Padma Lakshmi in her first interview to an Indian publication after her much talked about memoir
Model, actor, ‘Top Chef’ host, and writer Padma Lakshmi’s memoir Love, Loss and What We Ate will be launched in India this month. An intensely honest, nostalgic and often amusing story about childhood in Chennai, struggling for a break in Milan, foraging for cheese in France and, of course, the men in her life, the memoir explores ideas of identity, love, loss and belonging. In a telephonic interview, Padma reveals what lies beneath the glamour and the gossip around her much-publicised image. Excerpts:
Your book is searingly honest. You dwell on things such as your insecurities, weaknesses, your health, and the men in your life in a refreshingly open way. Was it a difficult or even cathartic book to write?
It was both difficult and cathartic. For so long, I had only been seen through one lens by most of the public, whether Indian or American. My show, ‘Top Chef’, which I have now been doing for a decade, is a big part of American pop culture. But I wanted to reveal the real person behind the face that you saw on TV. There were issues I wanted to discuss that I think all women, and all immigrants, whether male of female, go through. I wanted to have a frank, serious conversation that was anchored in truth and much broader too.
There is a lot of Madras in the book. Did you worry if it would engage readers in the West? Of course, the city and the culture are immediately recognisable to anyone who knows Chennai.
The Indian part of the book is incredibly important to me. People have loved those parts! I believe it’s what put me on The New York Times bestsellers list. I wanted the book to be accurate about my life experience. I wanted to depict what middle-class Indian life is really like. India is not just mysticism and poverty. And, India is such a big part of who I am and my personal history that I wanted the book to accurately reflect that in proportion to what it was in my life. I think you don’t have to be Indian to identify with those kinds of childhood memories. You can be Guatemalan or Norwegian or Chinese and have your own versions of those memories as first-generation immigrants in this country. America is a country of immigrants and it is very important for the American public to see that side of me because it is such a big part of me.
You begin your book with Salman [Rushdie], which suggests he was the most important relationship in your life. The tone you strike about him is very different from that he does about you in Joseph Anton. He suggests that you kept telling him he was a much older man and then dumped him for an even older one [Ted Forstmann]. There is an extremely satirical passage which suggests you did this for the sake of money. Your book is much more gentle about him.
I can only answer you this way: I asked Salman for a divorce in January 2007. I only met Ted Forstmann in May 2007. And Salman knows that. He may have not wanted to remember that but he knows it because he was the one I was asking for a divorce! (laughs) I didn’t leave him for anyone. When there is a problem in the house, it usually has to do with the people in that house. I left him because I was very unhappy in the marriage and I needed to deal with my health. It was a serious thing and I felt very alone in dealing with it. My mother and my aunt Neela had to come and take turns taking care of me. He didn’t act like his wife’s illness affected him at all. I’m saddened he now views our eight years together so cynically. That was not my experience. I was deeply in love for many years.
Whatever I wanted to say, I’ve said it in my book. I can’t speak for my ex-husband. I can only say I am a different person than he is. That’s the reason we are not married anymore (laughs). I still have immense affection and respect for him; which, as you point out, is evident in the book. Bitterness only poisons the person it’s coming from. But I am the one who left. That affords me an empathy that perhaps he wasn’t capable of having.
Salman said he showed you his book. Did you do the same with yours?
That’s not true. He did not show me the book. He sent me a one-page email describing what he wrote. I still have it. And I did the same for him.
How did he react?
Well, he wrote me back an email… And he said that I have the right to tell my story as I see fit. And I think that’s fine, you know. We have our own sides of the story. But I want to point out… there’s been so much focus on the parts of the book that have to do with Salman. The reason it’s first is to get it overwith. Because I knew that for most people, in India especially, who don’t really know me, it’s the most interesting thing. But if you’ve read the book, you’ll know that Salman is only in two of the 17 chapters.
One of the reasons I wanted to write the book is because I thought there was more to me, to my life, than who I have dated or what I look like. And I wanted people to hear my own narrative, in an accurate and layered, nuanced way. If all people are interested in are the Salman parts then they don’t have to read past the first couple of chapters.
How long did you take to write the book? Did you use a ghost?
It took me four-and-a-half years to write it. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. The book I was actually going to write was one about healthy eating. In the end, I wrote about something much deeper.
I wanted to write something literary. It was always going to be quite frank, about our bodies and our self image, especially of women, but also about being brown-skinned in a white world. Then in the process of writing it, I found I was much more stimulated and challenged by the other parts of the book. That is to say, having a deep discussion about issues we all face and using my own life as a way to explore these issues.
