Pankaj Mishra on the loneliness of being a vegetarian and the comforts of home food

In an alternate universe, “Butter Chicken in Ludhiana” might well have been the name of a cookbook. Generic conventions would then require that its author be a cheerful type wearing a toque and apron. Thankfully, we know this is not the case. Not only does the book have nothing to do with the food (apart from a silly joke), its writer Pankaj Mishra has never tasted butter chicken, in Ludhiana or elsewhere.

It has been nearly two decades since “Butter Chicken…”, an account of travels through small town India, and things have changed as much as they’ve stayed the same. He has authored, most recently, “A Great Clamour”, which takes forward the concerns of his first book, in a different setting and with radically different means. Mishra observes China and the toll its encounter with modernity has taken, by looking at it through the eyes of its poets and intellectuals, its cultural production, and from the vantage point of its neighbours — Hong Kong, Mongolia, Tibet, Indonesia and Japan. It steadfastly avoids the “instrumentalist world views of foreign affairs pundits, security experts and financial analysts”.

We meet for lunch at Swagath in Defence Colony, where, by default or design, we are the only two people occupying an entire floor. Mishra’s first choice was the neighbouring Sagar but it was decided against so as to safeguard the chief logistical requirement of this column — a bit of quiet.

The London-based author is familiar with the locality. “I have probably the last barsati in Defence Colony that is still occupied by someone who is not a multi-millionaire. I have had it since 1995, it’s a walking distance from here,” he says. “So I’ve been coming here since then. And Sagar for much longer.”

Sagar, especially its upma, turned him into a connoisseur of the South Indian breakfast, which leaves one “feeling satisfied but not full”. “It was a huge improvement over the Punjabi breakfast which is a real killer,” he says.

After surveying the menu at Swagath, Mishra chooses the dal gharwali, jeera aloo and gobi masala. Alongside the steamed rice, we order two appams and the boondi raita. The food is a reminder, if any were needed, that simple, sattvic cooking can also work wonders.

For the itinerant writer, travel is evidence of the “acute loneliness of the vegetarian in a world full of dedicated carnivores”. In Mongolia, a country particularly hostile to vegetarians, Mishra had a tough time, subsisting only on stale bread and cheese. In Tibet, “towns outside Lhasa seem over-dependent on Yak flesh; vendors in the blank countryside offer only dusty yak cheese on a string,” he wrote in an essay for Outlook in 2007.

Fortunately, there’s Mashobra, a hilly outpost in Himachal Pradesh where Mishra spends up to three months a year, writing. “I have an ideal arrangement there with a local family who prepare extremely good home cooked food and send it across whenever I want it. So all I have to do is call them. Home cooked fare — dal chawal sabzi — is not just adequate, but perfect. That saves me a lot of time. This way I have a completely uninterrupted stretch of time. I recommend it to all writers,” he smiles.

As the meal draws to an end, we order filter coffee to fortify ourselves. Mishra says he is now enjoying the sense of calm that finishing a book brings with it, but he is also alert, waiting for something to energise him into writing his next.