Late one night in 2007, a call from Jean-Luc Naret, publisher of the esteemed The Michelin Guide New York City, changed the fate of my restaurant and my professional life as a chef and restaurateur. My chef-partner, Hemant Mathur, and I had already been the recipients of wonderfully kind, generous and laudatory reviews across newspapers, magazines, journals and websites. The who’s who of the food world and beyond had either dined at Devi or had it on their must-visit list. But with the first Michelin star given to an Indian restaurant in North America came more recognition and celebrityhood, more influence and notoriety.
I found myself even more engaged in speaking and teaching and most happily so. While my business partners enjoyed the teeming crowds pouring in to savour our cuisine, I was out sharing my knowledge and inspiring — at least, I hoped I was — and returning home with just enough time to create new menu items and freshen up the old, while being a spouse, dog- and cat-daddy, and keeping all entertained. Some months, I would find myself on the road for 20 days, at the restaurant for a week, and at home for only a night or two. I felt as invincible and powerful as the US army. It was a rush that was intoxicating. It was a high that fed itself and kept me happily removed from the realities of life, from grasping the wear and tear that my body and soul were enduring.
A decade of feeling invulnerable and scaling many summits was a thrill that came with a feeling of being wanted, respected, admired and loved. I never paused to worry about my body. Of course, the travels brought lucrative success which kept our farm in upstate New York all natural and organic and a place for family and friends to retreat. I thought that to be worth my running ragged and burning the candle at both ends. But life had other plans. It all ended with me suffering concussions owing to falls, and a mini-stroke in 2018. Poor health served me the ultimate ultimatum — to change my ways or lose my life.
The year 2020 has shown how none of us, no matter our colour, race, gender, class, nationality or celebrity status are immune to a ruthless pandemic. Nowhere has the pandemic shown its might more mercilessly than in the US. The most powerful nation in the world, the richest and most dangerously armed, whose citizens have for centuries seen the rest of the world as below par, was brought to its knees and broken into pieces which will take decades to put back together. The patriarchal, invincible nation talking down to other countries, with a “my way or the highway” approach to diplomacy, using money and military might to buy allies, was exposed as underprepared and worse. A nation investing in its own demise, where the 1 per cent is busy finding ways to save money on taxes as the poor go without access to food, clothing, roof over their heads, healthcare and education.
Returning to my beloved motherland after 27 years in New York, I see what ails India. The world sees it, too. If we didn’t recognise our follies, the Western media would rub them in our faces. I am grateful the world reminds us of our challenges, of how broken we are. We need reminders. All of us do. Certainly I was terrified by the sight of migrant labourers walking for miles on the highways in the scorching summer heat, but I understood they were headed home, to rural hamlets, to be with family. In the US, the rich were escaping the cities for the Hamptons, leaving the poor and middle class behind in the eye of the storm, with no infrastructure to serve them, and worse, no familial help either. The nuclear-family construct had stolen that possibility decades ago. With people of colour in the US dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of White people, the virus has shown how the American narrative has failed itself and all that it stands for.
The pandemic demands from us to question Big Daddy and whether it ought to, at least, spend some time in self-examination. The American media is at the epicentre of the tragedy that has become the American story. Is there anyone tackling how to end the perversity of the spectator sport that is Black and Brown suffering? How many more Black deaths will it take for America to make amends to how it polices its streets? Who will expose the systemic failure that brought Donald Trump to power with a substantial mandate and understand how people he most despises became his vote bank? Social media and the pandemic have exposed the rot. With America broken, the world has lost a leader.
Many are looking to the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket to revive America. But it will not be enough that the new administration comes cloaked in blue liberal garb. It will need to liberate the US from the shackles of policies of the past and create a new world order, a disruptive way of thinking, where geopolitics is turned upside down and life is reassessed as an equitable journey for all.
I had my aha moment with the stroke. For 2021 to be a year truly different from 2019 or years past, and for 2020 to be a year which isn’t altogether wasted, the US — and we — must have a similar aha moment. We must acknowledge our vulnerability and dependence on one another. We cannot allow the world to remain in the status quo where a few wealthy nations or individuals dictate the majority. We must demand that the media go back to sharing news and facts, not commentary and opinions that support the lobbyists and corporations paying for its existence. I yearn to see an American newspaper admit the poverty, abuse, rape, pillage and plunder in and by the US instead of carving self-serving headlines out of similar incidents in the developing nations.
Let’s begin 2021 with a pledge to think beyond ourselves. To see our life as a connection to our familial unit, our family as a link to a larger community, our community as a piece of the clearly defined yet forever growing and evolving puzzle that is our country, a small but interconnected and interdependent part of the world of nations. These nations, however different their make-up, are all together affecting the life of the planet Earth.
When we understand this, that moment, that day, will be our aha moment when we realise what it really means to live in a global village, no matter where we house our bodies, what flag we salute, what language we speak and which dialect of that we favour, or what God(s) we may or may not worship. The new year will be a happy one if our human collective can rise above our comforting isms of sameness and reach out to those others we never noticed before, in our own communities, states and nations, and across the world. In seeing faces, lives, loves and souls in others, we will finally connect with our fellow beings, and in that communion find the cure which might keep us safe from future pandemics.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines