Ciaran Thapar talks about how Indian food has helped him maintain a connection with his heritage after the passing of his grandmother
Another paratha arrived, which I used to mop up the butter on my plate. I was having breakfast at my relatives’ home in Chandigarh, the capital city of Punjab, northern India, after travelling alone in the Himalayas. I could hear the morning squawks of parakeets in the trees of the small park across the road. The previous night my cousin, his friends and I had sat on his roof drinking beers. My cousin told me he could never imagine visiting England; that he’d be too conscious of what people think of him. His friends made jokes to one another in Punjabi which I suspected were at my expense.
My great aunt stood in the kitchen frying parathas, flatbreads stuffed with cauliflower and onion. Her arm trembled under the weight of the tray of food as she walked over to place it down, before retreating to her bedroom to pray. I could see her kneeling in the shadows, writing out lines of scripture in a notebook, surrounded by candles.
Later that morning I showed her and my cousin the digital copy of the Bhagavad Gita I had downloaded onto my iPad. It is said that despite the Gita’s short length, much of Hinduism’s philosophical basis can be gleaned from its 700 verses. “I am the silence of hidden mysteries; and I am the knowledge of those who know,” I read to my cousin, highlighting my favourite couplet. He translated what I said to my great-aunt, his grandmother. She stared at the illustration of Krishna and Arjuna as warriors displayed on the screen and hugged me tight like my grandma used to. I don’t know what made her more proud: seeing her late sister’s grandson slumped at her table after feasting on her cooking, or the realisation that despite the language barrier she and I were communicating after all.
When my grandma died I was twelve-years-old, and the loss of her binding maternalism brought about toxic politics amongst my dad’s family in London. My grandpa’s psychological demise quickly followed; without his wife’s guiding presence, he became lost in a thickening fog of dementia. My world was drained of the Indian influences that had been at its heart, whilst the polite, leafy Englishness available from my mum’s side remained strong. As I entered into my teenage years I became very aware of this imbalance. Suddenly there were no prayers at Diwali, just fireworks; no celebration of Rakhi, the annual tradition in which my sisters would tie a thread around my wrist to symbolise their protection; and no impromptu tutorials from my grandma about the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses. After her funeral, in mourning both the death of her life as well as the spiritualism of my upbringing, I gave up eating beef for a year and stuck an Om poster on my bedroom wall, where it held company with 50 Cent, So Solid Crew and Sachin Tendulkar.
Another impact of this era was the disappearance of my grandma’s platters of food. I have always enjoyed my dad’s cooking, a skill he learned from his mother, especially Punjabi dishes like kadhi pakora (vegetable fritters in a sour, yoghurt-based sauce), dal makhani (black lentils) or jeera murgh (chicken smothered in cumin seeds). But nothing has ever matched my grandma’s spreads, those which only connoisseurs with five, six, seven decades of love and wisdom can prepare; experts of care, like my English grandma, my mum’s mum, with her mushroom soups, Sunday roasts and coffee cakes.
One of my fondest childhood memories is looking down at my hands, both of them dusted with chapati flour, whilst rolling rotis. It was the late-1990s, when New Labour reigned supreme and Arsenal were a competitive football team. The popularity of shows like Goodness Gracious Me on the BBC tricked everyone into thinking that what Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has called ‘3S multiculturalism’ – saris, samosas and steel-drums – would be celebrated forever. UK garage and bhangra music boomed from the car speakers of boy-racers who would whizz up and down the dusty broadway in Southall, west London, where my grandparents lived.
On visits to their home, whilst we ate dinner my grandpa, dad and uncles would tell jokes or debate in Punjabi. I always sat politely in silence alongside my mum and sisters with only a tin plate of my grandma’s magical food to focus on. The challenge of eating messily with my hands was the purest form of liberation. In those moments I was freed from the knife-and-fork strictness of my other grandparents’ dinner table, where I would receive a flick on my arm and a stern glare from my gramps if I rested my elbows for too long. Then for dessert my mouth would be stuffed full of mango so that my cheeks became covered in its yellow pulp. “More, more, you have to eat!” I remember my grandma repeating, like so many grandmas do, before turning to my mum to say: “he’s too skinny!”
