Kirchner, Bharti 1940-
KIRCHNER, Bharti 1940-
PERSONAL: Born June 1, 1940, in Calcutta, India; daughter of Anima and Amiya Nandi; married Tom Kirchner (a software professional), July 13, 1976. Ethnicity: "Asian Indian." Education: Calcutta University, B.S., 1959, M.S. (mathematics), 1961; University of Washington, nonfiction writing certificate, 1990. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, traveling.
CAREER: Bank of America, San Francisco, CA, systems manager, 1980-84; IBM, Seattle, WA, advisory systems engineer, 1984-89; freelance writer, 1989—.
MEMBER: Toastmasters International, Pacific Northwest Writers' Association, Northwest Bookfest, Artist Trust.
AWARDS, HONORS: Winner, Campbell Soup Soupedup-Soup Recipe Contest, 1990; first place, Philadelphia Writer's Conference, 1992, for nonfiction book proposal; GAP grant, Artist Trust, 1995; Seattle Arts Commission grants, 1996 and 1998.
The Healthy Cuisine of India: Recipes from the Bengal Region, Lowell House (Los Angeles, CA), 1992.
Indian Inspired: A New Cuisine for the International Table, Lowell House (Los Angeles, CA), 1993.
The Bold Vegetarian: One Hundred Fifty Inspired International Recipes, HarperPerennial (New York, NY), 1995.
Vegetarian Burgers, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.
Shiva Dancing, Dutton (New York, NY), 1998.
Sharmila's Book, Dutton (New York, NY), 1999.
Darjeeling, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discoveries, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2003.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel.
SIDELIGHTS: A native of India who immigrated to the United States, Bharti Kirchner utilized her knowledge of Indian cuisine to launch her writing career, which has culminated in the publication of several well-received cookbooks and novels. Kirchner was a systems engineer with a love of cooking when she won a recipe contest in 1990, an event that became the catalyst for her new career. In 1992 her first cookbook was published, titled The Healthy Cuisine of India: Recipes from the Bengal Region. In the following four years, Kirchner produced three more recipe books, inspired not only by the foods of India, but also those of nearly every corner of the globe. A lifelong student of literature, Kirchner segued to fiction writing in 1998 with the publication of Shiva Dancing, a story that explores the friction created when Western and Indian worlds collide. As Kirchner told Julie Rajan in the magazine Monsoon, her novels "deal with identity, displacement, and collision of cultures; collision of old and the new," factors she sees as "universal concerns" that transcend her "own identity issues."
In The Healthy Cuisine of India Kirchner pointed out how the cuisine of India varies by subculture and religion. Focusing on the more nutritious foods common to the Indian region of Bengal, a subtropical land that lies within the Ganges River Delta, Kirchner reveals that Bengali cooking typically uses less meat and cooking oil than most Indian cuisine. "The nature and variety of dishes found in Bengali cooking are unique even in India," the author writes. Always health-conscious, Kirchner provides recipes that are low in fat, salt, and sugar, though oils are sometimes used. Guiding the reader step-by-step through each recipe, Kirchner includes instruction on methods of preparation and various techniques for cooking. Some of the recipes included are chnotar ghughni (a chick-pea stew with seasonings and brown onions) and murghir dom (boneless chicken covered with ginger puree and served with a coriander-yogurt sauce). Other recipes include flatbreads, chutneys, and raitas, as well as sweets.
Each chapter of The Healthy Cuisine of India deals with a different type of cooking. One chapter details vegetarian cooking, and another focuses on dhals— bean dishes common in India. In addition, there are chapters about drinks and foods to be served at tea time and one designated for more "adventurous" cooks. Kirchner also provides the names of outlets located in a number of states and in Canada where cooks can obtain Bengali ingredients. The book won Kirchner praise from critics. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews stated that Kirchner's recipes "help make the food as sumptuous as any," while Sally Estes of Booklist called the work a "taste-tempting guide."
