My latest book is The One Who Swam With The Fishes.

"A mesmerizing account of the well-known story of Matsyagandha ... and her transformation from fisherman’s daughter to Satyavati, Santanu’s royal consort and the Mother/Progenitor of the Kuru clan." - Hindustan Times

"Themes of fate, morality and power overlay a subtle and essential feminism to make this lyrical book a must-read. If this is Madhavan’s first book in the Girls from the Mahabharata series, there is much to look forward to in the months to come." - Open Magazine

"A gleeful dollop of Blytonian magic ... Reddy Madhavan is also able to tackle some fairly sensitive subjects such as identity, the love of and karmic ties with parents, adoption, the first sexual encounter, loneliness, and my favourite, feminist rage." - Scroll

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27 September 2019

Would you, like Edmund Pevensie, sell your soul for Turkish Delight?

(I think this came out in The Indian Express? Not sure though. Read ANYWAY.)

“The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which when opened , turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious.” - C.S Lewis, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe

Once upon a time in Istanbul, a sultan wanted to keep all his wives and mistresses happy, so he called upon a confectioner to create a sweet to keep them—well—sweet. (Or so says an article in the Independent, talking about the history of Turkish Delight). This was a thing that the confectioner invented, a gel of starch and sugar, sprinkled with nuts and flavoured with rosewater, a cloying, dense sweet, rubbery but not chewy. Nice, if you like that sort of thing, which I, disappointed adult, once childhood Narnia fan, did not.

There is an argument to be made about not re-reading your old favourite books as an adult. Your rational mind isn't supposed to stop and examine a problematic bit of prose, you're supposed to skim right along, breathless and caught up in the adventure like the heroes you're reading about. There should also be an argument about not eating food you've read about that has been exalted. Fish and chips were bland, kidneys smell so strongly of pee I just couldn't stomach them, and Turkish Delight was the unkindest of all—not a delight, not even remotely so. I was well into adulthood by the time I tried them, and with the first bite, I paused for a moment, with the second, I decided they weren't for me. No offense to Turkish Delight lovers, it was just that I realised in that moment, almond slivers catching on my palate, that it was no wonder that Edmund in Narnia loved them, they would please a child, achingly sweet, and only a child could consume so many in one go and not be sick after.

The first—and now, looking back, the only--time I read about the Sultan's appeasement was in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, the very first of the Narnia books, which, if you're not familiar with, is about four English children who stumble through a wardrobe into a magic land and overthrow the evil queen who has been ruling there for many years. Before they can overthrow her, one of the children—Edmund—is lured into her power by the magic sweets she feeds him. This makes him silly and vulnerable—not unlike being roofied—and soon, he is her spy. While the Beavers and the children eat fish and potatoes, Edmund has been corrupted by the Turkish Delight he betrays his whole family for it, and is betrayed in turn.

“He had eaten his share of the dinner, but he hadn't really enjoyed it because he was thinking all the time about Turkish Delight—and there's nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magic food.”

Now, in Lewis' time, Turkish Delight was the ultimate in imported confectionery, and in war-time England, when the book was written and set, sweets were hard to get. An article theorises that maybe the idea of Narnia under the White Witch where it was “always winter and never Christmas” led Lewis to think of it. After all, sugar rations were scarce during the time, and he probably drew parallels between that life and the one he was creating in Narnia.

 Originally, it was called rahat-ul hulkum, for “comfort of the throat” but in modern day Turkey, Turkish delight is just plain old “mouthful” or lokum. Edmund's betrayal has travelled around the world—Bulgaria, where it's spiced with walnuts; Greece where it's served with coffee instead of biscuits; Romania, where you don't really want to know what “rahat” now means; and North America and England where they coat it with chocolate as they do most sweet things.

In my imaginings, the TD was marshmallow-like, spongy and soft and ethereal. I was ready o make peace with the idea that it wasn't a real thing, just a made up name for something so wonderful it couldn't be described. I'm not the only one. In an article in Slate, the author imagines it “crumbly and buttery and warm, like shortbread with walnuts, just out of the oven, with a rich, molten filling inside.” But after tasting it: “It tasted like soap rolled in plaster dust.” Maybe that's where the mystery lies, not in what Edmund ate, but why he ate it, not the reason he was seduced but what he was tasting as he gave up his whole family. I suspect it'll always be a mystery to me.

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