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My beautiful broken brain

After sustaining a traumatic brain injury in 2011, Nandita Chakraborty reinvented herself as a writer. For Inform, she shares the story of her beautiful broken brain.

The brain is the most important organ of the body. It controls everything from the heart and emotions, to the tongue and the taste buds. It’s a tangible reminder—everything comforting is controlled. But what happens when it’s broken?

This is my story: a migrant from New Delhi born into a Bengali family in which food is worshipped like a goddess. The appreciation of food has always been with me. Bags of fresh produce would land in my parents’ kitchen back home in India. The kitchen was a garden of green leafy vegetables. Freshwater fish glittered like silver, and the aroma of chilli, garlic, onion, fresh tomatoes, and turmeric sizzling in hot mustard oil would just scream to me for an early lunch.

Growing up during the 80s meant a lot of reading books, listening to stories, and family gatherings. My father had always been a big entertainer and he was an amazing cook himself. But when it came to Mum’s prawn curry it was a whole new world. Sunday meant the dining table would be laden with bowls of fish curries, vegetables, goat curry, rice, sweet rice, salad, and mango chutney—each served with a ladle of love. Relatives dominated the sitting arrangements, but sometimes family friends were invited to be a part of this feast.

Food and stories

The storytelling sessions during these lunches fascinated me, as family recipes exchanged hands—mixed with politics, neighbourhood gossip, and sometimes a family secret (to which I would just pretend not to be listening, while helping myself to a second serve of rice and curry). Being the middle child, I wouldn’t mind hanging around the table after dessert with my two siblings, as if it was a magical table with never-ending food and stories.

Was I already being seduced by the idea of storytelling then? Or was it food that was flirting with the idea of storytelling?

I would know that three decades later.

Food supplies a sudden spark

In December 2011, when sitting in the neurosurgeon’s office at the Alfred Hospital, I was shown the X-ray of my skull. I might sound a bit dramatic here when using adjectives like ‘bruised’ and ‘fractured’, but that is how I felt at that time. But I went on with my daily business. It didn’t even stop me from writing my memoir in 2013, but that was a mission I had started before the rock-climbing accident that led to my injury.

It was not until 2016, when I had returned to rehab, that I learned about my interrupted, broken brain wreaking havoc on my senses, emotions and memory. I am totally in its power, terrified of the danger of flirting with my broken brain.

It was as if I was reborn, transformed emotionally and intellectually, as I reintroduced myself to everything familiar. Suddenly there was this appetite, this hunger to consume everything around me and to take that giant leap of faith. How could I? I felt sacrificial, my own brain erasing my present memory.

Then there it was—a takeaway from an Indian restaurant: chicken curry, rice, and salad. I don’t know if it was the garam masala or the black cardamom that transported me back to the home dinner table in Delhi in the 80s. There was this sudden spark in me as if making love for the first time, a glow prodded by a lover.

Cooking our next story together

My kitchen was transformed from trying all the food that I enjoy eating, experimenting as if I was in a marriage trying to satisfy a hungry husband. I started reading slowly, introducing pen to page, and then it was there, right in front of me—I was enjoying a lover’s paradise, indulging with food and cooking up stories ready to be told to the world. But this explosion wouldn’t stop me from publishing my two novellas in 2017 and 2018. Partaking in this endeavour was excruciatingly hard, like with any love life or married life—adjusting, compromising, and balancing emotions with my vulnerabilities. It’s a constant learning process and daily I am learning something.

Now in the middle of a global pandemic, I have reinvented myself as a food writer. This is me, now tasting colour and stories, whether it’s with a famous chef or an emerging talent cooking up a gastronomical storm! The story goes on, with food doing most of the telling as each ladle is now served with a unique nourishment.

In regards to the marriage between my brain and me, we are getting along just fine. We embrace that silently, before actively cooking the next story together. I have learned that just as fire, oil and seasoning are an integral part of cooking, so is my brain. I am incomplete without this complex part of me. I am finally resting and at home with my beautiful broken brain!

Nandita Chakraborty was born in Kolkata, India. In 2000, she came to Melbourne, Australia. 

In Australia in 2011, Nandita fell during a horrific rock climbing accident which left her with a traumatic brain injury resulting in a cognitive disability.  

Since then she has written two novellas and been a finalist at the American Book Awards 2018. Her screenplay, Brush Strokes was a semi-finalist at the New York International Screenplay Awards. She is now a freelance food writer, writing food stories of famous chefs in Australia.

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