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The heart and heat of kitchens

Like all good Bengalis, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee loves his fish, a well-cooked hilsa preferably, reports Vinod Sharma.

india Updated: Feb 03, 2007 04:28 IST

Like all good Bengalis, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee loves his fish, a well-cooked hilsa preferably. The lavish spread at a dinner hosted for the Indian leader by his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Kasuri in Islamabad had everything on the table; everything, except fish. There was mutton dumpukht, mutton handi laziz, chilman biryani, chicken malai boti, bahgare baigan and palak paneer with lachcha paranthas. Somewhere along the way, the hosts had obviously goofed up.  

Fish, in fact, is pretty much staple fare in Karachi. The famous food street at Lahore’s Gwal Mandi boasts of 77 different recipes for fresh-water fish. Time certainly hasn’t diminished the relevance of what Spanish priest Fra Sebastian Manrique wrote some 400 years ago of the city steeped in history, “there are a great many shops, or more properly speaking, kitchens in which are sold meats of various kind…”

Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham

Karachi’s version of Lahore’s food street is on Burns Road and Islamabad’s is located in Melody Market named after a cinema-house once raided for surreptitiously screening Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. Melody’s cluster of kiosks is often touted as a microcosm of the Pakistani kitchen. But neither Burns Road nor Melody really match up to Gwal Mandi’s plebian fare.

In fact, nothing in sanitised, stiff upper lip Islamabad bears a resemblance to the spirit and the soul of Pakistan that is so tangible in Lahore or Karachi, depending on what one is looking for: legendary Punjabi hospitality with its dose of machismo or Sindhi irreverence anchored in the community’s unfulfilled longing for freedom and equity in power?

Aaj TV’s transvestite anchor Begum Nawazish Ali’s hugely popular Late Night Show is a tribute to the Pakistani middle-class. The son of a retired army officer, the host (hostess?) lampoons the rich and the mighty, staring in the face of religious obscurantism that frowns on cross-dressing.

Harbingers of change

For an Indian, a journey to Pakistan is more about a sojourn into its mind; a psyche that many on this side of the border believe is all about demonising India. Strong and unforgiving islands of hostility flourish. The harbingers of change are the growing pockets of introspection. One among them is Civil Junction (CJ), Islamabad’s café au food for thought.

No Indian Prime Minister, including Pandit Nehru, visited Lahore after the Partition until A.B. Vajpayee crossed Wagah on a bus in 1999. CJ perhaps is the product of the myriad psychological barriers that the BJP veteran — brought up on the RSS’s Akhand Bharat vision — dismantled by recognising the reality of Pakistan.

His visit to Minar-e-Pakistan, the memorial to the Muslim League’s 1940 resolution for a separate homeland, and the speech he made at a civic reception, swept the forever-suspicious Lahoris off their feet. He made the occasion momentous with the declaration that Pakistan did not require his endorsement: “Pakistan ko mairey mohar ki kya zaroorat hai; Pakistan ki apne mohar hai jo chal rahi hai.”

No surprises then that seven years down the line, CJ’s ‘Vajpayee’s cup of coffee’ remains a runaway hit: old, poetically smooth, chronically alone, mythologically brewed, firmly soft and, in short, more than you can expect. “There is no foreign hand in its making,” the menu assures.

Tea Party with PPP

Conceived by Arshed Bhatti, a graduate from the London School of Economics, CJ’s patrons include a cousin of President Pervez Musharraf. If his feedback is any guide, the general is fine with the menu that satirises Benazir Bhutto’s PPP as a tea party item — Pakistan’s Popular Pakorre. The pro-military PML is Pure Mutton League: “An establishment favourite and a tribute to leadership on plate.”

Pakistani civil society is on the rise, seeking a ‘connect’ beyond boundaries. CJ’s second-generation menu extols the Indo-Pak dialogue with a Dosti drink. Human rights activist Asma Jahangir aspires to work with Shyam Benegal and Anand Patwardhan to broaden the scope of South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) and Friday Times’ editor Najam Sethi is all set to launch Beyond Borders.

Najam’s aptly named TV production house will draw talent from either side of Wagah. “Ours will be a mission statement through infotainment. The effort broadly is to build a South Asian community,” he says.  

That’s the mission. But the joint venture, envisaged as the kernel of a UAE-based TV channel with investments from India and Pakistan, also makes business sense. Most cablewallahs in Pakistan show Bollywood films. Indian TV host Anu Kapoor’s offshore musical, Gayegi Duniya Geet Mere notched up high TRP ratings for a private TV channel.

The great sub-continental dream...

The constituency for peace is getting bigger and bolder. In a minority though, many Pakistanis share Manmohan Singh’s dream of breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner at Kabul. That’s the way our forefathers lived.

The Indian Premier will do well to spend a day in Lahore when he finds an opportune time to visit Pakistan. My friend and noted Pakistani journalist, Imtiaz Alam says Lahore is incomplete without Sikhs: “What kind of a capital do we have of the sub-continent’s Punjabis without the Khalsa?”

Most heritage buildings on the majestic Mall Road are a legacy of Lahore’s pre-Partition non-Muslim residents. Its best hotel, Pearl Continental, stands on a property that once belonged to the Patiala royal family.

Email Vinod Sharma: vinodsharma@hindustantimes.com