Jigar Pala could have coasted along, doing what he already did: he could run his little Brahmin Udupi eatery in a small suburb of Mumbai, making a decent living, serving food he has served for decades, food his father served for decades before him.
On a whim, one he is never truly able to explain, he throws it all away and opens a Chinese restaurant instead. China Dragon. It’s a simple name; it tells you what you need to know. There will be Chinese food inside. It will purport to be authentic. Why has Jigar turned away from the food of his ancestors, the restaurant that paid the bills and had a steady clientele, for this outré venture?
Jigar’s narrative is light-hearted, skipping jauntily around charged political subjects. When he meets with respected mentors in the community you gather that there is a caste brahmin over world in the food business, and so this mentor’s approval is unattainable and their support is unexpected. When Jigar sets out on his doomed attempt to borrow a statue of a dragon to lend his establishment an air of authenticity we root for him, and for the old lady (who owns the statues) who is so sure it will all end in tears.
Jigar is a superstitious man, though he would not admit it, surrounded by superstitious people. China and India both have, underneath our sophistications and urbanisations, a still living traditional world view that includes the irrational, the believing, the accepting. Through China Dragon, Jigar makes his case that our two nations — warring and dissimilar as we are —have more in common than we might know. Before our wars, India did have a visible Chinese expat population — or at least Bombay did. As time went by and tensions rose, this population slowly faded away from mainstream Bombay and Mumbai. Progress can be lovely, but it creates surprising losses.
In some ways, this book is written for the MasterChef generation. Jigar looks at food and the restaurant business as a passion, as a raison d’être. Sure, he wants to make money — there’s a whole chapter on the day China Dragon reaches `10,000. For a day’s work! But the true joy of the restaurant business is the sound of chatting customers, the smile on a hungry eater’s face.
I am a member of that MasterChef generation. I have a conscious knowledge of the way in which food is a part of the heft and weave of our lives, how it binds us together with shared personal experience, with cultural commonality. This book brings to me a fondness for the small eatery, the small restaurant I am in danger of losing these days of large chains and easy Swiggy deliveries. The local eatery still exists, thankfully. I will visit mine soon, and remember.
Food is a precious thing, over and beyond its simple ability to fill the stomach. Fill the stomach, feed the soul. Jigar and his staff form a bond with their customers, their regulars. These bonds are practically familial. In some cases, the restaurant becomes a space to encourage romance. The way to a man’s heart, you see! Jigar would have a perfect response if you asked him, what your food dream is. He’s living it!
For all his whims and fancies, Jigar is a hard-headed businessman. He keeps a strict hand on the reins of his staff, whom he sees as loveable but in need of some discipline. He works like the devil to fulfil unusual or unique orders. He has a fairly modern management outlook — one of the sweetest and funniest moments in the book is an explanation of why the staff sometimes wear a blonde wig and literally prance about. Jigar’s dichotomy — that he must work for love but also for money is the bittersweet core of the novel, which really is a series of short anecdotes set in the restaurant.
All of this is my own paean to Jigar. As a raconteur he is on par with the best of storytelling grandfathers. As a human being he is funny and cynical, but also tender and incredibly forgiving. He is fully aware of political and social realities, but will show you peeks at it through his narrative, and jot ramble into a diatribe against them.
Through Jigar’s eyes his staff come alive. Excellent chefs bump elbows with hapless waiters, who grow surely and slowly into their own competence and ambitions. The business attracts people from lower-income backgrounds, and they all dream of more. Through China Dragon, you see how they might one day achieve that more.
In the spirit of contradiction, Jigar’s hard-headed businessman lives with the same beating heart as Jigar’s passionate, adventurous soul. There is room in Jigar for multiple beings, all of whom love and risk with abandon, and forgive and love with patience. It is the core of why China Dragon exists, against all common and business sense, and the core of why China Dragon is not a tragedy but instead a warm and living part of its owner’s life.
Days of My China Dragon is tender, bittersweet and hilarious; it is the kind of book you finish in a single sitting and then search for more. Chandrahas Choudhury is now on my wishlist for next month, and I believe he should be on yours.
Publishers: Simon & Schuster
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