India: Chicken dansak for the soul
Michael Booth took his family to India to research a book on the country's cuisine – but he discovered that a mid-life crisis was on the menu
"He went to India in search of recipes, he ended up going in search of himself." Occasionally, that's how I imagine the trailer for the movie of my mid-life crisis (assuming it's directed by Ron Howard), but before you reach for the sick bucket, my story is really not as Oprah-esque as it sounds but is founded in the kind of situation in which many people find themselves.
I was about to turn 40, had recently moved to the countryside, was drinking heavily, and was fatally distracted by social media, the internet and self-pity. I was cracking up, burned out, and bereft because my nearest Indian restaurant was 40 miles away.
If I were a glass-half-full kind of person, I would have been content. I had a family I loved, a roof over my head and I was my own boss, all factors that, we are told, are the cornerstones to happiness in life. I should have spent my time comparing myself to the 99.9 per cent of the population of earth who had less than me, but instead I spent my time comparing up.
In a desperate – and I think I realised it even at the time, futile – attempt to drag myself out of my malaise, I took myself and my family off to India to research a follow-up book to my last, Sushi and Beyond. That had described a food journey through Japan; this new one would be about India. It all made perfect sense at the time, except that, as I was to discover, India and Japan are two very different countries, with two very different cuisines.
As my wife, two young sons and I began to travel through the Punjab and Rajasthan in January last year, it became increasingly apparent that I had taken on far more than I could handle. Looking back, it was the height of presumptiousness to have thought that I, as a westerner, could swan around the Sub-continent in a few months and come up with anything even remotely definitive in terms of a food book about India. And it was extremely foolhardy to drag my young children thousands of miles away from their home for several months but, at the time, I felt I had no choice. I simply wanted to run away.
As everyone from Descartes to Alain de Botton has observed, you can never really escape your problems with this kind of geographical displacement, and mine began to tap me on my shoulder in Mumbai. I had arranged to interview the great Indian chef, Hemant Oberoi, of the Taj Hotel group, but had been up drinking in our hotel bar with some random expat the night before and woke up that day with the most fearful hangover. During the interview, during an extravagant lunch at the Taj Hotel, I had to excuse myself and leave the restaurant so I could throw up.
Some days later came the intervention which, deep down, I had been expecting for months. On a boat on the backwaters of Kerala my wife cornered me with a radical change of plan.
"I've arranged for us to study with a special yoga instructor in Mysore for a month," she told me. "You are going to do an intensive yoga course. I'm worried about you. Your health. Worried about your drinking."
I scoffed: "Don't be ridiculous. I'm perfectly healthy. If you think I'm going to make a fool of myself doing yoga ..." Part of the problem in admitting I actually was an alcoholic lay in the fact that, as I was prone to saying when thus accused, "I don't pour vodka on my cornflakes in the morning", by which I meant, I was not classic Alcoholics Anonymous material. I had no glorious, gutter-licking war stories of drunken hijinks, car crashes, broken limbs, or fights (good grief, I'd run a mile). Not even much staggering.
I was a classic middle-class "risky drinker", as were several of my friends. When discussing our alcohol intake, we would usually allay our guilt by citing the health benefits of red wine, reminding each other to have at least one dry day a week. Besides, I was too frightened, too controlled to allow myself to step over the line into complete, tramp-style dereliction. But I would think about drinking on and off throughout the day. I would look forward to the first glass I would pour – is any sound as laden with promise as that of a cork being pulled? – as I started to make dinner at about 6pm, in the same way, I expect, any addict looks forward to those first moments of brief serenity brought them by their substance of choice. And then I'd look forward to the second glass after the kids had gone to bed.
Perhaps if I had been able to leave it there, I might reasonably have argued that there was no great problem, but I couldn't. I was pathologically incapable of not finishing an opened bottle of wine.
On that damned boat, puttering slowly along the Indian Norfolk Broads, I ran the gamut of Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's four initial stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, but as we returned to terra firma, I had come around to the fifth and final stage: acceptance.
I agreed I needed to change. I agreed to go through with my wife's one-month intensive yoga plan. I agreed not to touch alcohol for the entire month. If I did, she made it quite clear that she and the children would go home, the unspoken threat being that I would not necessarily be encouraged to join them. And I agreed, above all, to take the whole thing seriously.
Which is how, a week later, I found myself in a yoga shala in Mysore sweating buckets and attempting to contort my body into positions from a game of spiritual Twister, sitting cross-legged saying "Om" and, later on during my stay there, taking a transcendental meditation course.
Together, these two elements – my brief daily yoga and TM practise, just 20 minutes here and there – have helped bring balance and equanimity into my life. Somehow, against form, I have managed to turn myself into a disciplined person, and disciplined people can stop at two glasses. That deep, insatiable craving to escape has simply disappeared, evaporated.
I still enjoy drinking socially but I no longer drink to numb myself. The asanas are a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy: they make me feel disciplined, therefore I am disciplined. They also keep me flexible, moderately fitter, and have helped me keep the weight off since India. The meditation is like breath-freshener for the mind. It relaxes me, brings clarity.
It is not necessary to travel to India to sort out your problems.But the one thing India can do is to put things into perspective. Perhaps nothing is more sobering than a spot of comparing down.
'Eat, Pray, Eat' is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy for the special price of £13.49 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit Independentbooksdirect.co.uk
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