Saturday, August 17, 2013

Bhaijaan's Fish and Chips

In this blog post I talk about a place in London called Southall. For those who may not be familiar, Southall is a large suburb in West London, known to be home to a sizable population of the South Asian community outside of the South Asian sub continent. Even though you’ll find many Pakistanis and Bangladeshis here, the area is sometimes known as Little India. Despite the fact that I revolted Southall enormously back when I was younger and for some reason was greatly embarrassed by it too (hey I was only eighteen) we ended up there each time we went to London, because of my mothers insistence of buying whole spices from Southall. My mother is of the opinion that all our best spices are exported and so maybe going all the way to England to buy Indian spices was her way of showing the exporters her middle finger.

I was eighteen that winter I went to London. Wandering down the damp streets of Southall on an overcast evening, I unsurprisingly found myself surrounded by a cacophony of Punjabi pop fighting for attention against noisy Bollywood music blaring out of scratchy speakers, the kitschy glitter of gaudy sarees and salwar kameez (all from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk) displayed on bald yet large bosomed mannequins in shop windows, street side shops selling everything from cheap mobile phones to shiny baubles and the intense and unmistakable whiff of seekh kebabs and chicken tikkas drifting towards me. I could have been walking through Lajpat Nagar Market, but this was England and it was fish and chips that I was after.

It was right besides the cash and carry shop from where we’d buy our spices that I found a small-ish restaurant serving fish and chips. The restaurant was run by a Pakistani whom I shall (as cliche as it may sound) refer to as Bhaijaan; partly because I don’t remember his name and partly because he said I was like a younger sister to him. My mother and I were the only two people in his restaurant and he wasted no time in striking up a conversation with us. He was delighted when he found out that we were from India and told us he’d been to Delhi

That was the first time in my life, as far as I can remember that I was face to face with a Pakistani and I didn't know how I ought to react. As an Indian, there’s a certain prejudice with which you’re supposed to look at Pakistanis, because of all the political baggage we carry and what our history books have taught us and what the media feeds us about the "enemy nation" (which I’m sure is true for across the border as well). But I guess it was the fact that we were on neutral ground which made it easier for me to smile back at Bhaijaan as he handed over a Styrofoam plate loaded with fish and chips to me across the counter.

Bhaijaan, must’ve been in his thirties then, was tall and slightly chubby and as we were soon to find out, loved to chat. He would hang around out table and regale us with stories of his visit to Delhi, all the places he’d been to and how much he liked the city. Since I was an awkward teenager who didn't talk to strangers, I never asked him where in Pakistan he was from. I don’t know if it was his fish and chips or his easy demeanor, but we were back at Bhaijaan’s restaurant the next day. Bhaijaan was as generous with cups of tea as he was with his constant chatter and each time my mother protested he would shake his head at her and say “Oh no aunty, don’t worry, no charge at all”. Fish and chips and free chai is a combination which is hard to resist and so we landed up at Bhaijaan’s the following day as well. He was thrilled!

After three days, many plates of fish and chips and numerous complimentary cups of tea, it was time for us to leave. The night before we left, we went to Bhaijaan’s restaurant to tell him that we’d be leaving the following day. Upon hearing this he reached for his wallet and took out a five hundred rupee note which he pressed into my hand as a farewell gift. When I protested he told me that this was the last of some Indian currency he was left with after his trip to Delhi and since he had no use for it, insisted I take it, saying “In paison se aap Dilli ja ke kuch lijiyega aur apne Bhaijaan ko yaad kariyega”. I hadn't the heart to refuse and nodded as I slipped the currency note into my jacket pocket. Back in Delhi, I began by spending a small fraction of Bhaijaan’s gift on a large mutton kathi kebab roll in my college canteen and as I bit into the fragrant pieces of mutton, laced with mint chutney and onions, I was sure Bhaijaan would have approved.