The year was 1965 and I had just joined the Indian School of International Studies at Sapru House. “There was a sprawling lush green lawn with a good library attached,” it said. Not to mention the canteen on the mezzanine which attracted artists, journalists and intellectuals from all over Delhi. This is where I first met Anees Bhai and Sumitraji. Both were elderly, and in those days, elders were treated with respect. They weren’t married at the time, but they were often seen together.
Anees Chishti was already a famous signature of Mainstream, the left-wing periodical edited by Nikhil Chakravarty, but was disarmingly casual, encouraging young people and engaging in conversations. He carried his scholarship and ideology lightly. Sumitraji was more reserved, but enjoyed a reputation as a brilliant and meticulous economist. I remember she was always elegantly dressed in resplendent silk sarees. I think it was Shaukat Hayat Ahmed, an elderly scholar researching the Sino-Soviet schism, who introduced me to Anees Bhai. A year later, the two were married, as Seema recounts in her book, in a small, simple ceremony attended by a few friends. How long ago it seems!
It was indeed a different world, a different country, when a Muslim man from Deoria could marry a Hindu girl from Karnataka without sparking a communal riot. Of course, there were difficulties – renting accommodation in a predominantly Hindu residential area, but nothing that posed a risk to life or limb. Three or four years later, when Javed Alam from Hyderabad married Jayanti Guha from Bengal (both roommates of Sapru House hostel in Gomati), an uproar broke out and the nasty storm took a long time to die down.
Several decades later, I met Seema, the couple’s daughter, who had just returned from England. Seema is brilliant in her own right, inheriting the best from both her parents – fluency in multiple languages, insatiable curiosity, dedication to meticulous research and a playful sense of humor. Our paths crossed several times when she was at the BBC, but I never met Anees Bhai again. Sumitraji joined JNU and was a colleague after retiring from the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, but our academic interests did not converge and there was little interaction. This thin volume brought back many old memories. Shahid Amin’s memoir of his beloved mamu, which is also part of the book, is a pure delight to read.
And then there are the recipes. The descriptions follow the minimalist course. They’re ideal for a lazy cook who doesn’t like kitchen chores but loves good food. From different types of rasam, dal and kadhi to shami skewers, mutton and chicken curries, snacks and sweets, everything to compose a simple yet elegant meal for yourself and your guests is here. They offer a wide margin for improvisation. Seema has generously shared not only the recipes but also the anecdotes that take the reader down the nostalgic path when we not only tolerated, but celebrated diversity and, in the process, enriched our own lives. This was when the composite Ganga-Jamuni culture was not confined to a few cosmopolitan places – Lucknow, Delhi, Hyderabad. From Deoria to Poorvanchal to Konkan on the west coast, this was the experience. Can we really believe that the hordes of poisonous vigilantes can be driven away by the aromas that escape from the kitchen?
Vir Sanghvi’s hard-hitting “Afterword” leaves no room for naïve optimism. Times have changed and for the worse. Our priceless common heritage (not just culinary) is being systematically destroyed by hooligans patronized by those in power and unleashed by hatemongers. Liberal and secular have become offensive words. Love coupled with jihad is for the most part inseparable from a terrorist conspiracy hatched on an international scale. This book is a timely reminder that to hold on to what we value, we must not give in but back down when threatened and be prepared for long-term battles.