I recently experienced a curry fuelled, Alice in Wonderland afternoon, with a roomful of splendid eccentrics who wish to preserve colonial cemeteries in the sub continent. The British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia filled a room with retired diplomats, soldiers, adventurers, and once glamorous society hostesses – all tripping on their memories of the colonies. It was most curious.
Burial is an alien concept to South Asians. We prefer to float our dead down the Ganges, stick them on a bonfire, or leave them outdoors for vultures to pick at. With no local interest in maintaining resting places for dead people, the British cemeteries in South Asia are doomed. Preserving them is not about preserving headstones in a cemetery, but about preserving the narrative cloud that surrounds all who lie there. What they witnessed changed the world.
However, preserving monuments to the British occupation is controversial. On the one hand the Brits made some seriously valuable contributions, like cricket and call centres. On the other hand they appear to have killed a lot of people. Unfortunately, 50 years after the departure of the Raj, the killing hasn’t stopped. People kill each other over who gets to eat beef and who gets to eat pork. Frankly, I eat both and find that far preferable to eating vegetables. Despite my culinary preference I try not to kill vegetarians. In South Asia the Buddhists hate the Muslims, the Muslims hate the Hindus, the Hindus hate the Christians, and everybody hates the Jews. (See Tom Lehrer’s bitingly droll verse on the subject)
I personally experienced some of the contradictions of India when I spent a year living in Mumbai at the Oberoi Hotel in the 1990’s. The Oberoi was (and is) a modern, well equipped five star hotel. However it was run in a mystical, peculiarly Indian fashion. The hotel had 1000 rooms and 2000 employees. There were too many employees, which meant that most of them didn’t have enough to do. This was just as well since they had received no training and weren’t actually capable of doing anything. If you made a simple request you immediately attracted the attention of every bored staff member within earshot. They all wanted to be part of the action. Soon you had twenty Indians bobbing their heads and discussing your request. Eventually they would all sorrowfully agree that whatever you wanted couldn’t be done.
The British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia’s luncheon was held at the Oriental Club in Mayfair. The Oriental is a colonial era private club in Mayfair, with high ceilings and majestic paintings of stern looking chaps with fabulous moustaches. The curry meal was decent. The people are all rather madly keen on the colonies. However, their interest is not in celebrating the Raj but in preserving the history of an era that, for better or worse, constitutes the defining 20th century narrative of the sub continent. Their stories crackle with passion and adventure. Our present day lives are rather mundane by comparison. I write a blog about martinis.
The one generally accepted fact about colonialism is that it has been good for the palate. The Portuguese brought chillies from the New World to Asia in the 16th century. I can’t imagine what South Asian food would taste like without the fiery heat of chillies. Thanks to their colonial exploits, the Brits who appear to have existed on a diet of roots and boiled cabbage, discovered that food is actually supposed to taste good.
These days my favourite curry restaurant in London is Hoppers. Hoppers is a tiny Sri Lankan restaurant in Soho with around 30 covers. Their egg hoppers, string hoppers, brinjal moju and pol sambol are authentic and tasty. They also serve a mean black pork curry and lamb kothu roti. This is mouthwatering stuff! There’s a very competent cocktail menu, but I prefer to accompany my food with a shot of Sri Lankan arrack and a chaser of Lion Lager. Hoppers doesn’t take reservations. Fortunately you don’t have to queue if the restaurant can’t seat you right away. They will text you when your table is ready, giving you time to sample the cocktail bars of Soho.
Some will argue the merits of Britains colonial adventures till the sacred cows come home. I remain enthralled by a good story and nourished by a pukka curry.
Keep calm and curry on!🌶
Glossary of Sri Lankan Food terms