Friday, 16 May 2014

Interview with Nikesh Shukla

FOR many the old adage that the kitchen is the heart and soul of the home rings true.
And for comic novelist Nikesh Shukla, this is no exception but it wasn't until his mother died that he realised quite how much.
"My mother passed away in October 2010 after succumbing to lung cancer and the make up of our home changed," he says.
"The house had lost its centrifugal force and it felt very sterile.
"She was very much the heart and soul of the home and the kitchen was always alive with the sounds and smells of her cooking - lots of spices, garlic and onions and so on. It was amazing.
"Food was what tied our family together and when she died all that went and it was incredibly sad.
"Relatives sent over food which meant my dad, sister and I could eat. But eventually of course that stopped so we had to fend for ourselves.
"We found some food in the freezer which mum had made before she died. When we defrosted it and started cooking it the kitchen immediately came to life again," he adds.
"The scent and the taste was incredible - it really felt like she was there. However, I realised with a certain amount of horror that I didn't know how to cook any of the dishes she had left us and had made for us over the years and she now wasn't around to pass those recipes on.
"My sister and I also realised that if we ate it we would taste her food for the last time which was a devastating thought."
So Nikesh embarked on an emotional journey of discovery in which he decided to teach himself not only how to cook, but to learn how to cook the Gujarati dishes that had meant so much to him when he was growing up and that would remind him of his mother.
Phone calls to his aunts followed and they relayed some of the recipes to him which he copied down and then set about trying to recreate.
"As you can imagine, there were loads of dishes to choose from and it was a question of remembering what they were and working out those things I missed the most," he says.
"Favourites were definitely Khichdi which is peasant food, a simple rice dish with lentils and Kudi which she used to make when I wasn't well.
"Once a year mum made her variation of a Christmas dinner. It is roast tandoori chicken and it is without doubt the best chicken I have ever had.
"I understand what serious drug addiction must be like," he laughs.
"But I grew more confident after a while and I began to recreate my mum's kitchen with all the smells of the cumin and coriander and the sounds of things frying - it was just fantastic."
The discovery of her recipes also led to him finding out more about his beloved mother and other members of his family.
"She couldn't even boil an egg when she first got married and learned how to cook by being on the phone to her mum," says Nikesh warmly.
"I also found out my grandma worked in a battery factory in Keighley, West Yorkshire, and wore a sari on underneath her boiler suit!"
But it was the recipes which were the main focus and to preserve them Nikesh decided to incorporate a selection into his novella The Time Machine.
And Nikesh is bringing an interactive show based on the book to the stage as part of this year's Alchemy Festival at the Southbank Centre with all proceeds going to the Roy Castle Lung Foundation.
"It's very exciting," he says. "I have done Alchemy before and it's one of my favourite parts of the year. It's a great festival and celebrates South Asian art without droning sitars," he chuckles.
"It tries to find interesting projects that say something about South Asian art in a contemporary way which is brilliant.
"I'm shit scared though," he admits laughing. "I've been to lots of book readings over the years but this is completely different to what I normally do and I will feel totally naked," he adds chuckling.
"This will be more emotive and interactive as there will be cooking live on stage, including some of mum's favourite meals, and I will have readers performing excerpts from the book.
"It will bring back a lot of memories so I'm sure it will be quite emotional.
"But it's been an important part of my healing to learn to cook," he says. "Mum would probably think it needs more salt," he adds laughing.

Nikesh Shukla will be at Southbank Centre as part of the Alchemy Festival on Sunday, May 25. Tickets £15. Call the box office on 020 7960 4200.

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