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. The good bartender is mixing me Old Fashioneds this evening. The sweetness and warmth spreads promisingly through my body. The warm feeling has not yet reached my toes, but I feel sure that it will.
I’m not always great company, I’ll readily admit. And when I sit here on my stool at the bar to survey the last twelve months, I don’t always like what I find. Nonetheless, my task today is to look back and make peace with the shades and moods of 2020. I feel additional urgency to complete my task this evening since tomorrow, regulations will require this bar to be shut. There will be no good bartender here, and it will be cold, dark and lonely.
Of course, 2020 was a year that will not be forgotten easily. Its bony fingers will surely stretch into the history of future decades in ways we can’t comprehend. It has been such a hard year for so many, perhaps almost everyone. It has sometimes been heart-breaking cycling through the deserted streets of London, seeing shuttered shops and restaurants, thinking of the lives and livelihoods disrupted. I am also extremely conscious that the pain of this year is not spread equally. I am grateful that the virus didn’t take anyone I am close to, my family are all in good health, and I’m still here, as is this business with its stalwart people. However, many I do know have suffered a great deal, financially and personally, and many I don’t know will have suffered unspeakably.
I don’t think I’m particularly entitled to complain. But I’d like to confess that I have personally found this year difficult and I feel frayed and weary. Figuring out how to navigate the storm with eight restaurants and 950 people has been a challenge for us. I speak perhaps too openly, but I have felt fearful, at sea, battered by waves that seemed big enough to capsize the boat and its sailors. Certainly when the first lockdown was announced, we had no idea what the coming months would bring. As we stared at each other through the novel prism of endless zoom, every plan we made, every course we mapped through the storm was wrong, much too optimistic. It seems strange, and like a lifetime time ago now, but thoughtful and serious friends whose opinions I valued told me earnestly in April that there would simply be no restaurants in the future. People sent us polished reports by smart bankers and consultants that made frightening reading. Would we even be viable as a business?
Even so, eventually we did find sea legs and became better at tolerating the pitch and roll of the boat as we tacked back and forth in the gales, closing and opening, re-planning and plotting. I remember the view of the year from this past February. The seas appeared calm and we made our plans. We were excited to open our new restaurant in Birmingham, to re-open our restaurant in Covent Garden, to keep working to feed guests and to look after our teams and so forth. The year turned out very differently, and the experience of having little control over our immediate future, plans thrown repeatedly to the wind, has been uneasy and very humbling.
We found ourselves facing difficult decisions with uncomfortable frequency, and I know we didn’t always get the answers right. I know also that our teams, all depending upon the restaurants for their livelihoods, have been infinitely patient and understanding with our navigation. In truth, it’s only because of their hard work and resilience that we are here at all, still with a restaurant business. And we all have a debt of massive gratitude to our dear guests who ventured back into our corona-safe restaurants – thank you, and thank you deeply.
We did things we said we would never do. We never wanted to launch a delivery service; we always thought our work was to invite you into our restaurants and serve you and feed you, rather than to send you food via bike to your home. However, we did eventually embrace delivery, and have been working extremely hard to send you food we can be proud of. (We also learned how to send you DIY bacon and vegan naan rolls!) In the end, leavened with the humility we have earned from being pummelled by the storms this year, we also have some gratefulness. Although it was an early objective, I still can’t quite believe that we managed to retain everyone’s job in the business through the pandemic, and indeed have added fifty more to staff the delivery business. We also managed to keep our kitchens open during the first lockdown to cook food for NHS workers, and we’ve still been donating meals to feed children in the UK and India. Even though in this time of painful cash burn, these donated meals have added to our borrowings from the bank, they have become all the more urgent and important through the pandemic. We should hit a total of ten million meals donated to children in January ’21 – later than we had once expected – but it’s wonderful and a source of pride that we are still here, about to hit that milestone.
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that 2020 has been a year to learn. I’ve often struggled with the balance of humility and self-confidence that I think allows one to learn and to make good and mature judgements. The humility is necessary to be open to others’ points of view (like the people who said restaurants were over), to really listen to them and learn from them, conscious that one’s own perspective is just one perspective. Some self-confidence, belief in one’s own thinking, is also necessary so that one can take the views of others on board and adjust course without losing oneself or being buffeted around. 2020 has been a year where this balance has been much needed and has not been easy to achieve.
2020 was an uncomfortably full and taxing year, but in October, I had the fortune to talk on a panel with two remarkable people, Kavita and Shalina. For her recent book and Radio 4 series, Partition Voices, Kavita has done the very brave work of finding survivors of the events of 1947, when the final act of the British Raj was to partition India into India and Pakistan, and millions died in the horrific violence that ensued. These stories have hardly been told. They are shocking and moving and telling them is necessary. I used to think this was Indian history, of interest to me because my family came from India. Now I see that this is British history and needs to be understood. Shalina is an inspiring history teacher, who teaches children in Kenton in north-west London. She does a brilliant job of teaching children from diverse backgrounds history in a way which gives them a sense of their own context and doesn’t shy away from the difficult truths in our past. Meeting Kavita and Shalina was an important part of my year.
