Padma Lakshmi on love, loss and staying hungry

Her new memoir traces her colourful journey so far

I did not expect Salman Rushdie to take up the first 45 pages of Padma Lakshmi’s memoir. The languid woman I met, flat on a sunbed, cracking up the make-up artist with her Italian digs, projects the happy comfort of a midday nap on a blistering Goa afternoon; which, in fact, it was. The first thing you notice about Lakshmi, once you’ve recovered from the impact of those cheekbones, is this uncanny ease that stays in place through oppressive jetlag, 5am call times, walloping heat. When she squints at the camera screen between changes, Lakshmi’s approval, just like her disagreement, is measured. 

Any mention of her ex-husband, long credited for her media relevance, is breezy and undramatic. And yet, when Love, Loss And What We Ate (HarperCollins India) released last month, he made it to every headline. The most popular clickbaits drew from three revelations: Rushdie called her “a bad investment”, accused her of using endometriosis (a medical disorder where the endometrial tissue grows outside the womb) as an excuse to avoid sex, and skulked routinely after every Nobel Prize snub. Her third book — far more intimate than Easy Exotic (1999) and Tangy Tart Hot And Sweet (2007) — could easily be mistaken for a clever counterstroke to his third-person memoir Joseph Anton (2012), in which she emerged “ambitious in a way that often obliterated feeling”. But Lakshmi’s narrative doesn’t vie for a good look, and its plain honesty feels exactly like her temperament; cool, straightforward, more endearing than biting. You meet a twenty-something model treading on a wobbly acting career, feeding her self-esteem through the affections of a 51-year-old literary celebrity, and as a newlywed, fussing over the consistency of pav bhaji in the kitchen to dodge intimidating dinner guests like Don DeLillo and Susan Sontag. She ties up the small, if significant, Rushdie chapters neatly, and with finality: I don’t regret one moment with him, nor did I leave a moment too soon.

“I started writing a very different book, a prescriptive book that highlights my philosophy on food, which is that no one diet is right for everyone, or for the same person at different points in his or her life. To illustrate this I talked about different periods in my life, when I needed different things,” she says, putting away her extra-large sun hat as we settle under a canopy back at the resort. From working through the paralysing grief of divorce with kumquat chutney to sipping glasses of cranberry drano on the sets of Top Chef to fit into a sample dress size, Lakshmi’s eating habits have remained emotional. “Food is certainly my life’s work,” she says, now distracted by the plate of pani puri that that’s landed on her table. The bowl of chilli-coriander water is drained clean amidst grumbling about the failing  of her favourite Sarvana Bhavan outpost in Chennai (“they added a whole new annexe and now it’s just big and weird”). “Even before it was my profession, food was just as big a part of my life. I have always remembered everything I ate, and everything I wore on any given day. As a child,  I remember making muruku and grape juice by the barrel in my grandmother’s kitchen.”

The primary cast of Lakshmi’s coming-of-age is made up of three women — her maternal grandmother, her mother, and now, her six-year-old daughter Krishna. Each generation wound up in family structures that were exceptions to the rule. Lakshmi’s grandmother, a stand-in parent for much of her childhood, was a 30-year-old bride to a widower with three children. Her mother, whose husband was engaged in an illicit affair with his cousin, left the safety of New Delhi for the more respectable uncertainty of New York City after her divorce. Lakshmi herself found a partner in another high-achieving, significantly older man, IMG CEO Teddy  Forstmann (“prime Padma bait,” she jokes in the memoir, which is also dedicated to him), until he succumbed to brain cancer at 71. He was ‘poppy’ to Krishna, whose biological father, a messy paternity test proved, was tech entrepreneur, and Lakshmi’s intermittent boyfriend Adam Dell. Their approach to this shared deviance has been wholly dissimilar. “It’s interesting because I’m born on September 1st, my grandmother’s born on September 2nd and my mother on September 3rd, but we’re completely different,” says Lakshmi. “My grandmother is very stoic; she just gets on with life. I don’t think I ever heard her complain. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her cry. My mother on the other hand is incredibly emotional. I’m probably somewhere in the middle.” And she’s happy to report her six-year-old old has only inherited the good genes. “Beyond my height or my cheekbones, I wanted her to have my sense of humour. Krishna is very witty, very articulate, and her humour is very sophisticated for her age. She’s great company.” This isn’t just the helpless adoration of a first-time mother, either. A quick scan of Lakshmi’s Instagram feed and you’re sure her life with #LittleHands is nothing short of a giddy montage from The Sound Of Music — midnight bake sessions, one-on-one holidays, sledding adventures. She wasn’t expecting motherhood to be such a riot, even on 17-hour international flights. “What I didn’t realise was that it gives you this beautiful opportunity to see the world again. Last week, Krishna learned to finally whistle, really whistle, which is something she’d been trying to do for a while. That’s a big moment. It gives meaning to all the mundane things you do… I’m much more in a good mood now.”

