Winning praises from the likes of Shashi Tharoor, the bar for Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan: Food of the Gods is set high. But if you’re expecting a venerable tome, drowned in verbose text and pedagogy, you are in for a pleasant surprise. The authors, Varud Gupta, who has travelled across the world in search of culinary adventures, and Devang Singh, a photographer, director and producer with a keen understanding of light, say, “At its core, this book is about the culture and cuisine of niche communities and faiths across India, but we hope the readers also enjoy the tonality, journey, and visuals that come together to make it what it is.”
TV show idea turned coffee table book
A clear cross between a coffee table book and a non-fiction chronicle, Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan is a light-hearted travelogue of food cultures, known and unknown in India. The book was a result of a TV show idea that the authors were originally toying with. The name of the book came about “while scrambling to put the concept together for a pitch while on a vacation in Goa,” they say. The original plan included 11 destinations with a goal to capture a bit of every faith and cuisine, but that plan didn’t end up being realistic.
Straddling the fine lines between food and religion, both of which have become contentious in the current socio-political and cultural scenario, Gupta and Singh, impress with their extensive research and exemplary photo frames and easy-going style of writing.
Bringing in a fresh perspective to food-writing, in Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan, the two have steered clear of everything that is controversial, sticking to the basic premise of exploring Indian culinary highlights, with religion as a key denominator. They are of the firm belief that the world is not a terrible place and the way food brings people together, so does religion—one needs to look at it for the positive attributes. “Every place we went to, we were joined by individuals and communities from different walks of life. It was rather humbling and heart-melting,” say the duo.
Criss-crossing the country’s culinary landscape
The travelogue-cum-cookbook sees the young authors start their journey in Meghalaya amidst the Karbi tribe folk and discover how chicken and rice beer form an important part of the rituals. A Christian community—the tribe is a perfect example of how irrespective of the religion, food plays a pivotal role in their faith and community at large—in case of the tribe, their reliance on produce such as bamboo, local greens and herbs, rice and rice products forms an integral part of eating and praying.
Soaking in copious amounts of the local rice beer and the lively spirit of the Karbi community, the duo travel from the northeast to the west coast in search of the fire (literally) that drives the Parsi community and the Zoroastrian faith in Udvada, Gujarat. The community holds within itself a dichotomy; on one hand they are a gregarious community with an unparalleled passion for food, and on the other hand, they are very private about their religion and ensuing rituals.
From the West, they journey to the east of India to explore what is left of the Jewish community in Kolkata. While Flower and Jael Silliman are the names to know anything about the almost extinct group of Baghdadi Jews in the City of Joy, Gupta and Singh sniffed around to unearth the history of the original Jewish settler, Shalome Obadiah Ha-Cohen, and his descendants. The authors also throw light upon the distinctive culinary cultures such as the Shabbat and the concept of kosher.
Hard to miss the 56-course meal served at the Shree Jagannath Temple, the duo move further ahead to the land of Lord Jagannath in Puri, Odisha, and reveal the feeling of anticipation of bhog the ‘lord of the universe’ devours. Daily. The concept of chappan bhog is an established one for those who follow the Vaishnav tenets, but at Shree Jagannath Temple, it is truly a larger than life experience as the authors discover.
The breathtaking mountainous village of Spiti is known for its sensitive ecosystem that has been drawing tourists from all over the world. In an isolated altitude with very little fresh produce and Buddhism as the main religion, it is the last stop in the book. The duo aims to scratch at least the surface of the local culture, of which food forms an integral part.
Taking food of the gods to millennials
As you turn the last page of the book, you’re will find Bhagwan ke Pakwaan well-researched, documented, and at the same time, flippant. The book is penned in a way to attract the new-age millennials to the sombre topic of food for gods and more—interspersed with colloquial language, pop-culture and Game of Thrones references.
They say, “The tone is a reflection on us as individuals on this journey. At the end of the day, we were creating something that we ourselves would want to consume. In fact, the first publisher we’d chatted with wanted to bring on a new writer and formalise the language to target people that ‘typically read’ food books. But what’s the fun in that?”
The publisher of Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan, Penguin Random House, was more open to their unconventional writing style, “Gurveen, our editor at Penguin, pushed us towards the current tone. It helped us stay genuine and create a stronger connection with readers, regardless of age, faith or belly-size.”
As with most cookbooks, this book also lists recipes at the end of each journey, which the duo have tried, tested and domesticated for the readers’ convenience. By the end of the book, you feel a sense of enlightenment and yearn for a little more; Gupta and Singh ensure that there are more books in the pipeline that would continue to explore the interactions between culture and cuisine.
“We want to take this to other mediums such as TV and events so that more people can become a part of this journey,” they add.