Finding meaning at the bottom of a glass in the Permit Room

IN THESE DYING DAYS of ’21 I am here again, dear reader, at the bar in our restaurant in Shoreditch. I am the stubbled and scruffy regular, squinting at the bartender through slightly wonky glasses, brooding over the year gone by. My glasses are wonky because they flew across the hard tarmac when I fell off my bike a few months ago and also because the back of my wife’s head collided with my face with (unintended) vigour when we were decorating the Christmas tree a few days ago. She is sure that I should get new glasses, but I think the wonkiness is now a part of me, one of the gifts of ‘21.

This, my second beer (Dishoom IPA this evening) is so much more refreshing than seems fair. It disappears from my glass at concerning speed. The label on the bottle makes a clear promise of ‘fresh vigour and an increased joie-de-vivre’, which sounds helpful for my exhaustion. However, this evening, I seek more. I am planning to find meaning at the bottom of my glass of IPA. Somehow I believe that reflecting on these humbling pandemic months must yield insight. I also recognise that my plan entails risk, since the bartender is smiling, poised to open more bottles to refill my glass before I can peer into the bottom of it.

 I was also here last December in precisely the same seat, trying to make sense of 2020. ‘Twas the night before regulations shut down restaurants (and so much else) for months. I know I’m not alone in struggling to separate the years and months from each other in my memory. (When did the lawyer turn up as a cat? When was Jackie Weaver?) Disentangled, 2021 feels like an echo of 2020. Less twisty and intense perhaps, but turbulent and tiring. Here at Dishoom, I think we’re all more weary and we have been battered by the weather, but I also think that together we have become better sailors, better at navigating the storms. Last year, there were moments of genuine fear. This year, as we watch the tussle between boosterish politicians and ashen-faced scientists and wonder whether regulations will shut us down again, I feel tempted to shrug. Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it. We’ve seen harsh weather before. But then I ask, is this what resilience feels like? A worn-out shrug? Maybe so, but I’m left unsatisfied.

 My glass is suddenly full again. The bottom seems further away than ever. But the IPA is gold and coolly beckoning and I’m determined to find the meaning I’m seeking.

 A few weeks ago, my mother gave me a letter she had recently found in an old box. I have it here in front of me, a simple piece of lined paper with a beautiful Gujarati script only partially penetrable for me. The letter is dated 22nd September 1978 and was written in Bombay by my grandfather (“Dada”) and sent to my parents in London. At that time, Dada was in India, determined to re-establish himself in business after my family had come as refugees to the UK from Africa in 1972. The letter describes the few months that I spent as a six-turning-seven year old with Dada and Baa (my grandmother). I was fortunate to spend many other times in India with them, but reading this letter, this trip was particularly precious and important for me.

The letter describes the reactions of a six year old boy. “He really didn’t enjoy being here for the first 2-3 weeks… it was unfamiliar - the poverty, the dirtiness, the slums… made him feel strange as soon as he left the airport… and he was not getting acquainted with the neighbourhood children in Bombay.” However, Dada goes on to write, “today, at the time of leaving the country, it is like he was emotionally attached to it… He also stopped objecting to the toilet.”  

My first few weeks were in Bombay, where we stayed in our small flat in King’s Circle (I remember very scary large cockroaches). My dearest memories of the city are from that time – shopping with Baa at Crawford Market, the taste of Pau Bhaji watching the Chowpatty sunset, strolling up to Nariman Point after dark. Then, we travelled across India on trains and by road as Dada’s business itinerary dictated, north through Gujarat, then north-east through Rajasthan into Delhi and Punjab.

In Gujarat we stayed in Vadvala, our ancestral village: “We slept on the terrace beneath the clear open sky and moonlight. He kept looking at everything… and kept asking about our ancestors and has memorised the history of Laundakia from being there”. Dada is referring to the story of my family seven generations prior who apparently threw some tax collectors of the Raj into a well, thereby earning the name locally of Laundakia, which means ‘maverick’. (No-one has been able to tell me whether the tax collectors were rescued from the well, or just perished.)

