A baking hot day in early August in Bombay, not too long ago. An old Irani gentleman and his granddaughter sit in the shade of his café, underneath the least erratic fan. The little girl turns to her grandfather with a quizzical look on her face, and asks him a question….
“Dada, what is an Indian?”
I pause. Blink. Clear my throat. What do I tell her? Which of the many possible answers should I give to that simple, innocent question?
I take a moment to think. “Why do you ask?”
She looks around the café, as if it’s obvious. “Well, everyone speaks different languages, people wear different clothes, and we all eat different food… but what makes us all Indian?”
Rather humbly, I realise that I can’t give her a quick answer. How do you sum up a nation of one billion people (and who knows how many gods) for a child?
Her curiosity, however, must be nurtured; her sense of wonder and openness preserved. I must think of an answer.
So, I talk. I begin by telling her of the many peoples that have shaped our landscape, of the rise and fall of emperors and empresses, the religions that have waxed and waned, of the laws that have been passed. I describe the influence of the British and how their control over India made us feel robbed of our freedom and basic rights. I speak of Bapu, the father of the nation, who taught us that strength and violence were not the same thing, and taught us the need to live in harmony with one another.
As I delve further and deeper into the influences on being Indian, I find myself sharing my own memories of the events that have shaped our history.
I recall the feelings of oppression and exploitation that many felt under the Britishers, and then the relief at independence. Then it was Prime Minister Pandit Nehru that gave voice to these feelings in his declaration on 14th August 1947:
“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
I remember feeling overwhelming emotion – we all did. It was a time of complete change. Together, we swept away British rule and ushered in a birth of the Indian nation.
But I shall forever remember this time in history for its lurches between hope and dark despair. As India and Pakistan were pulled asunder by the very movements that sought to create a nation, the forging of our identity became stained with blood. My eyes moisten as the memory of hearing the horrific stories of partition comes rushing back. I stop short of telling these to my granddaughter.
I must not let my memory taint her innocence – at least not today. If she is seeking an answer to the question: “What is an Indian?” then I think my answer should be this: an Indian is Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bihari and Tamil; he is Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Christian and Buddhist. We are all Indian and together we are India.
If the hope and despair of 1947 taught me something, it is that the Indian identity is all-encompassing, and that when we allow our differences to become prejudices, to become walls that divide us, distrust and violence accumulate and we undermine the very idea of India.
After all this talking-talking, I ask her, gently: “So, now, beti – what do you think Indian is?”
And she answered: “Dada, it is us and everyone else.”
Wishing everyone a very happy Independence Day.
Come in and see us today. We’ve managed to put together a special patriotic playlist and we’d love to buy you a nice cold Thums Up when you wish us a happy Independence Day (before 6pm). Jai hind!
IT HAS BEEN an annual December habit of mine, these past ten years since we embarked upon this restaurant business, to sit alone, with myself, and reflect on the year gone by. I am grateful to be here in the Permit Room in our restaurant in Shoreditch scribbling and writing, the oddly enjoyable taste of splintering wood from my chewed up pencil smoothed by my decently strong drink.
These are the last few days, the dregs of 2019. It’s my habit to sit here in the Permit Room at this time. I am the be-stubbled and dishevelled regular, cherishing his precious drink at the end of the bar. Weary, I sit here pondering the year, attempting to figure out what it was trying to teach me. What wisdom can I glean from it?
I love to truly understand and appreciate the origins of a dish, and learn how communities have adapted a recipe over time to make that dish unique to them.
We have arrived at a very sad, but inevitable and clear choice. As of now, all Dishooms are now closed to diners.