writing was a way of documenting everything that was learned / eaten. Meanwhile, Devang went from history major and marketing manager at Dell to realising his true passion was photography which led him to running Studio Fry, a production house that works for brands the likes of Budweiser and Zomato.
So we kinda took the meaning of foodie to a new level.
When I made it to India, I bumped into Devang, who could best me at eating and we started to explore what stories could be told so that we had an excuse to keep eating.
How did you choose the narrative style?
The tone really arose as a reflection on us as individuals going on this journey, as well as, at the end of the day the hope we were creating something that we ourselves would want to consume. In fact, the first publisher we’d chatted with wanted to bring on a new writer and formalise the language to target people that “typically read” food books. But what’s the fun in that?
Fortunately, we were very happy that Gurveen (our editor at Penguin) pushed us more towards the current tone. And at the end of the day, being genuine to us going on the journey has allowed us to create a stronger connection with readers, regardless of age, faith or belly-size.
Which chapter has been your favourite?
Since Meghalaya is a special place for both of us, we’ll talk about our favourite dishes instead:
Varud: The pork and greens. Because the black sesame in the dish is amazing and when we ate it in Meghalaya we had a lot of those nasty offal cuts mixed in that made it all the better.
Devang: The chicken in bamboo shoot. That texture which it achieves from rice powder and fermented Bamboo shoots is just a party in your mouth. Again from Meghalaya.
When you talk about such a polarising title, there’s a risk of not everyone truly understanding the underlying narrative. Do you think that risks the commercial potential of such beautiful prose?
Firstly, “beautiful prose” brought a smile to our faces, so thank you for that. But to the question, the reason the title might seem polarising is since the word “God” or “Bhagwaan” means something different to the each of us — and with that, we have our own perceptions of what remains behind the cover.
And so it became important that we defined what it meant to us — Varud & Devang — through taking the readers through communities of stark contrast throughout India — and the stories around these cultures and cuisines. Yes there’s non-vegetarian dishes. Yes there’s alcohol. But this is also the reality of “Bhagwaan” and “Pakwaan” in India.
In India, with all the diversity of culture, regional fodder, history and religion, have you found factors that have been common to all, or most clans in India? If so, what are they, and how did you come about them?
You had asked us this during the launch party and we were blank, but the right answer was there all along: food. Not that just each of these communities have food, but food being such a crucial component of their faith, lifestyle, and economy. While faith continues to divide us, it is food that brings us together (with the added bonus of a bit of yummy into our bellies).
It is perhaps fitting that in a nation where faith takes so many forms and definitions, Bhagwan ke Pakwaan takes to the very roots of India’s culinary arts, and uses faith to unite it all. After all, what is food, but a good leap of faith in an attempt to bring together a nation and its rich history, bit by bit?