Kirchner's second cookbook is Indian Inspired: A New Cuisine for the International Table. The book's recipes blend Eastern and Western dishes and ingredients that the author has encountered during her travels. Unusual mixtures such as ghee with kiwi, and Pacific salmon with red chile paste, mark many of her dish schemes. Barbara Jacobs of Booklist was impressed by the interesting amalgams of ethnic foods, and called Indian Inspired "intriguing food for thought."
Kirchner's next two books focus on vegetarian cuisine. The Bold Vegetarian: One Hundred Fifty Inspired International Recipes and Vegetarian Burgers concentrate on dishes that contain little or no meat. In The Bold Vegetarian Kirchner lists a host of recipes taken from what she calls "the emerging world cuisine." Again, she uses Indian dishes and ingredients, but she also borrows influences from many other cultures, including China, the United States, Korea, Thailand, Spain, France, Mexico, and the Middle East. Her recipes employ adventurous combinations, such as the Asian Pesto, a serving that molds the traditional Italian dish with the limes, peanuts, and garlic sauces that are often used in east Asian cooking. Other recipes listed in the book include Caramelized Garlic (from Spain), Pecan Mushroom Pate (from France), and Indian-style Roasted Potatoes covered in asafetida, mustard oil, cumin, and mango powder.
In an attempt to cater to light meat eaters with The Bold Vegetarian, Kirchner adds some recipes that include fish as an ingredient. As a bonus for readers, she also describes what it is like to shop at a variety of international marketplaces. A contributor for Publishers Weekly wrote that The Bold Vegetarian was "likely to inspire readers' inventiveness." Reviewing the book for Library Journal, Judith C. Sutton praised Kirchner's "interesting ideas," which she believed would surely "appeal to both vegetarians and meat-eaters alike."
In 1998, after having carved out a niche in the cookbook genre, Kirchner switched gears to produce her first novel, Shiva Dancing. Steeped in the author's own background, Shiva Dancing tells the story of a woman who was born in India and raised in the United States. Meena Gossett, the book's thirty-something protagonist, is caught between two different cultures. Meena is a successful systems analyst, enjoying an upwardly mobile California lifestyle that bears no resemblance to her childhood in rural desert village of Rajasthani in India. When she was seven, a group of bandits kidnapped her from the village in hopes of selling her at a slave market. Fortunately for Meena, she was rescued in Delhi by a prosperous American couple from San Francisco who adopted her.
After those rocky beginnings, Meena enjoyed a typical U.S. childhood, procured an outstanding education, and began a successful career. The land and life of her childhood seem a million miles away, but after her parents die, she begins to yearn for her native home and for her beloved Vishnu Chauhan, her former playmate to whom she was betrothed through an arranged marriage. The only roadblock to her return to India is Meena's infatuation with Anglo-American novelist Antoine Peterson, who had once been in India as an exchange student. In the end, Peterson helps Meena find Vishnu, who is now a journalist in Calcutta.
The spell of one's family and native land that Kirchner explores made Shiva Dancing a success, according to many critics. Despite claiming that the ending was "rather pat," a Publishers Weekly contributor felt the book was "sentimental but appealing" and called it a "finely crafted tearjerker." Joanne Wilkinson of Booklist touted what she called the "trendy multicultural themes" and "busy plot." As a result, Wilkinson felt Shiva Dancing would easily attract an audience.
Kirchner's next novel, Sharmila's Book, concerns Sharmila Sen, an Indian-born but thoroughly Americanized graphic artist living in Chicago who, after several fizzled romances, is tired of the dating scene. She gives in to her parents' desire for an arranged marriage and returns to Delhi to marry the handsome and successful widower Raj Khosla. During the two months she lives with his family, she discovers that he is an unfaithful womanizer and that there are mysterious circumstances surrounding his first wife's death. As her suspicions and distrust of Raj grow, Sharmila forms an unlikely friendship with Prem, an untouchable, who acts as her chauffeur. In time, she rejects Raj and embarks on a risky relationship with Prem, who wants to marry her despite the cultural taboos against their union. Sharmila is forced to confront both her Indian and her American identities through her relationship with Prem, as well as her relationship with her mother, who is adamantly opposed the couple's relationship. Eventually, Sharmila's mother sabotages the relationship by offering Prem a large amount of money to leave her daughter alone. Sharmila sorts out her feelings by sketching in a note-book—a fact that gives the book its title—and in the end, she returns to the United States.
