Food and Memory in Abraham's Promise

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

Like Sara Suleri, Gopal Baratham, and Wole Soyinka, Philip Jeyaretnam follows the lead of Marcel Proust and makes food a magical gateway into memory of an earlier time:

Seated in Komala Vilas in Serangoon Road, to which I have come to salve my humiliation at last night's party, breaking off a piece of vadai to dip into the coconut chutney, a glass of sweet, hot tea in front of me, yet another teatime comes to mind, many years before, when vadai too was served. Vadai is probably my favourite teatime snack, and Mercy no doubt had sought that day to please me. At first I try to shrug off the association, to concentrate instead on the delicious contrast of crisp, deep-fried exterior and soft, doughy interior, my tongue mining unerringly the treasures of fried onion and green chilli buried within. Yet the vadai itself now seems to pull me irresistibly into this recess of my memory. [77]

Culture and food are so intimately related that descriptions of meals provide an effective means of locating characters in specific social contexts: experiences of particular foods create community, differentiate insiders from outsiders, and mark divergence from tradition or falling away from it.

This passage, which is characterized by the author's precise placement of his speaker in a specific time and place, well exemplifies description in the realist novel, as Jeyaretnam conveys precise sensuous details of food. At the same time, he skillfully provides a way to move his readers seamlessly to an earlier time. How many other points in the novel serve as such transitions to a recalled past experience? After such attempts to recapture things past, how does he return the reader to the present?

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Philip Jeyaretnam