Lakshmi’s own childhood was somewhat less idyllic  — the  constant volley between Chennai and New York, the weak social standing of an immigrant (initially, she tried to disguise her ethnicity by calling herself Angelique), the long absence of her biological father, or even the time she was shipped back to India after being sexually abused by her stepfather’s relative. Her mother, on her second shaky marriage, saw it as the safest precaution. Far safer than offending her in-laws. Lakshmi holds no grudges. If anything, she credits her mother for helping her transition from a gangly “black giraffe” in high school to a young model making peace with her proportions and the caterpillar scar running down her right arm for her first nude shoot. “Even though my mother came from a conservative, middle-class background, she never hid her body. She would walk out of the shower naked — maybe it was because we didn’t always have a man in the house — but there was no shame about our bodies.”

Lakshmi’s primary discomfort with her body was caused by her undiagnosed endometriosis. For years, the debilitating  spasms that cost her work assignments and pressured her marriage were treated as a low threshold for pain. “Nobody calls in sick to their bosses and says I have my period. They say ‘Oh, I have a headache.’ People don’t take you seriously because you’ve been downplaying your pain as it is. I was missing two or three days of work every month,” says Lakshmi, who co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America in 2009 to reach out to young girls skipping treatment. “First of all even the examination is horrific, right? Most of us at 16 are still virgins. And the only way for it to be diagnosed is to do a biopsy. But nobody wants that.”

It’s difficult to find the method in Lakshmi’s career choices. As a model, she was all aces. One of her earliest assignments was for the ‘King of Kink’, celebrated photographer Helmut Newton, and her runway success (she’s walked for Ralph Lauren, Armani, Versace), was an anomaly for Indian models. But the theatre major slipped out to chase her acting dreams, which gradually faded with a forgettable run in Italian (Linda E Il Brigadiere), English (Glitter) and Hindi (Boom). Now, as a trusted influencer on good food, a frequent prime-time presence (most recently on Ellen and The Tonight Show), host of Top Chef for 12 of its 13 seasons and executive producer for the past three, an Emmy nomination and a range of Easy Exotic frozen foods, there doesn’t appear to be a preordained trajectory. “We’re expected to know what we want to do for the rest of our lives by 30 or 36, or 40. It really didn’t happen that way for me. I was by no means set even by 36, I was still finding a career. I’ve had three professions in my life, maybe four, and I might be making another transition now.”

At 45, Lakshmi is clearing out shelves to make space for the work she’s found most fulfilling: her writing. With one book sitting on bestseller lists, she’s wrapping up her next, an encyclopedia on spices and herbs, and taking the plunge into fiction by scripting a dramedy series for TV. Her memoir allows for high expectation. In the way it chokes sentimentality with insight and humour, owns up to the awkwardness, and occasional indignity, of love, motherhood and sex. I hope she writes women. “As I get older, I would like to do things that don’t require my appearance. With age, a woman becomes more — or less — beautiful based on what’s inside. I think it was George Orwell who said everyone gets the face they deserve at 50,” she says, breaking into a soft smile. I can tell she knows those cheekbones are safe.  

Photographs: R Burman; Styling: Malini Banerji; Art direction: Reshma Rajiwdekar; Make-up and Hair: Rosario Belmonte/Anima Creative Management. Location courtesy: The Diwa Club by Alila, Goa. Production: Parul Menezes; Assisted by Veronna Parikh, Devika Wahal