Critics enjoyed the novel and its insights on the limited roles of women in Indian society, though Kirchner told Monsoon writer Julie Rajan that her intention was to "not take sides, but to show both sides of an arranged marriage." Furthermore, Kirchner presented women from varied social classes because she "wanted to show how women from vastly different social classes can respect and care about each other." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that "the novel bristles with postfeminist insights" and examines how women are sometimes complicit in their own subordination. The writer concluded that Sharmila's Book is "sometimes smart, swift and funny, with rich dollops of local color." Saiyeda Khatun of MELUS commented on Kirchner's use of the senses in the book, which include, not surprisingly, lots of descriptions of food. Khatun remarked, "The sensuousness of food alone eroticizes India, ravishing to the reader's palate and imagination." Donna Seaman of Booklist called the novel a "teasing fantasy," and Caroline M. Hallsworth of Library Journal appreciated the book's "strong visual images" of India and its "captivating" plot.
Family honor and Indian tradition are again the focus of Darjeeling, the story of a love triangle between two Indian sisters and the manager of the tea plantation on which they are raised. Aloka, the older sister, marries the dashing Pranab after her younger sister, Sujata, has an affair with him. To escape the resulting family discord, Aloka and Pranab move to New York, where Aloka adapts easily and begins a successful career even as Pranab becomes embittered and isolated, unable to find his niche in such a different environment. Sujata is also forced to leave her home after her family discovers her affair with Pranab, and she becomes a popular advice columnist in Canada, helping Indian women adapt to Western culture. The novel opens ten years after the sisters' departure from India, when their grandmother summons them home to celebrate her birthday. There, on their beloved tea plantation, they are forced to confront their past and make amends.
Like Kirchner's two previous novels, Darjeeling concerns a woman caught between two cultures, and as before, critics responded favorably. Melanie Duncan of Booklist praised Kirchner's "melodic voice" and called the novel as "strong as the tea itself." A writer for Publishers Weekly appreciated Kirchner's descriptions of food, along with the "genuine Indian spirit" that graces the story, and a critic for Kirkus Reviews called it "a satisfying tale" of "family discord and forbidden love."
In Pastries, Kirchner's fourth novel, a talented pastry chef rediscovers her love for life and baking, while rediscovering her past. Set in Seattle during the 1999 WTO period, the book captures the flavors of a popular bakery, as well as that of the city. Kirchner told CA: "Pastries asks a question: when you face major problems in life, one trauma after another, when you lose the ability to do what you love most, how do you go about getting back your skills and your life?" A critic in San Francisco Chronicle called the book "Witty, sensitive." The reviewer continued, "Kirchner definitely weaves a tangle…. The language is elegant."
Kirchner once told CA: "Ever since I can remember I have always wanted to be a writer. During my early childhood, my extended family and I were living in a town in Eastern India. In the evening, we'd all sit in a circle in our living room and my grandfather would read from one of the Bengali classics (Bengali is the language we spoke in that part of India). He had a flair for dramatics and would make us laugh and cry. Afterwards, everyone would discuss the material. I was only five years old and too young to take part, but those long evenings made an impression on me. I started reading very early, skipped the fairy tales, went straight to adult books. My parents encouraged me to keep reading. However, I didn't choose writing as a profession. There weren't too many opportunities in that field. Besides, I excelled in Mathematics and sciences, and so studied those in school. Later, when I came to the U.S. for advanced studies, I chose Mathematics and eventually ended up working in the software industry. Years later, I decided to give up that lucrative career to become a writer. The most surprising thing is that writing gives you so much beyond the obvious. It reaches deep inside you. It opens you to the world in a way some other professions might not.