I’ve also been reading more widely this year. Perhaps I have been looking to the past for a sense of myself as an immigrant to these shores. I read William Dalrymple’s book, Anarchy, on the East India Company and also Robert Tomb’s weighty book, The English and Their History (and I would whole-heartedly recommend both). I feel this year, as perhaps others do too, that our understanding of our history is rightly evolving. That voices in history which may not have been heard are being acknowledged.
And again, I have found myself thinking again of the balance of humility and self-confidence. Tombs talks about whether we should feel pride or shame in our history and suggest that better than either of them ‘would be to accept responsibility: both for repairing and compensating for the failings of past generations, and for preserving and handing on their achievements.’ This feels extremely sane to me. Kavita and Shalina are doing important work, in Kavita’s case, literally enabling voices to be heard for the first time speaking about horrifically traumatic lived experience. And yet, reading Tombs, I was left feeling a sense that there is, in spite of the darker moments, much to celebrate. And a sense, too, that as an immigrant, I am entitled to celebrate our history (and perhaps to question it) as much as anyone else and by doing so, to contribute to our collective future.
If I’m honest, Dishoom has in many ways, reflected my need to understand and express some of my heritage. The stories that we write which become the basis for building each of our restaurants always involve some fiction or some character, grounded in some aspect of Bombay history. We do enormous research into these stories, but each of them feels like it comes from something within me that I want to articulate. Our King’s Cross restaurant is one of my favourites in this regard. So much of the history of Indian independence that my grandfather taught me about is reflected here. He and my grandmother took me around India a young boy in the 70s and 80s to visit Gandhiji’s birthplace in Gujarat, the Red Fort in Delhi where Independence was declared, Jallianwala Bagh where hundreds of unarmed, innocent men, women and children were killed in a park by General Dyer who asked his artillery to open fire. He would talk to me about Bhagat Singh, of the relationship of Nehru and Jinnah, of the politics of congress in the 1940s. This narrative of Indian independence is contained within all the artwork and photography on the walls, the graffiti, the flyposting, the design and even the Irani café rules in that restaurant. (My grandfather would have loved this restaurant.)
It felt enjoyably and gently subversive to me that we found anti-colonial graffiti from 1928 (protesting against the Simon Commission) in archives and reproduced it in letters fifteen feet high on the walls of a building that used to be an actual shed for goods coming and going from empire. And again, I feel that this juxtaposition is part of my heritage not just as someone of Indian origin, but as a Briton.
Enough history. It’s closing time here at the bar. Drink up, the bartender says, as she puts yet another Old Fashioned in front of me, ice clinking seductively in the glass. I should go home, I think. I feel better for having written thus far. I wonder if I’m sober enough to travel the six miles home on my bicycle, much of it uphill. Perhaps not.
I wonder what next year will bring. A very difficult winter. More lockdowns no doubt. Hopefully a vaccine (with stampeding herds of unicorn and rainbows overhead!) maybe the potential craziness of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit (at least we’ll have the fish!)
Perhaps a closing thought. I have also come to believe these past few years that one of the key things that keeps us happy and healthy, that helps us to lead our best life, is surely the quality of our relationships. Watch the Dean of Harvard Medical School, Robert Waldinger’s TED talk on this, if you haven’t already. I miss people, I miss eating with people in restaurants. I miss family and I miss friends. Zoom just doesn’t cut it. I hope next year, Dishoom can at the very least, facilitate people coming together and renewing their relationships. Right now, I can think of almost nothing better than a delicious meal with old friends. It almost makes me tearful to think of this fantasy. It will be here soon, I know. Forgive me, I’m an optimist, but I feel that 2021 will surely turn out to be a good ’un in the end. I feel sure that one day, soon, the seas will be calmer, the skies sunny and there will be a warm gentle wind at our backs.
Before I sign off, I need again to express deep gratitude to our team (each and every one of you!) for bearing with us through thick and thin, for believing in us when we were still learning to navigate the storms of 2020. And to anyone who has eaten our food this year, at home or in restaurants, thank you, and thank you again! And finally to our families who have put up with our angst and stress and endless zoom much more than they should have to, we give heartfelt thanks (and apologise a bit, too).
Here’s to 2021. As ever I end by invoking Ganesh-ji, the kind elephant-headed Hindu deity. May he make your lockdowns in ’21 tolerable, your ‘R’ number low, your zoom connections fast, your vaccines efficacious, and may he bless you with joyous meals with old friends and with wonderful relationships.
With much much love and gratitude to you all. Good night.
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.