Once again, dear reader, I’m back here. I am the weary, be-stubbled regular propping up one end of the bar in the Permit Room at the same time every year. I have a burra peg of something stiff at my elbow. If they’d let you smoke in here, I’d be making my way slowly through the pack. It’s been a long year. I feel depleted and consumed. Nothing left in the tank.
I think I’ve begun to make friends with 2015. Fifteen, you old bastard. You truly were the best of times and the worst of times. For myriad reasons, you brought with you twelve of the toughest, fullest months. Weeks that were hard, and days that could only be dealt with one at a time. And yet, sitting here on the threshold of one year and the next, sorting through the events in my head, I’m beginning to discern the lessons you were teaching.
We lost a family member this year. A life made unfairly, senselessly short, the grief hard. But we also experienced the smiling kindness and cheerfully unshakeable courage of someone dealing with unspeakable pain. The strength and resilience of children, the unyielding love of family. The echoes that she leaves behind sound like gentle laughter, they sound like a love of life. The twinkle in her eye somehow outlasts the tears in ours. It is humbling; cached within the intense sadness of passing, there are precious – and joyful – lessons on how to live.
Of course,’15 carried with it other less intense moods too, for which I’m grateful. In Dishoom’s world, you, dear patron, continued to allow us to look after you, leaving with your wallet slightly lighter and your stomach slightly heavier than when you arrived; and perhaps with your spirit a touch refreshed. You let us serve you in this way and we give you sincere, humble and heartfelt thanks; for this is our livelihood.
In ’15, we launched a fourth Dishoom, on Kingly Street. This time our imagination wandered into the 1960s; we became the handsome young Irani in London, returning to Bombay on hearing news of his father’s passing. The result was Dishoom Carnaby in which we explored Bombay of the period, so rich in its architectural and cultural detail. We sought out and made friends with the (actual, and lovely) people our handsome Irani would have known had he been a real person. Stalwarts such as Farrukh, Dolly, Padmini, Reynold, Nissim and, of course, the indomitable Asha became a part of our life. (Asha, by the way, is a living legend who can refer to Andy and Mick by their first names.)
We also discovered that when the music of the Beatles and the Stones snuck past the walls of conservative Bombay in the sixties, kids picked up their guitars and started calling themselves ‘Beat’ bands. At the same time British groups were exploring mystic exotic India and her musical (and chemical!) delights. We became interested (obsessed) with this scene and, consulting with our new friend Sidharth Bhatia and our old friend Rob Wood, we actually managed to release an album, Slip-Disc: Dishoom’s Bombay London Grooves. Our hearts were lifted when Mojo gave our album 4 stars, Uncut rated it 8/10 and the good people over at BBC radio kept talking about it and playing it. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts for lending your ears to listen to the result of our (mis)adventures!
Beyond the boundaries of Dishoom, though, the world had a slightly disturbing quality. We’ve previously written in these pages of our strong belief in the need to create shared spaces, to break down barriers, to celebrate difference rather than judge it. More than ever, though, it seems that the worst are full of passionate intensity and that the best lack conviction. The moronic and lethal prejudices of extremists (whether Daesh or Donald) provide the warlike drumbeat to which events seem bound to dance. Reasonable and kind voices are at risk of being drowned out by the intolerant din.
One thing that Daesh, Donald and their kind have in common is that they see the world as binary. Us and them. Black and white. They thrive on polarity and conflict. Daesh talks often about the ‘grey zone’. This grey zone is a place in which Muslims and non-Muslims co-exist peacefully. For Daesh it’s anathema.
I, for one, whole-heartedly want to live in the grey zone, where we all rub up against each other. It’s a messy shared space, to be sure, but it’s colourful and joyous. The way to fight extremism, or to react to the tragic nihilistic attacks in Paris (and elsewhere, for that matter) is not to shrink or dilute the grey zone, as Donald, Marine and others would have us do, but to celebrate it, defend it, and indeed to deepen it and expand it.
As you may have figured out, we work pretty hard to make Dishoom a first-class grey zone. Irani Cafés were quite possibly the original Bombay grey zones. We’re not able to fix things outside our walls but we can make sure that within our walls, the world is as it should be. In Dishoom, we really like serving food cooked in Parsi, Muslim, Hindu and Christian traditions, and we do it deliberately and self-consciously. We like celebrating Holi, Eid, Diwali and Christmas. We have a strong view that mixing it up is a Good Thing. There is truly no greater pleasure than in bringing people together to celebrate each other’s cultures. I can’t think of a single reason not to do this. In fact, I’d go further; in today’s political climate, we must all do this. I think we’d be barmy not to.
One of the best things we’ve ever done at Dishoom had its origins in June this year. A group of us were sitting around a table replete with food (which is, as you can imagine, not an uncommon event at Dishoom). We were discussing Ramadan. Our group was composed of Hindus, a less-than-conscientious Christian, a Muslim and an aspiring Buddhist. Most of us had known that charity was one of the foundations of Islam, but we learnt that the holy time of Ramadan is particularly associated with giving to those less fortunate than yourself. Our food-laden table was beautiful, but in that context it gave us pause for thought. We decided that our ‘zakat’ (or charity) for the month of Ramadan would be to feed two children in need for every meal we served. We put this into place and worked with the delightful people at Magic Breakfast and Akshaya Patra – and in the end we were able to donate funds for 160,000 meals to be fed to children who would otherwise go hungry.
A short time later, we were discussing Diwali and the Hindu new year, which is a very special time for us Hindus. Again, we discussed that we should surely be contributing to the wider world (our ever-replete table being a reliable reminder of our good fortune). Someone came up with the idea that we should, from Diwali, make our Ramadan ‘zakat’ a permanent feature of what we do at Dishoom. It just made sense. It’s surely a tragedy that in our world children still go hungry. So, from this Diwali, we pledged to feed a hungry child for each guest we serve at Dishoom.
I’m prouder of this than almost anything else that I’ve been involved in. So far this year, we’ve donated over a quarter of a million meals for children in India and in East London. As I think back to how we as a group were moved to do this, it feels right; Hindus, Christians, Muslims and others feeding needy children in the name of Islam for Ramadan and then making this a permanent part of Dishoom from the Hindu new year.
So ’15 you old bastard, my burra peg is almost drained dry. Writing your elegy is helping me to come to terms with your despair and your hope, your weeping and your laughter. I’ve blinked back a few tears, but I’m smiling.
I know beyond all doubt that our ’15 here at Dishoom was full to the brim with good people, without whom we’d be nothing at all. I’m proud to be part of this; to each and every person in the Dishoom team, I want to give the warmest, sincerest thank you that I am able to summon. To every one of our kind and gracious suppliers, I give deep thanks; it’s good to be working with you. We’re also utterly grateful for the bottomless and loving patience of our families. And in the end, it is you, kind and good patrons of our livelihood, who breathe life into our work and allow us to do what we do. Thank you and thank you again for coming to Dishoom, allowing us to serve you, and coming back for more.
Well, it’s time for me to go home to celebrate Christmas, like a good Hindu. This year, my four year old daughter is very interested in baby Jesus and has been asking me whether he’s like baby Krishna. I’m sure I’ll figure it out by the time I get home.
From all of us here at Dishoom, we wish you the best for Christmas and the New Year. And from the bottom of all our hearts, we wish you the very best for ’16. It probably won’t be an easy year, but we hope it’s a good year.
May Ganesh-ji give you the strength to deal with the tears and the openness to make the most of the joy.
Merry Christmas and a 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.