"I started writing fiction in 1995. In times before me, the early immigrant literature, you often saw immigrants who had difficulty making it. They were often portrayed as victims. Reality now is different—immigrants and certain ethnic groups are in many cases highly educated; technologically savvy; brought here or they've come on their own because of their skills. They are doctors, teachers, scientists, and entrepreneurs. This is the group I write about. These people are not victims. They create their own destinies. Sure enough, life isn't easy for them in a foreign environment. They fall, and they rise again.
"On my pages characters of many nationalities come to play, sharing joy and laughter in times both good and bad. In my own small way I try to bring unity in an increasingly polarized society. One issue I often deal with is that of displacement. As people migrate from their place of birth or native culture, it becomes necessary to define 'home' in a broader context. A home is a concept, a state of mind, not just a physical reality. A theme I often pursue is how people from vastly different culture and backgrounds nourish each other and become 'family.'
"People, nature, art, music, and, in general, life itself inspires me to write. Often a brief image—a character in a situation—prompts me to start a novel. For example, before I began my second novel Sharmila's Book, I saw a young Indian-American woman standing at the airport in New Delhi, waiting for the arrival of someone. I wondered: Who was she? Was she waiting for someone? The first sentence of the book flew to me: 'I still can't believe I agreed to an arranged marriage.' With that sentence, I began the book. I didn't know much beyond that. Only as I wrote, I began to discover the character and the story a little at a time. Minor characters and subplots originated and kept me in continual surprise. I don't outline, I write on blind faith.
Kirchner classifies all of her books as "favorites." However, one that stands out is Pastries. She told CA: "It demanded much from me and is the culmination of all that I've learned about the writing art. It's a novel broader in scope than my others. I have also taken some risks here, getting away from my previous themes about India. Pastries is set in Seattle and Japan, and has different sensibilities. It has expanded me as a writer.
"I hope people all over the world will read my books. And I also hope that the universality of the themes will bring them closer together."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, October 15, 1992, p. 389; November 1, 1993,p. 495; January 1, 1998; February 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Sharmila's Book, p. 1040; June 1, 2002, Melanie Duncan, review of Darjeeling, p. 1684.
Bookwatch, January, 1993, p. 5; January, 1994, p. 7; July, 1995, p. 3.
Boston Globe, August 4, 2002, review of Darjeeling.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1992, p. 982; April 15, 2002, review of Darjeeling, p. 517; May 15, 2003, review of Pastries, p. 705.
Library Journal, February 15, 1995, pp. 176-177; July, 1996, p. 3; February 15, 1999, Caroline M. Hallsworth, review of Sharmila's Book, p. 183; February 15, 2000, Shirley E. Havens, review of Sharmila's Book, p. 228.
MELUS, fall, 2001, Saiyeda Khatun, review of Sharmila's Book, p. 241.
New York Times, December 9, 1992, p. C6.
Publishers Weekly, March 6, 1995, p. 64; April 1, 1996, p. 73; November 3, 1997, p. 65; January 11, 1999, review of Sharmila's Book, p. 55; May 20, 2002, a review of Darjeeling, p. 45.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 13, 2003, "A Baker Just Wants to Have Her Cake."
Seattle Times, March 15, 1998, "In Life and in Art in Her First Work of Fictions, Bharti Kirchner Straddles Two Cultures," p. 14; July 27, 2003, Richard Wallace, "'Pastries' Lack Key Ingredients," p. K10.
Seattle Weekly, July 9, 2003, review of Pastries.
Vegetarian Times, December, 1995, pp. 86-87.
Monsoon Magazine,http://www.monsoonmag.com/ (August 16, 2002), Julie Rajan, "Words Dancing and Simmering: A Conversation with Bharti Kirchner."