Book Review: Dreaming of a Khichdi India, One Recipe at a Time

Seema Chishti's book of recipes is not just an endeavour to hang on to the lives of two remarkable individuals in a remarkable period in Indian history, it is a memorialisation of an idea of India that now barely exists.

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It’s not the what but the why of Sumitra and Anees that has stayed with me days after I read the personal stories and tested the (delicious) recipes that author Seema Chishti inherited from her parents – Sumitra, a Hindu woman from Mysore, and Anees, a Muslim man from Uttar Pradesh.

I am insatiably curious about how others conduct their lives, especially their kitchens. I read recipes constantly, scrolling and skimming with the kind of addicted attention we mostly reserve for Twitter and Instagram. I let ingredient combinations and cooking techniques wash over me, hoping that they’ll settle in a dark corner of my brain and come to the rescue when I confront an empty fridge or an alarmingly full one. Over the course of the pandemic, food has also become a way to narrativise the seismic changes in my life. I can chart my move from Delhi to the UK – from living with friends and being employed to living with a significant other and being a student – through the ‘rotation’ of what I’m cooking and eating.

It is a personal history of no significance to anyone but me, but even within the realm of personal histories, charting what’s on the table every night is a particularly intimate way to examine the internal and external factors that make a life. And the external factors bearing down on millions of Indian lives right now are inescapable.

Seema Chishti
Sumitra and Anees
HarperCollins, 2022

Right in the beginning, much before Chishti adopts the warm and casual narrative tone of remembering a loved one, she methodically sets out the conditions and reasons that have compelled her to make public what the subjects of her book would have always wanted to remain private. It is an interesting narrative choice, to lead with political and cultural analysis and then adopt an entirely different, personal and anecdotal tone for the ‘actual’ story, leaving the reader to fill in the unsaid.

Chishti recounts the ruthless efficiency with which the government has woven a set of conditions, through laws and the circumvention of the Indian Constitution, to exclude Indian Muslims from the idea of India itself. It is dizzying and sickening to read through all of the heinous incidents from the last few years in one go – from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech pitching ‘shamsaan’ and ‘kabristaan’ against each other to the judicial circus around an adult Hindu woman’s choice to convert and marry a Muslim man, the lynching of Muslims via cow slaughter laws, to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act which draws a small circle around who can potentially be Indian (not Muslims from neighbouring countries), the criminalisation of Muslim men through triple talaq laws. You jump from one point to the next, off the book’s pages and on to news sites where the timeline continues seamlessly, picking up in frequency, horridness and absurdity with each new headline.

By the time Chishti actually gets to the life stories of Sumitra and Anees — one navigating education and ambition in Mysore and then around the country and world; the other figuring out the delicate balance of hope and caution as a Muslim who chose India over Pakistan — you are already convinced that the personal is not only political, but in this case radical.

Also read: How Much Meat Does India Eat?

In many ways Sumitra and Anees’s union was full of the same barriers and questions that such a couple would face today. Which is, in itself, a depressing counter to the dogma that progress moves in a linear fashion. In the ’60s and ’70s and every decade since then, interfaith couples have faced the same things — navigating their families’ and communities’ opinions, landlords who don’t want to rent to Muslims, temples that deny non-Hindus entry, the list goes on. But, you get the sense that Sumitra and Anees would have hoped that, in time, their story would be an ordinary one. Just one khichdi family in a khichdi society. This book exists to mark the fact that not only has that not happened, it has now been rendered practically impossible.

The India we live in does not want to be a khichdi society, it wants to be a Hindu one. And so what was meant to be ordinary and private — such anecdotes and fond remembering belong in living rooms hosting family gatherings — has been forcibly transformed into extraordinary by an invasive state machinery.

These thoughts, ignited by Chishti’s first few pages, haunt every word of every personal anecdote that follows. This book of recipes is not just a project of remembrance or an endeavour to hang on to the lives of two remarkable individuals in a remarkable period in Indian history, it is a memorialisation of an idea of India that no longer exists. Or is further from our reach than it has ever been. What seemed aspirational yet inevitable when the constitution of India came into being is now a fragile thing that needs to be preserved so it may come alive again, at some point too far to see.

Seema Chishti.

Also read: Food as the Central Character of Our Lives

The Constitution looms large in Chishti’s mind and prose, its promises standing in clear painful contrast to the ‘new India’ we now live in. It is the document that enables us, still, to cook rasam in our kitchens for one meal and keema matar for the next. It’s the document that made it possible for khichdi families and khichdi kitchens to exist, where meat could be bought and sold on Tuesday or during the Navratras. It was, for the longest time, the scaffolding that kept out questions like the one I asked my editor while testing recipes: “Is it okay if I use beef mince for the keema recipe?” Of course it is okay if I use beef, I am free to live, eat and cook as I please. But the fact that the question emerges at all is proof of the constraints put on our imaginations in the last few years.

If the personal is already up for public judgment, and the ordinary has been pushed into the margins, then maybe our project isn’t just to defend the India enshrined in the Constitution, but also to preserve and memorialise the private realms it enables. For Chishti, this is a project for the kitchen. It is where history and imagination flow from Sumitra to successive generations of her khichdi family — and now into our khichdi kitchens. Thanks to Sumitra, my home smelled like my childhood best friend’s mum’s kitchen when I ground garlic and black pepper for rasam, and then the following evening when I made keema, it smelled like the khada masala mix that characterises my born-in-Rawalpindi Nani’s chicken curry. Both were the smells of home and care, intensely personal and so deep rooted that I’d never thought to articulate them before then.

What do we do when the public sphere contracts and threatens to suffocate us? Chishti seems to say we respond by expanding the personal, every day through big steps and small, through our kitchens and our words.

Nehmat Kaur is a writer based in Brighton. She writes a newsletter about loneliness and connection here and tweets at @nehmatks.