November. 1967. Heathrow airport. A young man leans against the Oceanic terminal’s high windows, waiting for the final call for BOAC flight 774 to Bombay. He takes a long drag on his cigarette and stares into the heavy rain driving down onto the tarmac.
The passing travellers are openly curious to see a tall, striking Indian (actually, an Irani – not that they’d understand the distinction) dressed in stylish clothes. The women’s eyes linger on him. They look away. Look again. Smile a little when he catches them. Today he doesn’t smile back.
In his breast pocket sits a folded telegram. He can feel it there like a weight, a palm-print of heavy sadness on his chest. It arrived three days earlier with the news that would send him into a tail-spin of grief, guilt and confusion. “Your father has passed. Come home. We need you.”
It has been several years since he first came to London from Bombay. Since his family waved him off, their pride and joy, gone to study in England. Only for him to be seduced by the city, first making excuses to extend his stay and then breaking the news that he could not, would not, return to the life his parents had laid out for him. His mother had begged him to come back. His sister had written endless imploring letters. Most painful of all, his father had gradually just stopped communicating with him.
But how could he have walked away from this whirlwind of excitement, so different from deeply conservative India? The music that gave him the chills… The parties, the clubs, the cocktails, the beautiful uninhibited girls, even (occasionally) the drugs… He had found himself drawn into a world where anything and everything was possible. Heady discussions into the early hours about changing the world, music and revolution, dancing in Ad-Lib next to David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton, tripping at sunrise on Primrose Hill…
But deep down he had always known he was living on borrowed time. Mixed in with his grief was a feeling that his life as the charming Londoner, the exotic and accomplished songwriter with a flat off the King’s Road and a beautiful blonde girlfriend, was drawing to an end.
His father’s passing would leave a gaping hole in the family. His mother and sister would be utterly devastated. They would need to be looked after. He was not even sure he had yet understood the fact of his father’s death. He just felt numb. After all these years, he suddenly had so much to ask him, so much to say to him.
His father had been bread-winner, protector, head of the household – even a figure in the community. And of course, Irani café owner. It was a role his father – and his grandfather before him – had taken very seriously. Their dedication and loyal service to guests had seen the family business grow from a scruffy street-corner café to a smart new premises in Churchgate.
Final call. He sighs heavily and stubs out his cigarette. He picks up the small leather case carrying his favourite threads from Mates Boutique and Lord John. He travelled light; most of the things he loved had been left behind. He thinks of his guitars, the trunks full of LPs, the artworks he has carefully collected.
He is suddenly conscious how absurdly foreign his English possessions would look at home. He remembers India as backwards, dull and insular, painfully restrictive. He allows himself to imagine that perhaps things may not be as they were. He has heard about some of the ‘beat’ music bands from some Bombay musicians who came overland to London in a VW camper. His sister had mentioned in a letter that his old friend Ramzan had started a club, not far from their café, where these bands played covers of Western hits.
He turns and walks slowly towards the gate. The air stewardess smiles at him and checks his boarding pass. This time he smiles back, but he can’t hide the deep sadness in his eyes.
He pauses for a second and pulls the papers out of his breast pocket. He gazes at the return ticket in his hand before he puts it back his pocket, alongside the telegram. He steps out into the rain and onto the dark wet tarmac to board the plane home.
Dishoom Carnaby is now open!
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.