Most accounts of Western travellers in India have some mention of Delhi Belly, after a sordid encounter with spicy food, or an infected street snack or just an ordinary, normal Indian meal that is too exotic for a delicate stomach used to bland cuisine. The end result is explosive, with several dashes to whichever toilet facility is available at the moment, and often to unusual privies behind bushes and even in the open. The whole thing is a rite of passage for the traveller, after which the system gets used to what India has to offer.
Zac O’Yeah, who is a Swede, has had no dearth of such encounters. He begins his book with colourful descriptions of these many episodes – a “dubious tandoori chicken” in Patna, a fried mussel in a “sour mood” in Thalaserry and “dicey seafood” in a five-star hotel in Colombo, the last of which ultimately necessitated a dash to the nearest coconut grove. This proves that India is not the only country where travellers suffer because of the food – the experienced O’Yeah mentions Beijing burps, Istanbul intestines and Moroccan motions, among others. Digesting India, as the book is called, begins with a lot of indigestion.
After those early incidents, O’Yeah grew hardened and continued to travel around India trying whatever local cuisine was on offer. He now lives in the country, in Bangalore and no doubt pooh-poohs at those with delicate tummies who come here with tins of baked beans and tonnes of Imodium. His book, about his travels around the country trying out every sort of food, shows that his belly-aching days are long past. Reading through it, one begins to admire not just his sense of adventure, but also his penchant for discovering the grub places that long-term residents of the city he visits may not know about, or prefer not to know about.
Because O’Yeah – for the most part – seeks out the ‘downmarket’. He is a connoisseur of the street, the cheap joint, the hole in the wall where he seems to be convinced the best stuff is available –“…about 10 percent of my days consist of healthy tourism, 90 percent spent on hunting things to eat and drink excessively. The beverage part of my diet is, as always, very straightforward: Zero in on any downmarket bar to sample unbranded beverages…”.
There are occasions when he does not live up to this motto, as the reader finds out later, but the book begins promisingly on that note, in his adopted home town. At 50 pages, ‘A Town Called Beershop’ is the longest, most detailed chapter in the book, which ruminates over bookshops, local lore, and food establishments ranging from the famed Koshy’s to those in the somewhat seedy neighbourhood of Majestic, where three of his detective novels are set in. Majestic has changed a lot, O’Yeah laments and it is a familiar sentiment for denizens of many cities where ‘development’ has meant destruction of the old, where eating and drinking places of the working class are being brought down to service the aspirational classes.
The author’s fondness for Bangalore is visible throughout, as he walks in and out of bookstores and bars – he calls himself an “aficionado of unfashionably seedy taverns”. Some of those have regrettably disappeared as Bangalore has become the home of posh pubs which proudly sell a vast number of craft beers.
From here he proceeds to Mysore, whose dosas he loves and where R K Narayan, one of his favourite writers, lived and worked for years. There is a charming side trip to locate where the real Malgudi could be, all intermingled with food and more food.
And then on to Kerala, where it is fish, fish and more fish; Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu and Hyderabad follow and then on to Goa, which gives O’Yeah a chance to indulge in a lot of feni. Feni, made of coconut or cashew, is an acquired taste and often Goans look askance if one does not care for it; (full disclosure, this reviewer does not). No such worries with O’Yeah, who quaffs it with joy and abandon even tries, in a slightly drunken condition, to convince the writer Orhan Pamuk whom he meets at a party thrown by the writer Amitav Ghosh, who has made Goa his home, like many others.
Many writers, from Ibn Batuta to Rudyard Kipling to E M Forster and Somerset Maugham, to contemporary names figure throughout the book as O’Yeah relies on their memoirs and retraces their steps to imagine what they would have eaten.
From Goa, it is Mumbai, which he is familiar with, where he begins with a vada pao outside the station where he arrives and then to other places he knows, including Military Cafe and Sarvi, after which the drinking scene is all but over. He heads to Sevagram, where he comes this close to turning into an austere Gandhian, eating the most meagre of meals and then to Gujarat – Ahmedabad, specifically, where he stays at the elegantly restored House of MG. Ahmedabad has little scope for boozing, leave alone for seedy janta joints, though it has a vibrant bootlegger economy which O’Yeah does not mention.
Moving to Rajasthan, there is a sudden tonal shift in the book – gone is the grunge of the previous destinations; here it is all havelis and forts, whose owners wine and dine O’Yeah. He admires the restoration of Alila Bhishangarh, an imposing fort with turrets and high walls which which was converted into a hotel without disturbing its character. And he chats with the owner of Malji ka Kamra, an old mansion in Churu, over chilled wine in the desert.
Delhi is all about chats and kababs in the older parts of the city, checking out the dhabas when he is recalling chats with Arundhati Roy, who has a small place in the neighbourhood. He knows Delhi well, having visited it often earlier, and savours the street food that the city is known for. Ditto Kolkata, where O’Yeah is once again in familiar surroundings. Ginsberg, the Park Street cemetery, and a lot of fish—it satisfies the mind, stomach and soul.
And then onward to Bhutan, for a literary festival, where he ditches the company of other authors and seeks out local grub and beer in out-of-the-way bars. This adds a lot of local colour, though it is a bit of a strange add-on, since he has been only writing about India so far.
O’Yeah brings a lot of knowledge and research to his writing, but wears all of it lightly – the tone is light, the puns keep flowing and occasionally we see some of his sly wit, as when he quotes Amit Chaudhari, who forays from his usual haunts of the clubs and five-star hotels to the somewhat grungier side streets and observes the poorer residents of Calcutta washing their pots and pans and hands over Rs 50 to an ‘ailing child labourer’. “This is perhaps the best description I’ve read of the city’s elite viewing their less fortunate fellow city dwellers.”
All through the book I felt like immediately booking myself a ticket to the place he was writing about and at the end, wanted to undergo the same adventure – try the foods, learn about the place, see the landmarks and talk to the locals. Though I can do without all those gastronomical mishaps.