Book Review: The Exotic Rissole

By Paula Green

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Book cover of The Exotic Rossole. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of The Exotic Rossole. Photo / Supplied

Tanveer Ahmed has written a memoir that entertains but also gives you something to think about. The Exotic Rissole explores mixed cultural relations. You get to travel the parallel paths, the intersections, the overlaps and the collisions. Your travelling companions are a sense of humour and an ability to reflect.

At the age of 5, Ahmed migrated from Bangladesh to Toongabbie, in western Sydney. In this new world, where everything felt so startlingly foreign, Ahmed gravitated towards that difference.

His first best friend, Darryl, lapped up the spices in the vegetable curry at Ahmed's place, but Ahmed yearned for the plain rissoles and baked potatoes at Darryl's. Ahmed's mother eventually learns to cook rissoles but in a Bangladeshi kind of way - with spices.

Ahmed has a hunger for life reflected in his writing. He is not satisfied with a single career path. He studies to be a doctor and works in diverse places upon completing his study and as an intern in Alice Springs and Bangladesh.

He works in journalism. He has a go as a stand-up comedian. He successfully auditions for television work. He takes time out for a gap year. He trains to be a psychiatrist.

The comic streak is a feature of the writing. His mother, usually seen in colourful saris, was given a bright dress, which she wore out proudly. The dress turned out to be a nightie.

He borrows a line from Jerry Seinfeld to say that breaking up (with his first love) was like pulling stringy cheese from a pizza.

What gives the memoir the extra zest is Ahmed's background in how the mind works. The writing bears a reflective edge, with a need to understand human behaviour, and to foster avenues of empathy rather than conflict. This seems to be a feature both on the page and in his life.

Ahmed's empathetic approach to his father is particularly moving. Ahmed's parents are neither dogmatic nor authoritarian, but at times the father finds the choices of his children hard to tolerate (his daughter gets a job and his son drinks alcohol and has girlfriends).

When the father hits the roof over the daughter and the job, Ahmed tries to understand what his father is going through. His parents are both secular and liberal, but they have Muslim roots.

What this memoir does more than anything is to navigate with insight and humour "who" one becomes in a new place.

There is racism, love, understanding, misunderstanding and subversion. There are new likes and shifting goals.

He starts the book with his cravings for rissoles and soda-stream drinks and ends by celebrating his exam pass with his Australian wife and Bangladesh family. He orders steak, bacon and a bowl of fresh chilli.

The Exotic Rissole is the uplifting story of the boy becoming a man.

He absorbs local tastes, customs and experiences like a sponge, but he maintains important lifelines back to the tastes and traditions of his birthplace.

Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.

- NZ Herald

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