There’s just something about devouring (do pardon the food pun!) a multifariously faceted book about food, passion, generosity, compassion and more pertinently, love and hope, when left quarantining all by one’s solitary self. A time when depression and loneliness are all that’s left as one’s companions.
It also helps that the book in question, Barkat by Vikas Khanna evolved from the much-awarded Michelin-starred chef, philanthropist and soon-to-be filmmaker’s efforts to help mitigate the debilitating effects of India’s first lockdown in 2020. Especially when it was brought forth by a pandemic that one is now part of the statistics of! Yes, my mercifully short and successful battle against Covid-19 was ably bolstered by the theme of this beautifully succinct book. One that I read in three hours straight. And one that has that definitive leitmotif of kindness, compassion and generosity running all through its crisp, 150 pages.
Khanna paints a vivid picture of how compassion came to form such an important part of his early, food-centric life. And it was his grandmother, he tell us, who shaped this identity of his. For the word ‘barkat’ means abundance and prosperity - an abundance of blessings and auspiciousness. Where there is no scarcity, that’s barkat, writes Khanna.
Whether it was explaining to him the basic tenets of the communal Sikh langar at the GoldenTemple in his home city of Amritsar, or reluctantly telling him how she fed and gave refuge to scores of Muslim girls in her attic during India’s partition in 1947, it is his beloved grandmother that sowed the seeds of Khanna’s future philanthropic efforts. Always with food at its core.
And it was food once more to the rescue, as Khanna writes so very descriptively.When, in a curious turn of events, as a young hotel management trainee in Mumbai, he was taken in and sheltered for two days by a Muslim family in their suburban home. All this against the backdrop of the city’s devastating 1992 riots.
At the turn of the last century—in December 2000 to be more specific—as Khanna wings his way on a westward-bound course to America to try his luck as an immigrant chef, the hope and excitement in his prose are almost palpable. But the reader is equally invested when Khanna speaks of the gut-wrenching lows he faced over there.
From blatant racism at the workplace (a French chef refusing to eat anything Khanna cooked) and societal islamophobia (when a group of women who are uncomfortable with his ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance asked that he be made to leave a restaurant) to the crushing humiliation of a looming state of destitution. This takes the form of Khanna’s account of standing in line at the New York Rescue Mission’s soup kitchen on a frosty Christmas Eve, waiting for a hand out of a warm meal and a cosy blanket to help tide night. All this, in the so-called ‘promised land’ that many believe the West, and particularly, the United States of America is.
But we never once get a sense of any underlying bitterness on the author’s part. Instead, all these blows serve as epochal incidents in Khanna’s life. And herald the beginning of his personal and professional journey of wanting to give back more than he receives. And no surprise then, that food once again is the fulcrum for his philanthropic ideas to pivot around.
He writes about spearheading the fundraising New York Chefs Cooking For Life dinner with food world heavyweights like Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud on board. These stalwarts and a few others like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Waltuck added some much-needed heft to the cause that benefited organisations like Habitat for Humanity and Save the Children.
Just like an itinerant salmon coming back to spawn in the very waters where it was born, Khanna talks of how it was his mother that encouraged...nay, forced him to take up the mammoth task of helping, via food, millions of needy folk back in his homeland of India during the pandemic-necessitated lockdown of summer 2020. A place and time that needed him the most.
Faced with seemingly insurmountable hurdles from cheats who swindled him (with unkept promises of delivering food grains to old age homes and orphanages) to our legendary brand of desi bureaucracy, Feed India somehow managed to break free. Not only did it end up becoming one of the world’s largest and most successful food drives, but also a shining beacon of what grit and determination can achieve. A true testimony to one man’s vision to showcase to the world Indian culture and the intrinsic value of sharing food.
(A wearer of many hats in the food and travel space, Mumbai-based Raul Dias is a food-travel writer, a restaurant reviewer, and food consultant)
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