YOU WILL NOT BE SURPRISED to learn, dear reader, that December’s fuggy cloud of tiredness is driving me once again to seek answers here in the Permit Room. It is my annual habit to try to make sense of the year, to understand what it was trying to teach me and to be grateful for it. A good bartender and a well stocked bar are helpful collaborators. I’m drinking this drink, my second Martini, too quickly. I normally find Royal Dock Navy Strength gin a little too robust, but this evening it is what I need. 2016 requires a strong response. A stiff drink, for starters.
Personally, I had found last year unusually hard. ’16 presented its own challenges too, but we get better at it I think. A dear and wise friend of mine, Mark, sometimes smiles at me and says, translating a German proverb, ‘We all have our little packets to carry’. I’ve been trying to carry mine cheerfully and without resentment. We have managed to make peace with each other, my packets and I, from time to time. Sometimes over a drink, sometimes in the fresh air of a nice walk.
On the other hand, I haven’t yet made peace with the mischief that 2016 may have wrought on the world. I’m left confused and I know I’m not alone. Maybe David Bowie was the one who was quietly holding things together. Those malevolent clowns. That rogue Microsoft chatbot. They were clearly signs of something.
Speaking plainly, sixteen, I don’t think any of us have the measure of you yet. You’ve been a capricious snake. Lying in wait with your angry tip-the-chessboard populism, your fake-news, your post-truth and your alt-right. I don’t like your ranting strongmen, whose cold-blooded sisters wait with sweet smiles in the wings (I’m looking at you Mme LePen and Frau Doktor Petry). None of us – not alarmist, not apologist – know what you have begun.
I’m disturbed that in 2016, nasty things that no-one could say became sayable. Single phrases – racist, misogynistic, homophobic – that were rightly unutterable just yesterday, became a good way to increase the poll numbers. It seems we can no longer assume that facts and evidence and reason are the right basis for debating our most important questions. Barriers are being thrown up everywhere. I don’t want this nastiness to get comfortable. It must stay unacceptable.
In times of uncertainty, it is all too easy for good people to turn against each another. We’ve seen this script played out in Europe – not that many decades ago – with utterly diabolical consequences. I have huge faith in the British to be fair and tolerant and I’m proud that Mosley and his goon squad couldn’t take hold here in the 1930s. I wasn’t for Brexit at all – and I have strong views on the subject – but I certainly don’t think Brexit was about racism. Brexit surely was about a lot of good people expressing dissatisfaction. And it must be true that we don’t really listen to each other enough. Not properly, not deeply and without agenda.
What to do? Take another gulp of Martini. And then? Earlier today I was with Carmel, the founder of Magic Breakfast who is on a mission to end hunger in schools in the UK at breakfast. She had some thoughts. She said (forgive my paraphrasing, Carmel) that good, kind and tolerant voices and good, kind and tolerant actions must carry conviction and thus set the tone of society. She strongly believes that each one of us in our own different way can help this cause and have an impact. She’s absolutely right and she’s an inspiration.
Good, kind and tolerant voices create decent, liberal and open societies. This is surely the best – the only – answer if we want to live harmoniously, if we want to live in communities in which we support each other. We can debate immigration law and customs unions, but let us never ever allow tolerance be on the block. Whatever gods you do or don’t worship, whatever the colour of your skin, and wherever you come from, we must all – deliberately and visibly – nurture generosity of spirit and openness of heart for each other. We can surely all agree on that.
For me, this is also specifically personal. I’m not just an immigrant – I was actually once a refugee. I came here when I was just a year old, ejected from home and without citizenship. This country took my family in, respected our difference, allowed me to grow and helped me to contribute. For that, I have deep gratitude.
My grandmother passed away this year. I was very close to her. She lived a long and incredibly full life, spanning at least three continents and nine decades. Her photo as a beautiful and demure girl in 1944 belies her formidable nature; steely, spirited and loving in equal parts. Wherever she was and however recently she had arrived, she was somehow always in the middle of things. She was expert at bringing people together over a table groaning with food, having cooked up a storm and tiring everyone out in the process. Without her, of course, I literally wouldn’t be here doing what I’m doing. And without her influence I wouldn’t have grown to love Bombay. Her passing has prompted reminiscence about our own history as a family. My family have been migrants twice in the last century, once to leave poverty and once expelled by a dictator, with the British Empire a backdrop to our migrations. With much public discussion this year about refugees and immigration, it’s hard not to be conscious of your own story.
