A Grandmother’s Secrets

Burnt Bread and Chutney: A Memoir of an Indian Jewish Girl, by Carmit Delman, Ballantine Books, $22.95; Random House, $13.95

Carmit Delman’s first encounter with a hot dog was fraught. Sighting at a neighbor’s picnic in her suburban American town the “piles of food [that] seemed to glisten before me with mayonnaise and meatiness,” she crept through the fence and was given one of her own. She returned with it to her kitchen, where her Indian Jewish grandmother, Nana-bai, “[using] the spatula…poked suspiciously at the hot dog in question,” declared that it was “not real food,” and went back to cooking her curry. Delman, meanwhile, wondered what her grandmother could mean, imagined her hot dog “opening a thousand eyes,” and then wolfed it down anyway.

And so the rituals of cultural isolation, assimilation, deference and defiance are set out in Delman’s modest but engaging coming-of-age memoir. Burnt Bread and Chutney. The child of an Ashkenazic father and an Indian Jewish mother, and the grandchild of a very present Indian grandmother, Delman explores the many ways in which she and her family struggle to find a home for themselves in suburban America. The isolations are various; poverty amidst wealth, immigrants among Americans, Old-World values among New, dark-skinned Mizrahi Jews among white Ashkenazim.

These culture clashes are poignant, painful, and often funny as well: Too poor for other food, they eat spaghetti drowned in ketchup donated by fellow synagogue goers. Scraping together money for her 11th birthday party, her parents serve “Price Chopper Corn Chips” and rent the humiliatingly childish video “The Yearling” for entertainment. Hunting for rebellion, a 13-year-old Delman discovers the rock band KISS and begins, incongruous though it was in her deeply sheltered family, to wear “high teased hair and dark eye makeup and lipstick.”

But the real intrigue of Delman’s story is not her own growing-up angst, but her retelling of her grandmother’s history as she uncovers it, bit by bit, while growing up, and the ways in which that history has led to her family’s isolation even within the extended Indian family itself This is uncomfortable and shocking history even for the reader to discover: arranged marriages, competition between sisters for the same man, Nana-bai’s abusive husband. It is Nana-bai’s humiliation at the hands of her older sister, her small acts of defiance—claiming, for instance, a ripe mango for her daughter— and her ultimate escape. It is also the story of how there is no escape, either from her values (Nana-bai chides the young Delman for combing her hair outside, threatening that she’ll be a “spoiled” woman) or from the family shame— I won’t give away the sad secret here—that she endured, even after her death.

Being female in all of this is, of course, the primary liability. Nana-bai, married off by her parents to a wretched man, suffers greatly before her escape. And yet she cannot help but impose the traditional gender hierarchy on her grandchildren. In the scene that gives this book its title, Nana-bai burns a bit of chapati she’s been cooking. “It’s certainly not fine enough to put on the table for your brother and father,” she tells the young Delman. But then she scrapes off the blackened parts, spreads the bread with butter and chutney, and shares it with Delman. “Wordless and distrustful …” Delman recalls, “I ate it, and I was pleased to find that it was good.” It is this mix of deference and rebellion that makes Delman’s story worth reading. She has not analyzed her history deeply, but she has told it well, and in the end we cannot help but understand that her impulses toward modernization and sentimentality, toward integration and isolation, are the dynamic that will continue in Delman and even, though ever-lessening, for generations.

Sarah Blustain is Managing Editor of The New Republic and a LILITH Contributing Editor.