They tried to give me somebody to write it at first because of my schedule — to do some of the research about the recipes and stuff — but I have never written with anybody. So early on, we let him go. I had a really good editor, who was very supportive.
You have, of course, written books before. But was there a different kind of pressure in writing this memoir? And also about how well it had to be written?
I did feel pressure. I wanted very much for people to just enjoy reading the book. I tried to approach it as any other creative project. If you didn’t know who I was — that I was on TV, or that I was a model, or that I was married to this prominent person, or even care — I hoped you would still enjoy it for the experience of reading it. It was scary and humbling. In a way I think being well-known did me harm because people had a lot of preconceived notions about the book. In essence it’s a memoir of an Indian girl striving to succeed in the West. It’s about food, family, and forgiveness.
If this had been about someone who was not one of the world’s famous couples, I think the book would have had a different reception. I am not naïve… obviously because of who I am the book gets more attention to start with but I think (otherwise) it would have been received with less preconceived notions.
And it had to be well written. I would have been crucified if it wasn’t. Luckily, reviews have been good. There’s no way this book was not going to be compared to Joseph Anton! But I wasn’t thinking about this…
I wanted this book in a way to help me get to the next stage of my life. After a while, you want to be known for something other than what you look like. And I hope that the next decade of my life is one that has more to do with my writing and less about my appearance. I needed this to prove myself to myself first. And it was very difficult. You know, I was writing about my own insecurity and I was insecure about the writing of it (laughs).
You’ve had a tremendously successful career as a model, a career that many would kill for. It is also apparent that you enjoyed the profession, which you gravitated towards from an early age. Yet there is a deep ambivalence towards modelling. Why?
Modelling is no accomplishment of my own. I’ll be the first to tell you that I was very lucky to be able to model. But I look the way I do because of the alchemy of my parents’ genetics.
Now I am 45 and I eat for a living; I work out a lot and I am careful about what I eat and so forth. But I saw my mother who was a nurse and had a Master’s degree make a lot less than what I did for just standing around in a bikini. And my sense of justice, I guess, made me a little bit ambivalent. But I am very thankful for my modelling career. I don’t want to insinuate that I am not. It’s just… what’s good at 22 may not still be gratifying at 45.
And this conflict you have between having an “intellectual” life and the very different life of a model or actor — to what can we trace this? Your grandparents and your life in Chennai? Or to your relationship with Salman?
I think it can be traced back to my grandfather. Most things can be traced back to my grandparents. That’s why Madras has so much focus in the book; it has so much focus in my own psychology everyday.
I think my grandfather set the rules, the path for me to always try to lead that kind of life. I am my grandfather’s protégé and it is because of the values he instilled in me that even led me to be attracted to Salman — you know, many other women would not have been interested in a writer; they would have been interested in an actor, or a star athlete.
I was primed to seek out somebody who was intellectual because those were the things that I valued and that attracted me in general.
How did your family, particularly the conservative members, react to your memoir?
That’s a good question. I was really scared about that. They knew I was writing it because I had to call them a lot for fact-checking. I was very young at the time I describe a lot of things in the book. And my aunt Bhanu, who is here in Madras and who is probably my most conservative relative, I gave it to her to read and she read it in two days and she said ‘you’ve done a beautiful job and it’s very brave.’ And she asked how I remembered things in such detail. That made me feel good. That was more important to me than any review I got.
There’s a lot in the book that my aunt Bhanu didn’t know about — my years as a model, some intimate things — not exactly the sort of things you discuss with your elders, but maybe with just close friends. But to lay it all bare, you know, to someone who is always an authority figure to you was the most nail-biting part of that I guess!
You experiment so much with world cuisine. But what is “soul food” for you?
Those are the recipes in the book! There are not many there but…. Especially for an Indian market, they are kind of basic — thayir saadam and khichidi.
Some of my South Indian friends in New York said to me, oh my god, you’re actually selling thayir saadam as a recipe? But those are my bare bones comfort food; what I go to time and again. Every Sunday night we have khichidi in my house in Soho, New York.
What defines you most? Your looks? Your writing? A man? Or your love affair with food?