We saw the places of Gandhi’s birth, assassination and cremation. We visited the Red Fort, where Indian independence was declared. We touched the bullet holes in the walls of Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar where General Dyer’s troops fired on unarmed civilians in 1919. Dada writes, “Qutb Minar, the Taj Mahal, Rajghat, Lal Qila, the place where Gandhi was shot, he has not forgotten anything.” Dada also decided that the three of us should take on the long journey by road to Kashmir. “There was a PhD professor on the bus, so they talked to each other for around two and a half hours about Indian history, mythology and general knowledge… We would not have travelled this much if he had not been with us. Now he has become completely Indian”.

Sadly, my grandparents are no more, but those experiences with them meant so much to me. I’m definitely not unique as a displaced member of diaspora spending time in ancestral places. Many of us have similar experiences. If I was somehow completely Indian as a boy, I became more British as I grew older. This often left me confused. Perhaps all of us who have come from beyond these island shores must in some way reconcile this.

My good luck is that I am engaged in work that allows me to explore this identity. We all bring different meaning to different things, and there are many of us who have put so much into creating this restaurant business together these last eleven years, investing it with diverse and wonderful character. However, for me, as I sit here in the bar with this letter, Dishoom has been my way of coming to terms with my own story.

It seems so natural and joyous to invent fictional owners of each Dishoom, giving them characters and experiences much more exciting than my own. These are people I would love to have been (like some version of Thurber’s Walter Mitty.) We investigate each story deeply for months, write it, understand it, document it, and express it in design (and sometimes even immersive theatre, or even an LP); whether it’s the history of Indian independence in our King’s Cross restaurant, the swadeshi movement in Birmingham, or the jazz history of Bombay in Kensington or the 1970s Bombay rock scene in Carnaby. And somehow, it seems to have continuity with that trip with Dada and Baa. Over the years I’ve noticed myself not caring at all whether anyone may or may not notice a specific design detail, or a reference to a piece of history or some hindi graffiti. I honestly don’t think many of our team read the long art and design guide that we write for each one of our restaurants, which often runs to more than 50 pages.

Recently Jonathan Nunn, a very thoughtful journalist, observed that we place Bombay upon London. “In Dishoom’s geography,” he writes, “a passenger arriving at Victoria Terminus might wander round the back to a restaurant in Granary Square, or a music lover might emerge from a heaving Bombay bar into Carnaby Street – images of the cities superimposed over each other until they blur into one like Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson at the end of Persona.” I’m slightly tickled by the comparison to a tricky 1960s Ingmar Bergman film, but I think perhaps Jonathan is on to something. This superimposition has been my way of understanding identity. As members of the diaspora, we are rooted in different places, and this for me is reconciliation. I also believe that in bringing our stories here, they become British stories. Bombay coming to London (as London once came to Bombay). Immigration can bring so much richness and delight, and I emphatically believe that this strengthens the idea of Britishness, as I think it has done for centuries. And I’m delighted if Dishoom can help bring some of that richness here whether through our food or our stories.

I find myself exhaling deeply. Reader, if you are still here, I am truly grateful for your patience. My glass of beer is still half full, and I shall keep it at that level for now. I think, though, that I may have made progress in finding meaning. Bear with me, I have a little more reflecting to do.

Of course, identity as I’ve described it is only one source of meaning. And Dishoom is the collaborative work of so many of us. I think meaning also comes through how we are with each other in our daily work lives, how we look after each other. We spend so many of our waking hours together, that we may as well make it good. I’m very proud to be a part of this team that in 2021 managed to be placed No. 4 in the UK's 100 Best Companies to Work For list, and No.1 amongst hospitality employers. We are nowhere near perfect – we do get stuff wrong most days – but I know we work hard at it. Especially during this pandemic time of stumbling around and trying to figure things out, this was a much welcome piece of news, evidence that we were doing at least a few things right.

