Madhur Jaffrey in Autobiography of a Princess (1975)
“A shrewd horse-trader by instinct,” his longtime colleague, Madhur Jaffrey, the mesmerizing actress and indispensable anthologist of Indian food, called him.
She wrote a gently disillusioned, affectionate portrait of Ismail Merchant as host and cook, producer of dinners as well as movies, in her introduction to a book of his recipes. She captured his relentless, incessant wheeling and dealing, the political theater of his dinner parties, courting backers, casting actors, engineering alliances, doing and seeking favors. Ismail Merchant did not conceal the chess he played with people, but his combinations ultimately created festal communities around the table. She also captures the culinary brinksmanship he took pride in, laying out ingredients and starting to cook just as the guests arrived: “This requires both courage and gall, qualities Ismail has in abundance.”
I treasure his cookbooks—they are a true gastronomic self-portrait. A dish like his pancake and chutney stuffing for chicken is characteristic: an ingredient already at hand, fragments of cold pancakes laced with ginger and green chili, a brilliant conjuration. (The two books offer basically the same recipes, although the older version is the more anecdotal, and contains reminiscences of dinners with his friends and filmmaking circle.) The speed at which most of these dishes can be produced is a marvel: meals cooked as their creator lived, impatient, improvisational, startlingly free of self-doubt, certain that what must be done could be done, that the necessary person would materialize.
I met him through Madhur Jaffrey, whom I don’t know, though I once sat next to her in a nail salon on 13th Street while she was having her nails, finger and toe, painted scarlet for a performance of The Vagina Monologues. I had written an appreciation of the exquisite short film Autobiography of a Princess, in which she, in duet with James Mason, and with artfully spliced archival images from princely India, creates a performance like a cinematic Indian miniature. I thought, as I often do, that the piece would be no more than a message in a bottle, and I sent it on its way. It had never occurred to me that messages in bottles were one of Ismail Merchant’s favorite genres of literature; after it was published, I came home from work startled to find a message from him on my answering machine, with an invitation to lunch. I remember we talked about Satyajit Ray’s tragic, unforgettable film, Devi, in which a father-in-law’s dream that his young daughter-in-law is a goddess turns her into the focal point of an entire community’s desires, ending in her destruction when she fails to be anything but human.
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Ismail’s family, and it seems Ismail himself, believed he owed his own life to a family saint said to have miraculous powers, as you can read in his autobiography, My Passage from India. Having had three daughters, Ismail’s mother made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Khwaja Mohinuddin Chistie in Rajasthan, to whom the family had been devoted for over a century, to pray for the birth of a son. “The good saint obliged,” Ismail writes; he was born on the anniversary of a miraculous event, Christmas Day, as if the saint had acknowledged, with a personal flourish, his involvement in the blessing granted. When Ismail’s mother made a thanksgiving pilgrimage on Ismail’s first birthday to have the child weighed in silver coins for alms to distribute to the poor, a holy man present recognized “a true disciple.” The first two photographs in My Passage from India commemorate Ismail’s lifelong devotion to the saint, a dedicated khadim making regular pilgrimages to the shrine, bringing rose petals to the altar, sweeping the site with rosewater, and attending evenings of prayers and sacred music, asking his blessing on a film.
His charmed life, though, was not free of terror or suffering. Ismail had lifelong nightmares about the five years of violence he saw as child in his previously peaceful neighborhood after India’s partition in 1947. But having started life as an answered prayer, he made a vocation of making dreams come true, even when they seemed impossible. He had an uncanny ability to invent a story that somehow, sooner or later, would happen in reality.
As a student, he dreamed of producing shows with the great singers, dancers, and actors in Bombay, whom of course he had no money to pay. So he invented student awards ceremonies at his college of St. Xavier’s to draw in the stars, wangling appearances by the likes of the celestially beautiful actress Nargis and making a stage of the college courtyard.
Later, as an unenthusiastic business student at New York University, he talked his way into Paul Newman’s dressing room after a performance of Sweet Bird of Youth and charmed Newman into giving him a ride back downtown on Newman’s motorcycle. Twenty-eight years later, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were at Ismail’s dinner table, discussing the film they would make together, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. While working part-time at an advertising agency, he publicized himself, announcing his arrival in Hollywood, where he claimed to be a producer seeking American stars to cast in Indian films, “not exactly the truth,” he admitted. This impressed his boss, an executive who years later, keeping the kind of time orchestrated by Ismail’s destiny, brought his daughter to dinner with Ismail: the actress Sigourney Weaver, who Ismail wanted to cast in The Bostonians. “I always knew you would work miracles,” her father told him.
Ismail reminded me of Profit David, the antiques dealer in Rumer Godden’s novel about Kashmir, Kingfishers Catch Fire. Profit David serves the most elegant food in Srinagar as an element of mercantile craft. He feeds potential clients honey rice and apricots stuffed with lamb, learning their appetites; he sells through a kind of divination, recognizing the client who craves the light in the star sapphire more than the stone itself. He sets high prices—but what he sells is priceless. Like Profit David, Ismail was both a merchant and a mystic, often perceived as a having a touch of the charlatan, but nevertheless, a magician whose magic was real. He deployed his dinner table as if it were a market square where snakes were charmed, storytellers held audiences captive, fortunes were told and lives entwined: a crossroads of destiny. Despite his showmanship, his lifelong personal and professional partner James Ivory described his cooking as “my perception of what is good in life.” (Stay tuned for Part Two, with recipe!)
Patricia Storace’s most recent book is the novel The Book of Heaven, in which the intimate histories of eating and storytelling are also deeply entwined. She is also the author of Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece and a book of poems, Heredity. This is the latest in her series of diaries on cooking and reading for Book Post. Her previous recipes for Christmas included Chestnut and Chocolate Pavé, with a consideration of Christmas ghosts, and the Georgia turkey dressing of Civil Rights activist and author Lilian Smith.
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