Reviewed by Shikhandin
Title: Ultimate Grandmother Hacks – 50 kickass traditional habits for a fitter you
Author: Kavita Devgan
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Pages: Paperback, 218
Price: INR 295/-
The title of the book will grab any millennial’s attention. The book cover is elegant and clutter free, in spite of packing in a title that runs into a sentence, the author’s name, the visual element and an endorsement by Kiran Mazumdar Shaw. The back cover is strengthened by two more celebrity endorsements, apart from a pithy blurb set to hook the reader. I am certain this book is doing well. Especially since it embraces a subject that will always remain ever green – fitness through food.
“Ultimate Grandmother Hacks” is written in a conversational style, like most books of its ilk, dishing out tips and recipes and so forth, in what the author and her editors assumedly believe is accessible, readable. I guess it really is a matter of individual taste. Accessibility can become frivolous, and at times talk down to the readers. It was probably this aspect that made it a little difficult for me to take this ride with Devgan. Every now and then, I felt like a tourist being led by a guide who has nothing new to say, but gushes about it, nevertheless.
“Now all mothers are amazing. But mine is not just amazing, she is somehow supremely attuned to all things healthy too. Case in point: one of her recent concoctions is grated beetroot and carrot atta (dough), seasoned with salt and ajwain (carom seeds). Imagine beetroot parantha (bread). Unusual, agreed. But what a fantastic, even if somewhat twisted way to sneak in healthy eating.” This piece, in the prologue, breezily proclaiming a standard homemaker’s tactic to make regular paratha to be her mother’s invention, was off putting; and then, going on to explain Indian words to an Indian audience, pretty much throughout the book. If one must make allowances for foreign readers, then, please just add it to the glossary at the end. Readers are not fools, nor are they all that ignorant. Though going by the tone of the whole book, Kavita Devgan obviously believes so. And, then it hit me.
Who is this book really for?
Not me, an old and experienced hand in the kitchen, straddling both the traditional and modern-cosmopolitan worlds of food with ease. Certainly not. Devgan has written this for young people. I can almost visualise her target readers: busy, upwardly mobile thirty five and below Indian men and women, grappling with long hours hunched over their computers, heads perennially tilted towards their cell phones, whose parents were too busy ensuring they made great strides forward in the material world to impart values. Then again, perhaps it is a good thing after all, this talking from a pedestal angle that Devgan applies. Because people, young and old get so busy chasing life that they forget what they knew, or even choose to ignore it for the sake of convenience. It was at this point in my reading that I felt perhaps I had been too one-sided. Devgan’s advice and tips may be what we have grown up being told and have watched people of our generation and those before practice without questioning. It is a well-known fact that those who followed a traditional life style lived healthier, and (this I have seen for myself) possessed suppler bodies and better skin. Even eye sight was better.
Devgan nowhere claims to be the originator of the knowledge she shares here. In fact, she harps on the fact that these are age old practices, which we should follow. Throughout the book, “old is gold” seems to be her mantra. There is also a spine of thought connecting Devgan’s advice and admonition – which is simply to slow down and be mindful. This cannot be said enough. Even those who know, forget to follow it. Most of her food tips require involvement in the kitchen, which forces one to do just that.
The book, as Devgan points out in one of the introductory chapters, “How to Read the Book,” is divided into three portions, the (significantly) larger of which is about “food, lifestyle and mind,” detailing traditional ways that we can re-introduce into our modern lives. The second portion is a calendar of sorts with simple steps that one can follow for three months. The third provides easy to follow instructions that make those steps achievable.
The formula is supposed to turn one’s health around, and make way for a fitter person with permanent changes made in one’s food intake and lifestyle. In Devgan’s words, “The idea is to recall the good old habits and slowly incorporate them back in our lives – reprogram our body and mind – and lifestyles and make a conscious effort to begin making the traditional, time-proven choices again. This … is the route to gain a healthier, stronger and detoxed body, a more nourished soul, a friendlier weight on the scale and a more controlled and efficient mind.”
These are hefty promises to keep, especially when one comes across advice like sitting on the floor for our meals like our ancestors did. But as they say, if you aim for the stars, you will at least get an apple in your hand. One can strive for 100% and that way achieve at least 80%. Not a bad deal.
I am tempted to do a chapter by chapter break up, but I think that will take away the taste of a first reading. The chapters are short and to the point. From chapter two onwards, in the first portion, Devgan adds mini chapters that complement the preceding chapter. Just to give the prospective reader about what to expect though, here are the outlines of the first four:
Chapter one is about maintaining the PH balance with tips on how to go about it. Chapter two talks about balancing the five tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Devgan is quick to add that there are six tastes or rasas according to Ayurveda – madhura, amla, lavana, tikta, katu and kashai, the last two being pungent and astringent.
Chapter three explains what processed foods truly are. Chapter four extols the versatility and virtues of the ever popular daal in Indian cuisine, across the subcontinent. And here is a portion of an interesting scientific detail from the book: “pulse based diet delivers more arginine, an amino acid that has been observed to increase both carbohydrate and fat burning, besides improving and controlling blood pressure. Pulses also deliver phenylalanine which boosts memory and improves compliance to exercise.” With an argument like this who can deny daal? I made dried split pea soup today, inspired by this chapter on daal. It’s a quick and easy to make soup, hearty and filling, and great for a nippy day.
Some of the words of advice however are not just difficult, but impossible to follow. Like eating raw onions with every meal. Sorry. I simply don’t see anyone chomping on an onion during an office lunch break and returning to attend a client meeting! Eating from banana leaves is nice, but it is difficult to source, and a bit messy to eat from if it gets torn during washing – yes, banana leaves must be thoroughly washed before you put your food on it. I would opt for clay plates or even brass ones. They say silver is supposed to be good, but one would have to be very rich to afford silver plates for everyday meals! I agree with chewing on a betel leaf after a meal, and only the leaf, as Devgan says. I eat paan without any additives whenever I can. It does aid digestion and is a wonderful mouth freshener.
The first part of the book ends at chapter thirty two, where she asks her readers to literally slow down. To be mindful of the day to day activities, and even ponder over the way we exercise. This is a summation of what she has been stressing throughout. Most of the chapters appear like articles in a weekend newspaper. You feel good when you read them, even when you gloss over the words, picking up a point or two. Given the attention span of people these days, I suppose this is necessary, but those looking for something more substantial, it can be dissatisfying.
The second and third parts of the book are slim in comparison, and basically consist of a chart of sorts for three months followed by recipes and tips. These two parts are meant to be thumbed through every now and then.
As I mentioned at the beginning, “Ultimate Grandmother Hacks” is a book that will be bought and browsed through from time to time. It’s a nice, feel good book, basically repackaging old beliefs specifically for people forever on the go. And even though, sometimes I felt exasperation as I read, I must acknowledge that it’s helpful to have age old habits and wisdom made to fit into an easy to peruse paperback in these days of fast paced lives.
Shikhandin is an Indian writer whose story collection Immoderate Men was published by Speaking Tiger, 2017 (http://speakingtigerbooks.com/books/immoderate-men/). Vibhuti Cat, her first children’s book, was published by Duckbill in 2018. Shikhandin’s prose and poetry have won awards and accolades in India and abroad; she has been widely published worldwide. https://www.amazon.com/author/shikhandin