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Mainstream, VOL LX No 36 New Delhi, August 27, 2022

Celebrating Multi-Cultural Lives and the Possible India | Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Friday 26 August 2022

Book Review by Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Sumitra and Anees: Tales and Recipes from a Khichdi Family
by Seema Chishti

Harper Collins, Publishers India
2022
189 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9354895883
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9354895883

Seema Chishti’s slim book is a tribute to her parents, and to the secular, multi-cultural “mini-India” that they created. Sumitra Bai and Anees Mohammed Chishti came together across region (she from Karnataka, he from Uttar Pradesh), religion (her Kayasth Hindu background, his Syed Muslim) and age (she elder, by seven years). The intertwining of their lives, ready acceptance by families, easy camaraderie and cosmopolitan ethos seem almost surreal today. In fact this is the tangible stuff of contemporary history: early decades of the Indian republic, fuelled by a vision of democracy, where fraternity and love stood a fighting chance.

Sumitra had fought her way to freedom—against marriage at the age of 15, reading and learning her way from Ariskere to Mysore, Delhi, the Netherlands—and then back to Delhi, to work as an economist in the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade. Meanwhile Anees, born in 1940, studied in Deoria and Aligarh, before moving to the Pusa Agricultural Institute, Delhi, for post-graduation in Statistics. They first met in 1964, in the basement office of the Mainstream in Connaught Place: which both wrote for, helped edit, and bring out.

The names `Sumitra’ and `Anees’ mean ‘good friends’, in Sanskrit and Arabic respectively. The two did indeed become good friends and within a couple of years, married. Anees’s nephew, historian Shahid Amin, recalls the ceremony, with barely a dozen people present, and a grand feast. Sumitra informed her family post facto while Anees had informed his parents via his elder sister (Shahid Amin’s mother). Two letters bear testimony to affectionate acceptance—one to Anees from Sumitra’s elder brother, the other from Anees’s father to “my dear daughter” Sumitra.

Though there was prejudice and tension around Hindu-Muslim relations, and not everyone sanctioned mixed marriages, in the hopeful decades of the 70s and 80s Sumitra and Anees faced neither legal hurdles nor allegations of ‘love jihad’. It is not as if everything was hunky-dory—fissures were evident and experienced. But there was fervor and hope, especially among young, liberal, left-leaning, educated professionals, cosmopolitans. There was prudence too; thus though Sumitra took on the surname Chishti, when it came to naming her daughter she chose ‘Seema’, rather than Salma or Zareena—relieved to find it in a list of names suggested by Anees’s mother.

Seema characterizes her childhood home as a mini-India, a confluence of cultures and cuisines; a well-blended ‘khichdi’ family. Sumitra—who became Director of IIFT and a professor at JNU—was deeply interested also in “matters of the gut and stomach and, along with Anees and his family’s support, ran a most interesting kitchen.”

A huge chunk of Seema’s book is a book-within-the-book – a collection of recipes penned by Sumitra. These are delectable, ranging from rice dishes to mutton, chicken, fish, sambhars, rasams, and a variety of curried and dry vegetable dishes. The cuisine reveals multiple origins, and is thus an important facet of the wider story of cross-cultural exchange and enrichment, within India and across borders too. Like most other cultural artefacts, the food we eat is a potpourri of influences; the origins of a particular dish are often untraceable, in geography as well as history

The current vicious politics around food seeks to demonize much of this—labeling vegetarian as `Hindu’, non-vegetarian as `Muslim’, and so on. Vir Sanghvi’s ‘Afterward’ reminds us that the dishes on our table have evolved over millennia, with multiple versions, and diverse cooks stretching over thousands of miles. To characterize food items as ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ is a dangerous lie; ancient Sanskrit and Tamil literatures mention meat-cum-rice dishes, and more recently, tandoori chicken was invented by Punjabi Hindus. Lies about food are part of a larger drive to invent a bogus, mono-religious past for the country.

Today, who one marries or befriends could be declared criminal, with the aid of new-fangled laws targeting mixed marriages, and ‘forced’ conversion. Food is become bitterly contested terrain, a marker of differentiation, at the heart of new laws around beef, cattle, halal food, and heated debate over eggs in school midday meals. Right-wing communal politics aims at erasure of knowledge of common roots, exchange and cross-fertilization of ideas, interaction, as well as food. Bridges across cultures, built assiduously over the years, are being systematically demolished.

*

Let us loop back to Sumitra and Anees’s earliest meeting-place—Mainstream. In 2012 Anees wrote of memories still fresh in his mind: long Tuesday nights correcting galley proofs, in a small printing press surrounded by racks of lead typefaces, used for hand composing so the publication would be ready by morning. “Small delights like delicious mutton curry and tandoori rotis from a dhaba, in good company, at times with the loved one who was later to become the life-partner. Thanks, Mainstream, for those delights! ...all those fifty years seem to be a dream, a delightful dream, indeed!”

In this fifty-year span, we seem to have lost track of our dreams. Seema’s reflections on her childhood home remind us that it is possible to live one’s dreams: Sumitra and Anees created a space of intense camaraderie and enriching debate, open to wide circles of friends and family, deeply involved with literature, journalism, art, culture, the economy and polity of the time. There was an “eclectic and easy togetherness” that resulted in new dishes and aromas, a confluence and ‘khichdi’—perhaps symbolic of a civilizational moment which made India an exemplar, amongst divisive ethnic nationalisms across the globe.

Are we to let go of that moment, now? Or can we still sustain the vision and continue obstinately to forge connections, across differences? We don’t really have a choice: honest commitment is imperative, to build strong bridges wherever possible and walk on them, in personal life as well as public.

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