TEXT review

A lucky encounter between secret spices and writing

review by Dominique Hecq


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:The Secret Vindaloo.jpg
Keith St Clair Butler
The Secret Vindaloo
Bay Road Media, Auckland 2014
ISBN 9780473279028
Pb 263pp AUD29.00


The goddess of writing was smiling upon Keith St Clair Butler when he came up with the idea of using food as a structural metaphor for his new novel:

You collect your secret spices onto a grinding stone, crack and pound the turmeric root with the end of your stone roller, and the stain spreads over the pitted tablet into grooves like secret writing. (3)

The pronoun ‘You’ refers to the narrator’s mother, the vin d’alu Queen, the home-maker who breaks the bonds of home in the name of the unconditional love she reserves for her son, Puttla, born in Calcutta and destined to seek his English heritage in Australia.

Like a house on the borderlands, Butler’s novel, The Secret Vindaloo, is haunted: by a sense of lost purity and grandeur, deep wisdom that has been forgotten, a confusing cultural heritage, by the contact with colonial powers and a bunch of family secrets; by a sense that the world has lost its smack, its flavour.

The novel opens in hilarious picaresque mode when its main protagonist, and also its narrator, Puttla Marks, is on a quest for the perfect recipe for pork vindaloo, engages in a bout of rage at a local food court and is taken to the Melbourne Detention Centre under armed guard. He is arrested and questioned by Australian government facilitator Claude Anttick. As Anttick implements a fancy Australian citizenship test, asking twelve questions such as ‘what is Australian slang for Vegemite?’ (187) and ‘what is the legend of the loaded dog?’ (227) Puttla Marks spins stories for answers, each question sparking off memories through word-associations. This conceit is at the origin of a cycle of stories spanning generations, cultures and continents.

The stories take the reader through Puttla’s confused idea of home – indeed his confused imaginary universe – and explore gaps between Indian and Anglo cultures across histories. Puttla Marks’ parentage, for example, is, if not uncertain, at least open to interpretation. He is headstrong, cheerful, forthright, and desperately articulate as well as imaginative. He is also naïve. He is a born story-teller who falls in love at the drop of a hat – with images, books, languages, women, films and technology.

However far the narrative of The Secret Vindaloo may seem to wander in time and space, the action centres tightly, even obsessively, on the interrelation between Anglo and Indian worlds, and in particular in the gap between the two words – filled by a hyphen:

The remarkable thing about Big Da’s diary is his use of hyphens. They are everywhere. I think he felt most comfortable with the hyphen because his life was like one. He was an Anglo-Indian and a half-caste according to the mores of the time. He, like the hyphen, was used to living in a gap, and he probably felt he had no right to a history. (125)

Puttla resembles Big Da in that he will learn to be comfortable with the hyphen. But unlike Big Da, he will claim a history from India, England and France and he will recreate it through writing in Australia.

For all its seductiveness, sensuousness and poetry for all its humour and comedy, this is a serious book. The hyphen is the enigma at its core. In the sections of the novel set in bygone Calcutta and Madras, there is the sense that English differs from other Indian languages in that it was not born on Indian soil; it has not grown through having been used daily and lovingly by all classes of people; it has not developed layers, like a pearl, through years of association with the history and culture of a particular people. And yet it is a language that encodes a whole culture.

Here is one dilemma for the Anglo-Indian writer. It is as though by writing in English he crosses a line and becomes even more of the outsider by virtue of a dual cultural heritage – looking from ‘out there’ at both cultures he is writing about. The realisation is that the biggest challenge is often knowing no Indian language; thereby Anglo-Indians have no ‘indigenous’ literary tradition to speak of – not at first hand, anyway. This is exemplified in several instances in the novel, as for example when Puttla recalls how, during an exam, he literally fell in love with Bengali:

While the rest of the class sharpened pencils, shaved erasers, sucked the back of pens, inspected ruler edges, I readied my pen and ruled up my paper. In answer to why Rabindranath Tagore returned his Nobel Prize medal to the queen empress, I called upon my method of memorizing Bengali script. I drew my essay. I drew miniature  ◄s, Bill Haley Kiss curls, mirror £ shapes, spliced ♦s, kulkul corkscrew shapes, marble outlines, P. K. chewing gum rectangles, fishhooks, brinjal ovals, rashogollahs, chippy alu rectangles, scythes, gun triggers, lances, bayonets, buckteeth. I wrote my name above the test paper by placing a darning needle with unfurled thread beside a ◄ for the letter B. (100-101)

This falling in love is fraught, as all the codes implicated in the process suggest. Puttla soon falls out of love when he fails to recite a poem by Tagore in sequential order, a moment the novel dramatises.

The tension between the Anglo and the Indian most dramatically unfolds in a chapter titled ‘Ujjain 1799’ wherein war breaks out in the aftermath of a Royal Wedding, a reminder that cultural heritage comes in contact with colonial powers.

In The Secret Vindaloo it is as though Anglo-Indians are twice removed from their cultural roots and must rebound between their two complex cultural legacies. But the novel suggests there is no single entity called ‘Anglo-Indian’; there are many entities, each with its own language, identity history, regional parameters and personal taste. Anglo-Indian has to struggle to find a place for itself in gaps. Myths and stories can bridge this gap. A certain attentiveness to the other, empathy and love are the secret ingredient to vin d’alu.





Dominique Hecq's first publication, The Book of Elsa, a mythically inflected novel, was published in 2000. Since then she has published three collections of short fiction, five books of poetry, and one CD with libretto, Thirst, with the assistance of sound artist Catherine Clover. Two of her plays have been performed in Australia, Belgium and Germany. Her recent work increasingly pursues polygeneric concerns – see Out of Bounds and Stretchmarks of Sun (re.press). Hush, in progress, pushes this formal concern even further.


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Vol 19 No 1 April 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews Editor: Ross Watkins