Being a mother is what defines me most.
|An extract from Love, Loss and What We Ate
The close proximity in which people lived in India was in stark contrast to my independent existence in America. Here, everyone knew one another’s business, and in general, personal space and privacy were ephemeral. For naps, I always chose a spot on the cool green marble floor close to the side of the bed where my grandfather, or KCK as he was called, slept. It was that same spot my grandmother favored in rare moments of quiet. I watched his large, bearlike belly, barely covered by his undershirt, rise and fall. You could time a clock to the sound of his gentle snoring. I’d often wait for the sounds of his waking: the familiar clearing of his throat, a grumble, and a mumble. He’d open one eye, peer down at me, and whisper, so as not to rouse my grandmother, a notoriously light sleeper, still asleep beside him. “Psst, eh, Pads?” he’d say. “There’s a two-rupee note in my bush shirt pocket hanging there. What say you go to All-In-One and grab a little something for you and me?” The All-In-One was the first store to sprout up among the colony flats, the Indian version of the many bodegas and Korean delis that define daily life in New York. The All-In-One was the size of a small single-car garage. It sold shaving cream, laundry detergent, plastic wastepaper baskets and buckets for bathing, the disinfectant Dettol, bandages, medicines from Valium to aspirin to asthma inhalers, scissors, “paper, pencils, copybooks, savory snacks, chocolates, and Rasna, a powdered drink mix similar to Tang—most of it kept under a glass counter or behind it in a glass cabinet. There were little jars of candies and biscuits and five-paise (about one-twentieth of a rupee) packs of Chiclets. There were two coolers, one for soft-drink bottles and the other, a metal icebox, for Popsicles and ice cream. In the back of the All-In-One, jute sacks of rice, sugar, lentils, coffee, and other raw goods lay heaped behind an iron scale. Two round iron plates hung from the ceiling by chains attached to a bar. The clanging sound the plates made as goods were measured and sold was ear-piercing in intensity. I made anywhere from three to eight trips a day to the All-In-One. I could be dispatched there for oil by my grandmother or for a notebook by Neela, or accompany my uncle Ravi when he was in town and went to buy cigarettes on the sly, bribing me with cold Indian sodas or Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars. My postnap trips to the store were always clandestine. After instructing me to fish out the rupee notes from his shirt pocket, my grandfather would put a finger to his lips. I knew I had to remove his shirt from the hook by the cupboard without jingling any change that may have been resting in its pockets. I had to take the amount he instructed and slip out of the room. Even if I’d succeeded in not waking my grandmother, I still had to elude inquiries from my busybody aunt Bhanu, who, if not napping in her own room with her daughter, Rajni, would be in the kitchen preparing for five o’clock tea and tiffin. I never bothered to fish out my chappals from the shoe closet by the front door, because the sliding wooden doors made too much noise. And anyway, our whole street was sand. The rest of the neighborhood kids and I played barefoot. But the main road was tarred. At that time of day, with the sun high in the sky and my path baking under the Coromandel heat, walking briskly, let alone casually strolling, would mean second-degree burns. But if I ran as fast as I could, literally hotfooting it, I could just about endure until I reached the cool relief of the All-In-One’s stone floor to complete my task. I was to buy two single-serving vanilla ice cream cups, one for me and one for KCK. He loved those little cups, each with a wooden spoon taped to the bottom. I usually had enough change to buy myself a small packet of rose mints, Pez-shaped baby-pink candies with a mild but distinct flavor and light floral scent. On the way home I carried the two cups in one hand and the mints and change in the other. I tried to run even faster, because in addition to suffering the scalding tarred road and maintaining the secret of my mission, I had to contend with the melting ice cream. KCK and I ate the cups of ice cream quietly in the bedroom while my grandma slept, beaming at each other between bites, the lovely pain of cold in our mouths. When I went out for my mission, I always left the front door slightly ajar, barely noticeable to the passing eye, so I could easily sneak back in. It almost always worked. Once, though, Aunt Bhanu caught me upon my return as the door squeaked open. “Eh?! What were you doing outside in the sun?” She seemed really mad, as if I’d stolen from her purse. Just then my grandfather cleared his throat loudly and called out for her to bring him tea. “Pads just came in from somewhere, Tha-Tha!” she tattled. “She’s left the door open and gone without telling anyone. Now she has something in her hands and all!” “It’s fine, Bhanu, I asked her to fetch me a stamp from All-In-One.” Perhaps the only thing All-In-One did not sell was stamps. “I told her to get a little something for herself. Send her here, I’ll deal with the child. And bring me my chai please, my throat is bothering.” Bhanu knew my grandfather was never short of stamps, given his weekly trips to the post office for his pension checks, but she also knew never to cross her father-in-law. I slid sheepishly past her and into the bedroom. The commotion of course had roused my grandmother, lying in the bed. As soon “as we put wooden spoon to paper cup, she said, without moving or even opening her eyes, “Will you please stop putting that child up to no good!”
Source: The Hindu