One of the things I’m most proud of this year is how many of you – our team and our guests – got involved with our celebration of Raksha Bandhan. We took inspiration from Rabindranath-ji, who appropriated this ceremony (more normally for brothers and sisters) to unite Hindus and Muslims in Bengal in 1905. Over several days in August we asked you to tie white rakhis (threads) on someone of a different faith, nationality or culture, as a symbol of peace and compassion – a literal knot of protection. Almost 7,500 of you took part in this humble show of unity. And for every rakhi that was tied, we donated £1 to Seeds of Peace, a remarkable charity that brings young leaders from conflict regions (including Israel and Palestine) together in summer camp to listen to each other and to create the mutual understanding that might actually bring peace. In 2017, we want to do even more of this.
Our events also continued to be joyous, barmy, mix-it-up affairs, and bigger and better than ever. Over a thousand people came to our Eid celebration in July. A similar number came to celebrate Diwali with us in October. It is a source of absolute joy to us that our Eid celebrations attract as many non-Muslims as Muslims and our Diwali celebrations attract as many Hindus as non-Hindus. Don’t just tolerate difference, come and celebrate it! At our Holi parties, two thousand people covered one another in (literally) a ton of gulal. That coloured powder has a wonderful effect. For a few sweet, mad, almost magical hours, we are all equal in crazy fun. There can be no barriers, no judgment, no prejudice. The memory is a touch bittersweet; it feels as though there isn’t quite enough of this in the world.
I mentioned I was with Carmel earlier today. Also with us was Bhawani, from Akshaya Patra. We spoke about the amazing year their respective charities have had, feeding millions of children in the UK and in India to make sure they can learn undistracted by hunger, breaking down the barriers to social advancement. We first linked up for Ramadan last year, and our ongoing partnership with both charities began last Diwali. The idea is simple – for every meal our dear guests eat with us at Dishoom, we donate another to one of these charities. A meal for a meal. And I’m incredibly proud to say we’ve so far donated more than 1.5 million meals. This is one of the best things we’ve ever done.
Now that Dishoom Edinburgh is open, we’ll be feeding even more kids next year. It also means we have added another 100 Dishoom-wallas to our team in a beautiful city. (We’ve also fallen in love with Edinburgh, and with Sir Patrick Geddes, and have developed a massive crush on the Scots.) It’s humbling to think that we now have the careers – the livelihoods – of almost 600 people in our care. We do not underestimate the weight of this responsibility. I can honestly say that looking after our team and trying to make Dishoom a great place to work has never been more important to us. The outside world may not make much sense right now, but within our walls – in Dishoom’s world – we are doing our best to be a place where good, kind people can flourish.
Last orders in the Permit Room. I don’t need another drink; I seem to have written myself into a clearer, more optimistic state. I’m not angry. I’m smiling, I feel better and I think I know what to do. Thank you, dear reader, for bearing with me.
So, then, 2016. You were a piece of work, damn you, and who knows what you’ve unleashed. But you haven’t gotten the better of us and you never will. We won’t take it lying down. If you gave us nastiness, we will raise our tolerant and kind voices. We will work to make sure that hate always looks obscene and intolerance just feels unwelcome.
And in 2017? I suspect it may not be an easy year out there. However, in Dishoom’s world we’re going to be doing even more of what we love. Breaking down barriers. Celebrating difference. Feeding more kids. Trying to help more Dishoom-wallas in our care find their paths and fulfill their potential. And of course, along the way, we’ll keep sharing our stories of old Bombay with you, and doing our very best to make you happy by serving you the most delicious food and drink we can possibly summon up.
So, to you, dear patrons of our livelihood, whose every meal with us in 2016 provided another for a child in need, we thank you with deep, deep gratitude. Without you, we are nothing. No wishes could be warmer than those we have for each and every one of our dear Dishoom-wallas, our barmy family of big-hearted heroes who work to make this all happen. I’m honestly just proud to be one of you. To our loyal and lovely suppliers, we give thanks for coming on this journey with us so whole-heartedly. And to our families, those deep reservoirs of patience, support and love, we are utterly grateful for putting up with us. We ask a lot of you, and we know it’s not always easy!
As ever, I invoke Ganeshji at the start of the year. May he help us to be big-hearted and gentle, resolute and unyielding. May he give us wisdom when we are confused, determination when we are worn-out and courage when we have lost heart.
From all of us here at Dishoom, a heartfelt Merry Christmas and sincerest best wishes for 2017.