Sumitra and Anees — Tales and Recipes from a Khichdi Family review: Love in the time of hate

Seema Chishti writes a moving story about her parents, Sumitra and Anees, and the possibilities they dreamed of in an India that belonged to everyone

Published - May 19, 2022 01:24 pm IST

A few days ago an image of Ustad Zakir Hussain mourning the death of his lifelong friend, colleague and mentor, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, went viral: not for the grief which was palpable, but as a reminder of an India where we shared grief and love in equal measure with each other. It was in that India that Jawaharlal Nehru made a tryst with destiny and promised to lead India into a new morrow. It was into that India that Seema Chishti’s parents, Sumitra and Anees, were growing up, bound together by common dreams and aspirations even if separated by regional differences, but never divided by religion.

Chishti’s book, Sumitra and Anees: Tales and Recipes from a Khichdi Family, begins by celebrating the ‘khichdi’ of mixed marriages. Khichdi is that much loved dish made with a mixture of rice and dal and a part of all our lives, present in some form on every table, representing the richness and regional variations of Indian cuisine.

The sheer nostalgia that hits people my age who grew up in the 1960s and 70s in the first few pages of the book is almost physical. This was an India pledged to unity in diversity, and the spirit of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam, which helped create a sanctuary that allowed people to be themselves.

Celebrating pluralism

Despite the long shadow of Partition, people wanted to be not bound by narrow confines of caste, class or religion, and pluralism was celebrated. It was an India that belonged to everyone, “even though”, as Chishti writes, it was “not delivered perfectly to each of its children — there is plenty of unfinished business and inequity — but there was the right to free association, exercised in the most intimate of fields.”

It was to protect this diversity and facilitate inter-faith and inter-caste marriages that the Special Marriage Act of 1954 was promulgated. It ensured that people of different faiths and castes could get married easily, but decades after the Act was passed, the protection that it provided is being questioned, with terms such as ‘love-jihad’ which targets a Muslim man and Hindu woman getting married. Marriages between people of different faiths are being sought to be criminalised in certain States, laments Chishti.

Even though interfaith marriages are only 2.5% of total marriages and inter-caste marriages are pegged at 13%, we can only hope and pray that ‘love’ will allow us to ‘jump past’ the barriers which stoke the ‘cauldron of fury’.

To quote Chishti, “At a time of such virulent separation being attempted on our collective hearts and minds, some of us — born of marriages that defied the boundaries of caste or religion — feel exceptionally isolated. What was celebrated and thought of as exciting and quintessentially Indian is now portrayed as akin to a national security threat.”

Chishti is forced to lend words to a sacred marriage of two people bound by love and shared interests, though she knows that had her parents been alive, they would have baulked at this public display of personal details. Yet, whether it was the Emergency or the “tremors of the demolition of the Babri Masjid that changed India”, Anees and Sumitra, says Chishti, realised slowly that the hurdles they thought they had faced when they got together were simply “genteel objections” compared to what the country was now experiencing.

With the diversity under attack, Chishti chose to share details of “not just an idea, but a lived reality.” I am so glad for all her readers that she did.

Fluid boundaries

It is the story of Sumitra from Karnataka, who wanted to study and have an independent career, and broke conventions to build her life with the love of her life, Anees; it is the story of Anees from Uttar Pradesh, whose father chose diversity against a rather monotonous uniformity of cultures and people, and who exemplified his father’s thoughts.

It is also the story of Thakur Kamla Singh who put his life on the line to give a message of solidarity when his neighbour, Anees, and friends belonging to another religion were under threat. This community is decreasing in number and that is what we have to worry about. Then “goodwill had triumphed over ill will. Inclusiveness had served over exclusiveness,” and that is what we must strive for again.

The recipes, written down by her mother for a daughter she felt did not have the time to learn cooking, are, of course, the cherry on the cake. They celebrate culinary confluences and we find mutton biryani hobnobbing with coconut rice and arhar ki dal with sambar. Her mother wanted to preserve the several culinary traditions, from Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, that she mastered during her lifetime, says Chishti.

This book sets the ‘seema’ (boundary) of the possibility of limitless love for all Indians.

Sumitra and Anees: Tales and Recipes from a Khichdi Family; Seema Chishti, HarperCollins, ₹399.

The reviewer is a historian.

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