W

hat do you want to be when you grow up?

Maybe you wanted to be a firewoman, rushing to the rescue. Perhaps you prepared to be president. Or maybe you fancied being a fashion designer. But at least you got to ask the question.

When novelist Amulya Malladi was growing up in India, she didn’t have that luxury. “In India, there were two professions,” she says. “You could be a doctor or an engineer. Nobody sat down and said, ‘Oh, what do I want to do?'”

Fortunately, for her and for her readership, this 30-year-old writer moved to the United States in 1995, entered an engineering program at the University of Memphis, and promptly discovered that engineering was not for her. Malladi tried to convince herself that if she could just survive the two-year master’s program, she’d be OK—but then she realized that her career was supposed to be a more permanent proposition: “[I thought] I’ve got to work in this business and stay in this business and not get fired.” Fortunately, she’d been working as reporter for the school paper, so she decided to follow her interests and transferred to the school’s master’s program in journalism.

Book Review

In Serving Crazy with Curry, Amulya Malladi takes a stab at depicting a taboo subject in Indian families—suicide. Twenty-something Devi believes she has pretty much plumbed life’s depths—she’s been fired for the last time by a dot-com startup that’s tanked, she’s had an affair (and a miscarriage) with an unnamed married man, and she’s got a meddlesome mother who wangled her way into getting a copy of Devi’s house key.

So Devi lays out the perfect plan to end it all—except for one thing: She hadn’t accounted for the aforementioned mother and house key. So Saroj, her mother, makes it into Devi’s apartment in time to save her.

It is at this point that the book really takes flight, examining one Indian family’s response to a daughter’s attempted suicide. WeÕre introduced to a host of compelling characters: Saroj, who wants nothing more to be the perfect housewife; Avi, Devi’s one-armed father who is a successful entrepreneur; Shobha, Devi’s have-it-all older sister; and finally, Vasu, DeviÕs maverick grandmother. Malladi explores how Devi comes back to life through the help of family and fusion food.

Overall, this is an involving read, though Malladi’s writing does stumble at times. And while we get a good perspective on Devi and SarojÕs viewpoints, we also wish we could have a deeper treatment of how Indian communities regard suicide.

Yet there are spots that shine in this novel. Malladi does a good job of dealing with the tense mother-daughter relationship that Saroj shares with both mother Vasu and daughter Devi, and she has some nice insights into how we regard women who don’t work outside the home. In short, Serving Crazy with Curry serves the reading public with an intriguing family portrait.

To date, Malladi has penned three novels: A Breath of Fresh Air, about the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal; The Mango Season, about an Indian woman who returns to India after seven years and must tell her family that she’s in love with an American; and the recently published Serving Crazy with Curry, about an Indian family in the San Francisco Bay area and how they deal with their daughter’s attempted suicide. Writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has praised her work, remarking about Malladi’s Fresh Air that she “draws us into the novel with her characters, who are refreshingly free of stereotype. She has successfully managed to avoid sentimentality and melodrama in her handling of emotional material—a near-fatal accident, a child’s mortal illness, a spouse’s infidelity. And that is no mean achievement for a first-time novelist.”

Growing up Malladi

Though Malladi initially had little choice regarding her educational track, she didn’t just stumble upon scribbling—she wrote her first book when she was just 11 years old, and she’s been writing English fiction ever since. Malladi’s short stories were even published in the newspaper when she was young. Like so many other authors with a South Asian background, Malladi was inspired by the children’s mystery series written by British writer Enid Blyton. But she also wondered why there weren’t children’s books set in India. “They would talk about cucumber sandwiches and I wondered why anyone would put a cucumber in a sandwich,” she recalls. “I wondered, ‘Why aren’t there books about Indian children eating daal roti?'”

But we all must grow up and “become” something, so Malladi set off to be an engineer, earning her bachelor’s degree in Hyderabad, India, and moving to the United States for her master’s program. Somehow, Malladi couldn’t summon sentences the way she could before. “When I came to the U.S., I completely stopped writing—I don’t know why. I was feeling completely displaced. I didn’t know who to write about. I wasn’t comfortable writing about people in America or people in India.” It took her a few years to get back into the writing groove.