Indian food thus became my fascination and my coping mechanism; a way of accessing peace of mind and wholeness of identity. It allowed me to distract myself from how excluded I felt from my full-blooded older cousins, who I cherished, but whose mother-tongues meant they could laugh along with the punchlines of stories being told by older relatives.
After I graduated from university a few years ago, whilst again travelling in the Himalayas, I was sat by a roaring log-fire in Naggar, a village in the serene hillside forestry of Kullu Valley, Himachal Pradesh. Naggar is known for having been home to the great Russian traveller, Nicholas Roerich, who would sit in his house – now a museum – writing about the peaceful tranquility of the Himalaya and painting its vast, moody landscapes. I was eating pan-fried trout, a fish that was only brought to the rivers of Himachal from Norway in 1991: the year of my birth, when ‘mixed’ first appeared as an ethnic group on the UK national census. A jovial argument broke out between members of the trekking group I was with about which part of India produces the best food. I smiled, detecting my own gluttonous passion in their debate. But rather than focusing on its regional origins, my greater concern has always been about how the food has been realised in the UK. When I eat dishes that have cross-pollinated to this patchwork postcolonial island – from Gujarati bhel puri, to Keralan fish curry, to Hyderabadi dal, to Punjabi chole – I cannot help but see them as inseparable from their modern, British-Asian context. The context of my own hybridity, of constantly trying to fit in.
Imagine a spectrum, a sliding-scale, along which it is possible to assess Indian subcontinental dining in the UK. At the unfortunate end of this spectrum exists the awkwardness I feel when I watch the video of George Osborne making that speech to the House of Commons in 2015. “We all enjoy a great British curry,” he whines, in his nasal tone, “but what we want is the curry chefs trained here in Britain, so we’re providing jobs for people in this country.” This is the same space on the sliding scale which permits someone to wear a bindi to a music festival but ignore the word “p*ki” when it is spoken at their dinner party. It encourages people to say “namaste” and “Om” at any given opportunity after attending a few yoga classes, but still lets them become irate when they are told they cannot bring booze into a traditional Pakistani canteen.
I could be ordering an ale in a pub in rural Yorkshire at sunset, after a day’s ramble across snowy dales, between dry-stone walls, and see written on the blackboard that it is ‘curry night’, including a choice of naan, rice or chips.
I could be sat in a restaurant in Bristol which charges £1.50-per-poppadom and whose curries amount to uniform chunks of meat dunked last-minute in bland premade sauce. One of my fellow students leans over to suggest that I, the only person of relative colour at the table, “must try the korma.”
I could be walking along Brixton Road, in south London, and spot a trendy new restaurant specialising in “Indian small plates and craft beer.” Because if the food of a conquered faraway land is described using the sexy language of nearby Mediterranean Europe, it’s that bit more palatable, right? Everyone in the restaurant is white apart from one Asian couple, who are sat studying their miniscule plate of lamb chops in bemusement.
In my view, dining at this end of the spectrum amounts to dilution, appropriation and recolonisation. It is for customers who are used to their way being the proper way; who, as a society, cherry-pick the more moderate segments of diasporic cultures without any willingness to embrace the whole context from which those cultures stem. It is where the Anglo-Indian encounter is defined by, is in service of, bows down to, assimilates into, the all-powerful ‘Anglo-’.
So what occurs at the other end? This is where the terms of the Anglo-Indian encounter switch to become the Indo-Anglian encounter: a space which is owned and shared by, spiced for, the ‘Indo-‘ among us. Here rests the comfort-zone of my childhood; my tin plate of home-cooked food; the place which makes me feel free and heartily fed amongst loud family, boxes of jalebi and wisps of incense smoke. At this point on the scale, I like to think that culinary pride stands firm against the exploitative history of empire. That it provides the energy with which to fight against the daily exhaustion of microaggression and celebrate the accomplishments of 20th-century mass migration.
