The cover of the children’s book Biji’s In The Kitchen! has a Punjabi grandma casually whistling, her eyes covered with cucumber slices, and stirring a kadhai (wok) as her granddaughter worriedly looks on at a pot overflowing with milk. It sets the tone for the children’s story book about a feisty grandma whose approach to cooking is “freestyle and fun”.
The book, published by Penguin Random House India, borrows from the author Natasha Sharma’s relationship with her grandmother. The prolific writer has published 25 books for young readers across age groups, and her latest is Biji’s In The Kitchen!, released in September. The vivid illustrations by Sonal Gupta bring alive the setting of a Punjabi household, bustling markets of Amritsar and childhood food mementos—bright candy wrappers, jalebis dunked in milk and toast sandwiches with smilies drawn with ketchup.
Incidentally, Sharma and Gupta grew up in Amritsar and settled in Mumbai. In an interview with Lounge, they talk about their creative process, inspirations and the Independence movement. Edited excerpts.
What prompted you to write the book?
Sharma: The story is inspired by my biji (grandmother) who was quite an interesting woman. She would make amazing pickles and chutneys, but her cooking was horrendous. It was unusual for a grandmother to be bad in the kitchen, but she was also one of those women who didn’t let stereotypes of any form set into my mind: She drove a jeep. Although her cooking was bad, she loved to eat and would take us on food jaunts around old Amritsar. When I started writing this book, I wondered if the central character should be Masterchef Biji, or Biker Biji; and the idea slowly coalesced into this direction of showcasing both the food of Amritsar and the personality of a feisty and fun grandmother.
What was the creative process for the illustrations?
Gupta: It was special because it’s about going back to my childhood in Amritsar. I was given three months to complete them, but the timeline had to be extended because my maasi (aunt) fell ill. I visited Amritsar to spend time with her. The dressing table in the book, with a mirror dotted with bindis, is hers. For recce, I visited people’s homes in Amritsar, just to observe. There are little visual details, like an empty Old Monk bottle repurposed to hold a money plant, the grills in the kitchen, and a mixer model that’s now defunct. These are such Punjabi things; as illustrators, we leave cues for the reader to pick up. I grew up in a neighbourhood in old Amritsar with narrow gullies that had mangled electric wires hanging if you looked up at the sky, and they were crowded with food vendors. There’s a stall named Gian Di Lassi in the book that’s inspired by a real shop.
How did you meet each other?
Gupta: Natasha had posted about a kulcha from Amritsar on Instagram and we got talking. I used to follow her, and we didn’t know that both of us are from the same city. We connected and discovered that I went to the school that her father had established in Amritsar.
Sharma: Yes, it was quite serendipitous. When Penguin signed up the book, I was asked if I had an illustrator in mind. I knew it had to be Sonal because she would get where the story was coming from, and there would be authenticity in the art.
In the book, Biji’s mishmash approach to recipes is shaped by hunger strikes during the Independence movement. Why did you include this reference?
Sharma: My grandparents and great grandparents witnessed the Independence struggle first-hand. Most people from that generation are no longer alive, and I was fortunate to hear those stories from them. I wanted to put this little bit in to create a space for young readers to question, and possibly think about why someone would deliberately stay hungry. It can lead to conversations and discovery; whatever is appropriate for that age. Perhaps they would realise that the rights we have as citizens of the country, are something that people have fought for. It’s never too early to put a seed of a conversation in.
How can one explain a complex term, like hunger strike, to children?
Sharma: One can begin by talking about standing up for their rights, and speaking up against wrong doing. This takes different forms; and one of them is a hunger strike. A lot of children are familiar with Mahatma Gandhi, because they’ve heard or studied about him in school. He was a proponent of non violence, and he adopted hunger strikes as a tool of non-violent protest. You can tell a child it's just a way for people to say that they are willing to give up something which is very dear to them, to show how much a particular cause means to them. During the Independence movement, they were willing to forego food for days to demonstrate how much freedom for the country meant to them.
What food books would you recommend for young readers?
Sharma: The first is a picture book What’s Neema Eating Today written by Bijal Vachharajani and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan. It talks about seasonal foods in a manner that will resonate with curious minds. Then there's I will not ever never eat a tomato by Lauren Child. It’s about a fussy eater with a sibling who makes food fun through sheer imagination. For instance, if she says she wouldn’t eat peas, her brother would say they weren’t peas, they were drops of Jupiter.
How does food feature in your books?
Sharma: I have written different series for young readers. The series on Good Indian Child’s Guide has a book on eating mangoes. The History Mystery series has several books where food drives the story forward, or is used as a cultural reference. For instance, the opening scene of the book Tughlaq and the Stolen Sweets is about a lunch. It has a menu that was largely drawn from the account of the famous explorer Ibn Batuta when he was visiting the sultan. The menu is true to that time with jackfruit curry, sambusaks and sugared melon from Khurasim.