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Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is India's foremost conservative writer and columnist
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When it comes to food, middle-class Indians are inclined to be extremely conservative

IN THE DAYS when we were a little carefree and with greater time on our hands, my friend Arun Jaitley and I, not to mention other friends, used to meet up in London during the summer holidays. Both of us liked London in our own way; he because it was a familiar comfort zone and me because it was the city I had spent the best years of my youth. Yet, there was a point of sharp disagreement: on the question of food.

Arun had a few familiar restaurants he loved dining in. These included the Bombay Brasserie on Gloucester Road, Veeraswamy’s on Regent Street, Gaylord on Mortimer Street and the top floor cafeteria of Selfridges. It is not that I dislike any of them. The Bombay Brasserie remains an all-time favourite. However, I was damned if I was going to spend my time in London eating desi food that I could just as well have eaten at home. Arun thought differently and proudly boasted how he had hunted out Indian restaurants in Lyons and Toulouse too.

When it comes to food, middle-class Indians are inclined to be extremely conservative, preferring the familiar to the unknown. Yes, Thai, Chinese and Italian have caught on in recent years—and suitably Indianised. Sushi restaurants have also begun making their appearance in the metros, thanks in no small measure to Indians who studied in America. But by and large, the average desi yearns for his dal-roti/rice, tandoori/butter chicken and masala dosa, if not authentic home fare. The Gujaratis—a community of intrepid world travellers—even carry their own food for comfort.

Maybe this explains why economic globalisation in India hasn’t been accompanied by culinary globalisation. Even European food that Indians have been exposed to for longer is stuck in its 1950s ‘continental’ mould. There is even an authentic Indian-Chinese tradition whose shining example is the Gobi Manchurian, a dish calculated to sour Sino-Indian relations permanently. It is about as revolting as the Chicken Tikka Masala they serve in those Indian restaurants in Britain that bear names such as Light of India, Taj Mahal and Star of Bengal.

With greater overseas travel, things are bound to change. Perhaps not fast enough for people like me who, with age, can’t stomach over-spiced food any longer.

SCROLLING THROUGH Twitter and my Facebook account, I am quite fascinated by the passionate engagement of Indians (physically resident in India) with the US presidential election. That the outcome in November will have a huge bearing on international affairs is undeniable. But taking an interest in the lively election campaign is a little different from aggressive advocacy of either Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump.

That the lewd Trump tapes were particularly obnoxious and showed up an unappetising facet of his character aren’t in doubt. But accepting or rejecting Trump is the prerogative of American voters. It is none of our business, just as it is none of any American’s business who we elect to run our governments.

The passionate anti-Trump partisanship of our newspapers is quite gratuitous. Some of us thought it bizarre and presumptuous when The Economist magazine thought it fit to endorse Rahul Gandhi during the 2014 General Election. We think it is odd that the New York Times tries to impose its ultra-liberal, Manhattan cosmopolitanism on Indian affairs. Yet, we think nothing of proffering our two-bit opinions on a domestic American concern.

President Ronald Reagan used to often invite outgoing American diplomats for a farewell chat. He always posed a question: “And which country will you represent?” Invariably the diplomat used to name the country he was being posted to. “No,” Reagan used to retort, “you represent America. And don’t you ever forget it.”

It is one thing to dispassionately assess who is going to win. However, to judge the election with the same emotional involvement as an American voter makes little sense for an Indian. What India needs to be concerned is how the verdict will affect us. On that count, and despite the fact that, barring a miracle, he is unlikely to win, Trump actually scores.

RE-READING A BOOK on the Great Game that unfolded along India’s northern borders in the late- 19th and early-20th centuries, I came across a telling comment that Lord Curzon, then a clever Oxford student, addressed to Wilfred Blunt, a gifted poet and a fierce anti-imperialist: ‘My dear Wilfred, your poetry is delightful and your morals, though deplorable, enchanting. But why are you a traitor to your country?’

It’s a question worth asking the beautiful people who have rushed to debunk the so-called wave of nationalism, jingoism and xenophobia they see sweeping across India. For them, as with John Le Carre’s Bill Haydon (the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) it is, more than anything else, a matter of ‘aesthetics’.

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