Venture to the London suburbs of Hounslow or Southall or Hayes, an archipelago of towns stretching around the sterile grounds of Heathrow airport. Look carefully, on some quiet residential street corner, and you might find a Punjabi pub. Guinnesses are £3 and whiskey is served with decanters of tap water to keep the white-bearded Sikh punters hydrated as they devour sizzling plates of tandoori meat whilst watching India play cricket on the big screen. The smell of cumin and fenugreek wafts across the pool table. The glow of a worn tandoor oven can be seen through the kitchen door. This reimagined version of the traditional British pub is surely – to borrow a phrase from People Just Do Nothing’s Chabuddy G – “UKIP’s worst nightmare.” All the more reason to admire it.
Alternatively, look amongst any row of shops in this part of suburban London in search of a Lahori or Peshawari karahi house. It was at one of these safe-spaces that I drowned my sorrows in a deep, oily karahi full of saag gosht – lamb cooked in blended spinach – when Donald Trump was elected president. As the rain poured outside a Polish waitress served my garlic naan, which I maneuvered with my right hand. I used my left hand to scroll through a Twitter feed of people across the US posting online their experiences of racist attacks in the wake of the election. I soon became lost in thought about rising intolerance across the Western world, and what it might mean for people like me. Or worse, what it has already meant for my girlfriend, whose mother is Pakistani and father is French. Unprotected by the privilege of gender that I benefit from, doubly rejected by the Brexit vote on account of her visibly Muslim yet continental European lineage, she was called a ‘p*ki’ on public transport twice by groups of white men in weeks following the EU referendum.
I ate every last drop of curry and ordered a rasmalai to finish – a cold cottage cheese dumpling soaked in sweetened cream – before chewing on mukhwas to freshen my breath, venturing from my smoke-filled sanctuary into the icy cold outside. Before heading next door to buy a Lion bar from the Polski Sklep I stopped to appreciate the mutually yellow fronts of the shop and the karahi house. Their shared aesthetic, a bright, colourful symbol of immigrant pride, reminded me of tropical green Indian ringneck parakeets flying as a flock: birds which are most prevalent in south-west London and Surrey county. To this day, no one knows for sure how they arrived in England. One theory poses that they escaped from the set of The African Queen, circa 1950 (‘African Queen’ happens to be the name of an excellent Punjabi pub in Hounslow – just saying). Forever perched on the willow trees that line the banks of the River Thames and rugby pitches in the home counties, they are now embraced by bird-watchers as a domestic national treasure. Fruit-farmers, however, hate them.
The nursing home of my grandpa before he passed away not long ago in Harrow Weald, north-west London, was split into two wings. The ground floor was for English residents. Holy crosses and framed images of Jesus rested on the mantelpiece. Shows like Countryfile and Countdown played on the television. My grandpa’s room was on the first floor, where Indian residents lived. The nurses spoke a combination of Hindi, Punjabi and Gujarati, Hindu and Sikh imagery decorated the communal area, and Bollywood films played in the communal living room.
By the end of his life my grandpa could not remember who I, my sisters or my parents were. He had forgotten how to speak English. But he still knew the words to the 1955 Bollywood song, a celebratory anthem of Indian post-independence, ‘Mera Joota Hai Japani.’ Its chorus translates as: “My shoes are Japanese, these trousers are English, the red hat on my head is Russian, but still my heart is Indian.”
En route to see him for what would be the last time, my family and I stopped at a south Indian restaurant to eat masala dosas, huge rice-and-lentil pancakes stuffed with spiced potatoes. With our stomachs satisfied, on arrival at the home my sister played grandpa’s favourite song on her phone. He attempted to sing along. My dad had tears in his eyes. I looked over to the bedside table and saw a photo of my grandma. I remembered how my grandpa was unable to eat in restaurants without brazenly complaining that nothing on the menu came close to what his wife could cook him at home. How she used to carry a pot of fresh green chillies in her hand bag for him in case the food wasn’t hot enough. How she taught through her dishes that food can bring people together: across families, cities and continents.
A nurse walked in announcing that my grandpa’s food was ready. We helped him out of bed and wheeled him into the dining area. Awaiting him was a tin plate of dal and chapati.
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Ciaran Thapar is a youth-worker and writer based in south London. He holds an MSc in Political Theory from London School of Economics and typically writes about social justice, multiculturalism and music.
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