A Love Letter to Her People

A conversation with Madhushree Ghosh, author of 'Khabaar," a book about food, and the memories and connections it evokes

Nupur Bhatnagar

Madhushree Ghosh, author of her freshly minted book “Khabaar – An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory and Family,” has undoubtedly set up the mise-en-scene for discussion and deliberation not just around immigrant food but its journey and evolution through periods of colonization and migration. In a conversation with SEEMA, Ghosh, a daughter of refugees and an immigrant herself, shares the vision that led to the book.

How did food and the stories around it become the fulcrum of your book?

Food has been the primary source of many forms of discussion at my family dining table — what it used to be, what it is now, why and what it represents. Coming from a politically aware and engaged family, to understand, and explore social justice issues was also part of the norm. To connect activism to food and vice versa for me, was but natural.

While talking about food as memory, it automatically connected me to events either in the near past or childhood. Investigating the cause, and understanding the perspective through food, while challenging an expectation, or while re-evaluating my own memory through a meal, dish or recipe while connecting it to a global question was a way to present the concept that what is global is personal and what is personal is global.

Since “Khabaar” is a journey, how long did it take to finish it?

About a third of the book was written during the pandemic, when all the preconceived notions about life, our expectations and our fears were thrown out in a matter of days. But I’ve been writing and rewriting my memoir for years – in essays, interviews, short stories, memoir manuscripts and a combination thereof. To be frank, “Khabaar” has taken me two decades to get to where it is out the way it is — a journey of life as I lived it, and how I presented it to the readers eventually in this linked essay food narrative.

Who do you want to reach to with “Khabaar,” and is there any particular response you hope to elicit?

Anyone who’s interested in understanding what happens to people who move from their home country through immigration, migration or indenture. Anyone who’s keen to question the origins of recipes, foods and spices. Anyone who wants to understand the politics of food and what it means to be a woman of color, especially in science. The audience is anyone who is curious about what the world is all about.

In the book, you mention the need to normalize non-English words in written language. How was this idea received by publishers, since it is also indicative of shifting trends in social acceptance?

We need to normalize non-English words written in English, primarily because we — the non-English folks — exist and write in English. This isn’t a new concept. What’s new is that we are being significantly loud enough for the primarily white publishing world to pay attention. When we, the non-English people, italicize, then we accept our ‘place in this publishing world’ that our words are of “the other.” This is an important concept for us, especially us women, to unlearn. No one needs to other or erase us if we do it for them ourselves.

University of Iowa Press, my publishers, wholeheartedly support this and also actively championed it when I brought it up.

A book like “Khabaar” screams research! Tell us about your process and the sweat that went into it.

“That’s my science brain that needs to research and over-research and make sure what I present is accurate with multiple references! I would like readers and authors to know that when you’re writing an essay, you cannot measure it by the number of years or time units and determine its potency and validity. Most essays for me either come from a place of extreme introspection over years, rage over a political issue, concern over a social justice event, or grief or joy. Yes, research is painstaking and not glamorous, but it’s the scaffold an emotional essay stands proudly on.

Was there anything interesting or even unsettling that you discovered, either about yourself or something?

What’s interesting to me is my essay on domestic partner violence, and a focus on the [apparent] murder of Chef Garima Kothari at the beginning of the pandemic by her husband. It was fascinating to see how she managed to have two dimensions — that of a desi restaurateur, and yet, a victim of domestic violence. While I researched what happened to her, and interrogated my own failed marriage, I came to terms with what emotional abuse is and could be, and why strong women can be subject to domestic abuse without realizing that they are.”

You have a degree from every fathomable university— with a master’s in chemistry from IIT, Delhi, and in biochemistry from the State University of New York at Stony Brook; a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Maryland, not to forget your post-doctoral fellowship from Johns Hopkins University in molecular biology. How does this go with the writer within you?

Every course, degree, and certification I’ve gained has helped me as an oncology and infectious disease strategist in the life sciences, diagnostics and biotech world. But these degrees have also made me, as a writer and a creative person, to understand human emotions and what it means to continue to create — be it in science or in creative nonfiction.

How do you like to spend your time when you’re not writing or working?

I love the process of creation, whether it’s in science or in writing. I enjoy interviewing cancer patients, caregivers, and activists who are so giving of their time, and I love understanding what makes them keep working toward better diagnostics.

From the climate and sustainability worlds, I love working with local farmers to ensure the food they grow is the food I cook, and I am able to truly remain local and support local while I do. And finally, I love working with chefs and cooks across the globe — I have a podcast I’m working on with Chef Surbhi Sahni of TAGMO, called “The Chaat: Conversations on Food and Feminism.”

Is there any message that you aspire to give through your book, or hope the readers will take home?

The message is about how immigrants travel, the stories we tell, the memories we carry and how we make our adopted country ours but continue to love the country we left. It’s a love letter to my people — in India and America — and it’s a love letter to my parents. I hope readers get curious after reading this, and maybe have a conversation or two with their own parents about where they came from. Even scraps of information of your parents’ lives can fill you with joy later on in life.

Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory and Family” (University of Iowa Press paperback) goes on sale April 4, 2022, at leading booksellers.