In March this year we also managed to hit another milestone very close to our hearts. Working with the charities Akshaya Patra and Magic Breakfast, we have donated 10 million meals to children in India and the UK. Some of you may know that the genesis of this was during the holy month of Ramadan in 2015 when we started donating a meal to these charities for each guest’s meal we served in the restaurant. Later that year at Diwali we made ‘meal for a meal’ permanent. I think for so many of us at Dishoom, knitting this right into the daily work that we do is important. Childhood hunger is corrosive and can have massive and damaging long term effects on individuals and societies, and we’re glad to be able to help in some way.

My glass is now almost empty. I can see the bottom of it. I’m fighting the bartender. No more! Truth be told, I think I’ve been commendably abstemious tonight. You can be the judge of that as you read this.

As I re-read these reflections, I worry that they are misleading. They give the impression of a smooth year, thinking about identity, going about business efficiently. I have certainly spent too much time writing about that letter (important as it may be for me). I’m not alone in our team to have found the year taxing and tough. It’s often been hard to find the answers, all too easy to slip up, to make the wrong calls. The year has in truth been humbling and this writing should admit to that.

For me, personally, it has been physically humbling too. Coming off my bike in Clerkenwell, I broke several bones. (It was very painful in spite of the morphine being quite nice.) It took me a few weeks to be back at work and a few months to be back on a bike. My left shoulder is still a little bit wonky, and I think it will always be so. My physiotherapist (wonderful as she is) assures me that full function will return, but I suspect it may not. My ashtanga practice, my sun salutations may never be quite the same again.

And yet, I wonder. I think meaning is to be found in falling over, messing up, making the wrong calls, being wonky and yet still putting one foot in front of the other. Over the last two years, I have seen so many in our team at Dishoom struggle with mental and physical health issues and shouldering burdens much much heavier than my own. To slightly paraphrase Brené Brown, there is nothing more deeply beautiful than a stretch-marked heart that is not just worn, but threadbare and that is somehow still willing. I’ve been privileged to see a lot of those sorts of hearts this year. I think perhaps that herein lies the deepest sort of meaning.

It looks as if I’ve finally found something at the bottom of my glass. You’ve also indulged me long enough. However, I must not close before expressing profound gratitude to every single one of those who have kept Dishoom alive this year. Everyone who has recruited a new Dishoom-walla, managed a team, cleaned a plate, cooked a roti, mixed an old fashioned, greeted a guest or taken an order whether in a Dishoom restaurant or delivery kitchen or making meal kits, you have all been resilient rock stars. And thank you, and thank you again to our customers, you patrons of our livelihood! You have stuck with us, come to our restaurants, ordered our meal kits and had our deliveries and you make possible everything we do. 

Personally, too, I need to thank those who have propped me up this year, for they may not know quite how much they’ve helped. I need to thank them deeply and sincerely. From the two kind ladies who scraped me off the Clerkenwell tarmac and put me in an ambulance, to my wife and family, my friends and colleagues who helped me through my injury and so much else. I also want to apologise to those who have had to put up with me and my flaws in this tricky year and for whom I have fallen short. I’m sorry, and I will sincerely try to do better in ’22.  

Reader, I’m touched that you are still here with me at the end of my last drink. I think I am satisfied with the answers I have found. I’m not shrugging wearily, but rather, in this moment I can say that I am looking forward to the light and the dark, the anguish and the joy that next year will surely bring. I think it may be a messy 2022 as it was a messy 2021, but maybe that’s ok. At least I can get a new pair of glasses which may help me see more clearly. 

As ever, I must here invoke Ganesh-jji, the big-hearted elephant-headed Hindu deity. Here’s to 2022. May Ganesh-ji make your heart willing. May he help you to navigate the confusion and relish the wonder, for both are inevitable. May he help you to learn to fall. For that is surely at the very heart of being resilient and of finding meaning in being human.

I wish you well from the bottom of my own heart. Much love, light and gratitude to you all.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

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