Back here again. A burra peg of Horniman’s Old Fashioned at my elbow. Tiredness beginning to envelop me in its seductive fug. I’m tempted to give in. I’m sitting here in the Long Bar at our (newest) café in King’s Cross looking up at an oversized clock. We have these big clocks everywhere. I wonder why. Is it some kind of a metaphor? The clock in Shoreditch is actually only right for 6 months of the year because we can’t adjust it for British Summer Time. Perhaps that has deeper significance. Then again, perhaps not.
Last year I wondered whether I was becoming a predictable and sad old git. This year I don’t have to wonder. Here I am again, looking back. I feel a mixture of relief that it’s over, much gratitude for all of the good things, all of the good people, all of the laughter and love, and inevitably there is a little sadness. It’s been a pretty hard year for many reasons. Somehow, though, I don’t begrudge getting older. Salt has almost vanquished the pepper these days, but I’m at peace with the fact that you can’t stop all the clocks.
And, as always at this time of year, our thoughts are drawn to the past. It is four and a half years since we were getting ready to open the first Dishoom on St. Martin’s Lane. I remember it being terrifying and exciting and we were most certainly inexperienced and naïve. And I have to say it definitely showed. But you stick at things, and you try to learn from your mistakes.
Back then, we (quite sensibly) thought our job was simply to serve Londoners good food and good drink. But, almost five years on, we’ve come to the realisation that there’s another reason we find ourselves getting out of bed in the mornings. For us, there is no greater pleasure than in bringing people together; to enjoy themselves, of course, but also to relax and play in the company of people from all cultures and backgrounds. In our world – the one we’d like to create for our guests, and for our team – everyone is utterly at ease and at peace with one another. Differences a cause for celebration rather than judgment.
I feel very strongly that Dishoom should be – has to be – a place where the hard up student (who loves bottomless chai) can sit next to the rich steel magnate (who might order bottles of Ruinart), and where the Muslim family can share a table with the Hindu teenagers. Where your interest might be drawn by news of a big Holi party, or an Eid celebration, or a Diwali feast. Where your eye might be caught by the Zoroastrian Asho Farohar on the wall, or the statue of Ganesh-ji by the entrance. Where our stories of Satyagraha, sacrifice and independence might be told. Where Haleem and Nihari can sit comfortably on the table alongside Pau Bhaji, Bhel and Bun Maska, and locally-brewed London beers.
At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I’d like to think that, in our own small way, we can become a means to celebrate the many, varied cultures and traditions that make Bombay (and London) so special. These two cities don’t just contain diversity; they are actually defined by it – defined by their layers of accumulated difference. To deny this (as people try to do) is surely to deny the very nature of the cities themselves.
Naresh Fernandes writes in his (excellent) book, ‘Bombay – A City Adrift’, that shared spaces are what makes a city human. The Irani cafés were exactly such shared spaces, and thus they helped to make Bombay the more tolerant and vibrant place it was, and still is. But though they played such an important role, for various reasons their numbers have dwindled from 400 to 25 or so. That a city of 20 million people cannot sustain such invaluable places is an incredible loss.
In fact, it often strikes me that London, Bombay and most of the other cities I know – they’re all becoming more and more separated, more exclusive. Rising inequality drives accelerating property prices. More flash cars. More expensive restaurants. More and more exclusive enclaves. As the city grows – and grows more prosperous – we have to do the real work of making sure that it’s a shared city. Making sure that we find ways to do stuff together and to break down barriers. It’s really important. A city that doesn’t do this becomes ghetto-ised and divided, full of suspicion; a sullen dystopia.
Earlier this year we received our first ‘hate mail.’ Somebody wanted to book a table, and then didn’t. Not because of our booking policy, but because there were pictures of smiling Muslim children on our website observing Ramadan. Because we are Hindus celebrating Eid with storytelling and feasting. The language was angry, threatening and obscene. I wish the writer of the email no ill, but as we all read the email together as a team, it bolstered our conviction. I also remember a tweet, the first time we had an Eid event at St. Martin’s Lane. A picture of three hands, three girls who had mehendi applied to their palms for Eid. One girl called Aisha, one called Geeta and one called Sarah. It was the polar opposite of that hate mail.
Which brings me back, I suppose, to 2014. Around the world, this year was in desperate need of more tolerance and became progressively more dark and scary. Palestine. Isis. Ebola. Boko Haram. Russia and Ukraine. The Ferguson riots. Pakistani children being slaughtered in the name of religion. It seemed that everywhere, real or imagined barriers were being thrown up, bolstered, or harshly enforced. And many of those who dared cross the lines suffered severe penalties. The worst truly seemed to be full of passionate intensity while the best lacked conviction.
Here in England, Mr. Farage and his pint would have been funny (breastfeeding, blaming M4 traffic on immigration – Nige, mate, really?) if he wasn’t slightly scary and the Scots were keen to put up their own barriers. So far, nothing changed, but to me, it’s the undercurrent which feels wrong. There seems to be a keenness to draw boundaries, to emphasise difference and shut off from other communities, when more and more, surely, we need the exact opposite.
In other news, we also said some tearful goodbyes. Maya Angelou, that demolisher of barriers, the caged bird who sang. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and his great talent. I’m exactly the right age to have loved the Dead Poets Society, to have treasured the Fisher King and to want to be the Genie from Aladdin. It makes me so sad that you, Mr. Williams, who gave us solace when we needed it, succumbed to your own demons. Please, rest in peace, O captain, my captain.
Back home in India, it was a mixed bag. We successfully made it to Mars (and with change from the budget for the movie Gravity). There are early signs that Mr. Modi might emerge a statesman but we’re not at all convinced by his nastier friends. Congress seems to be just lost. For women, the situation remains murky. Blame Uber, blame behaviour, blame revealing clothes – blame anything but those truly responsible for the horrific crimes.
In Bombay, B. Merwan caused a kerfuffle when the news spread that they were closing for good – only to reopen after a facelift, and now they’re busier than ever. Long live the remaining Irani cafés, I say – shared, democratic, affordable spaces, each and every one of them. As for Jiyo Parsi? ‘I am not a panda’ declared our favourite Parsi friend in London.
Popular culture was… just barmy. Ice buckets took the world by storm. One Kim tried to break the internet, but failed. Another Kim succeeded, completing a major hacking operation which resulted in the geopolitical earthquake of a leak of the plot of the next Bond movie and the revelation that Angelina could be a bit shirty. Solange attacked her brother-in-law Jay-Z in a lift, and then broke out in hives at her own wedding, but had the coolest wedding photography. And we imported the nonsensical Black Friday and started biting each other to buy TVs.
It seems like a truly mad old world, but, despite being baffled by the barminess, we gratefully accept our part in it. We only hope that we can continue to chip away at the barriers that divide us, and celebrate the joys that we can share.
We are endlessly grateful to everyone who helps us do what we do. Those who helped us build Dishoom in a Godown in King’s Cross this year. Each and every person on the Dishoom team. Our families who are endlessly patient. All of you are wonderful, kind, and very special people, and we could not do any of it without you. And you, dear reader, dear guest, who part regularly with your hard-earned cash to allow us to feed and water you. And perhaps cover you in colourful paint and regale you with stories.
From the very bottom of all our hearts, we wish you the very best for 2015. May Ganesh-ji make all your beginnings greater, and your obstacles (and those accursed barriers) a little smaller.
Happy New Year!
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.
BOMBAY, 1949. A sultry June evening. Lights glow golden. Candles flicker in the warm breeze that arrives gently through the large open windows of the café.