Food, fact and fiction

To overcome the proverbial writer’s block, Malladi turned to tragedy for the inspiration behind her first book, A Breath of Fresh Air. The 1984 Union Carbide chemical leak in Bhopal, India, left nearly 8,000 dead. Malladi’s father was an army officer stationed at Bhopal at the time. “We were five to six kilometers away from the Union Carbide plant,” she says. Malladi and her family were saved by the winds of chance—literally. Because they lived upwind of the plant, the family missed direct exposure to the deadly gas. Malladi, who was 9 years old at the time, says, “I didn’t even understand how big it was until much later, actually. I remember my parents going back to the city and saying it looks like a cemetery. It sounded bad, but I didn’t [really] realize it.”

Years later, living in Utah, Malladi revisited the incident and wrote the story of Anjali, who was caught in that deadly leak but miraculously survived. Published in 2002, A Breath of Fresh Air chronicles the industrial disaster’s long lasting effects on protagonist Anjali and her family.

Malladi’s encore epistles have been lighter, but she still draws from the circumstances surrounding her life and her friends’ lives. Malladi, who is married to a Dane and currently lives in Denmark, didn’t confront a large, conservative family when she broke the news about her marriage. But she imagined what it might be like to face that situation, and The Mango Season was born. Both that and her latest work, Serving Crazy with Curry (released October 26), center on food and the ways in which food affects the rest of our lives. “The first thing my mother says [when I come home] is, ‘What do you want to eat?’ We are a very foodcentric society. I used to visit relatives of ours—there was lunch and there was dinner—constant cooking, and a constant focus on food,” she says.

“I’ve always wanted my mother to be proud of me. Not my father, not my sister, not my husband, but my mother.”

Malladi had never been much of a cook, but she began to learn around the time of her second book, after her first child was born. “All of a sudden, we couldn’t go out that much, so I started cooking a lot. And the way I cook is that I mix cuisines. Right now my husband’s making meatloaf, and he’s adding coriander and cumin, which nobody does. So when I started writing Serving Crazy with Curry, I was cooking all this food, so Devi [the novel’s protagonist] was cooking all this food,” she explains. Both of her most recent books also include East-West fusion recipes.

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Malladi on Mothers

Another thread that weaves through her books is the bond between mother and daughter. In her novels, women are simultaneously frustrated and empowered by their mothers. Asked why she focuses on the maternal bond, Malladi replies, “Part of it is that this is the first female bonding relationship that a woman has. Most people have a strong relationship with their mothers.” Indeed, when Malladi asked friends and acquaintances how they felt about their mothers, responses ranged from “‘She was a bitch and I’m glad she’s dead’ to ‘We’re really great friends.'” Malladi’s own strong feelings about her mother also play a role. “She doesn’t always understand me, but then, I don’t always understand her. But I’ve always wanted my mother to be proud of me. Not my father, not my sister, not my husband, but my mother.” Malladi sees this bond as universal. “It’s one of those relationships we’re always trying to fathom: Why don’t mother and daughters get along? They should get along.”

Her next project, now in the editing stage, is tentatively titled House with a White Roof and centers around the inhabitants of an ashram from Indian Independence through the end of the 1990s. This book, too, stems from Malladi’s own experiences. When she was young, her mother used to visit ashrams, and both parents would go when they wanted Malladi and her sister “to get in touch with our roots.”

Malladi, who cut her journalistic teeth writing for a tech magazine in San Francisco, currently does marketing writing when she’s not composing a novel. But though she says, “I can’t write full-time, it drives me up the wall,” she isn’t about to pack up her ink just yet. Looking at her books in print, she admits, “This is addictive. Oh, this is so addictive. They don’t need to pay me a dime.”n

Nakasha Ahmad lives in Ohio.
Published on November 1, 2004.
Photography: Courtesy of Amulya Malladi.
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