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Seema Chishti’s ‘Sumitra and Anees’ brings diverse stories and recipes from her khichdi family: The Tribune India

Seema Chishti's ‘Sumitra and Anees’ brings diverse tales and recipes from her khichdi family

Pushpesh pants

THE year was 1965 and I had just joined the Indian School of International Studies at Sapru House. “It had a vast, lush green lawn with a good library attached to it,” one would say. Not to mention the mezzanine canteen that attracted artists, journalists and intellectuals from all over Delhi. This is where I first met Anees Bhai and Sumitraji. Both were seniors and at that time seniors were treated with respect. They were not yet married at the time, but were often seen together.

Anees Chishti was already a well-known byline in Mainstream, the left-wing magazine edited by Nikhil Chakravarty, but was disarmingly informal, encouraging young people and engaging in conversation. He carried his scholarship and ideology lightly. Sumitraji was more reserved, but had the reputation of a shrewd, meticulous economist. I remember she was always elegantly dressed in beautiful silk saris. I think it was Shaukat Hayat Ahmed, an elderly scholar who was researching the Sino-Soviet schism, who introduced me to Anees Bhai. A year later, as Seema recounts in her book, the two married 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 causing a communal riot. Of course there were hardships – renting out accommodation in a predominantly Hindu residential area, but nothing that could pose a risk to life and limb. Three or four years later, when Javed Alam from Hyderabad married Jayanti Guha from Bengal (both Sapru House hostel mates in Gomati), it caused a stir and it took a while for the ugly storm to pass.

Many decades later, I met Seema, the couple’s daughter, who had just returned from England. Brilliant in her own right, Seema has inherited the best of both parents – fluency in many languages, an insatiable curiosity, dedication to painstaking research and a mischievous sense of humor. Our paths crossed repeatedly when she was on the BBC, but I never met Anees Bhai again. Sumitraji joined JNU and was a colleague after she retired from the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, but our academic interests did not converge and there was little interaction. This slim volume has brought many old memories back to life. Shahid Amin’s memoir of his beloved mamu, also part of the book, is pure joy to read.

And then there are the recipes. The descriptions follow the minimalist route. They are ideal for a lazy cook who doesn’t like kitchen chores but loves good food. From various varieties of rasam, dal and kadhi to shami kebabs, mutton and chicken curries, snacks and sweets, everything to put together a simple yet elegant meal for themselves and guests is here. They offer plenty of room for improvisation. Seema has generously shared not only the recipes, but also anecdotes that lead the reader down the nostalgic road when we not only tolerated diversity, but celebrated and, in the process, enriched our own lives. This was when Ganga-Jamuni’s composite culture was not limited to a few cosmopolitan places – Lucknow, Delhi, Hyderabad. From Deoria in Poorvanchal to Konkan on the west coast, it was the lived experience. Can you really believe that the hordes of poisonous vigilantes can be dispelled by letting aromas pour from the kitchen?

Vir Sanghvi’s hard hitting ‘Afterword’ leaves no room for naive optimism. Times have changed and worse. Our priceless shared heritage (not just culinary) is being systematically destroyed by hooligans patronized by those in power and unleashed by hate mongers. Liberal and secular have become epithets. Love with a hyphen jihad is for most inextricably linked to an internationally hatched conspiracy of terrorists. This book is a timely reminder that to keep what we value, we must not give in, but push back when threatened and be prepared for lengthy battles.

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