August 5, 2020

“My Sense of Hunger comes from America.”—Indian Michelin-starred Chef Responds to BBC’s Casual Racism.

It does not hit you hard enough until it hits close to home.

A colonial perspective and ignorance of modern political and economic dynamics isn’t expected from a journalist, least of all one from BBC. In a recent interview with Indian Michelin-starred celebrity chef Vikas Khanna, a BBC anchor asked him if his sense of hunger came from his background in India—perpetuating the stereotype of India as a poor and miserable nation.

In the past few months, the New York-based chef has been running a program to feed India’s hungry, providing millions of meals to poor Indians who have suffered greatly under the coronavirus lockdown.

BBC Anchor:

”These days you are famous. You have cooked for the Obamas, you have been on TV shows with Gordon Ramsay. But it wasn’t always that way, was it? You are not from a rich family so I dare say, you understand how precarious it can be in India.”

Chef Vikas Khanna’s replied calmly and with a smile:

“I understand, but my sense of hunger did not come from India so much because I was born and raised in Amritsar; we have a huge community kitchen where everyone gets fed—the entire city can eat there. But my sense of hunger came from New York when I was struggling and really at the bottom. You know, it’s not easy rising for a brown kid who came to America to earn a Michelin star. I think my aspirations were too high or crazy. My sense of hunger came from New York when I used to sleep at Grand Central, and this was post 9/11 when getting jobs for a brown person was not easy. So I realize my sense of hunger came from living in America.”

When I saw this video, I was sad and then angry, and then a bias was immediately formed in my mind against that person, a white European who seems to know nothing about India yet goes on to assume that it is a poor, hungry country. Did he forget what the British empire did to India? Did he not study in school how they left India economically and socially distraught? Or, were their history books altered to suit the colonial superiority narrative?

Over 200 years of rule, the British ruined a resource-rich and economically prosperous country. They came with a superiority complex for no other reason except that they were an “advanced” race and a lot of people still believe so—we even have a name for it—”the colonial hangover.”

That’s why this anchor from an internationally renowned British news outlet dared to assume that the boy coming from India must’ve experienced hunger and poverty.

The anchor was indeed trying to praise Khanna for his outstanding service to humanity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, in appreciating such a huge effort, he could not let go of his bias.

It was a wake-up call for me. I belong to the same small city of Amritsar in India. Nobody—literally—nobody sleeps hungry there because of the age-old tradition of langar (community kitchens operated by Sikh temples called Gurudwaras). In a langar, free meals are served to anyone visiting the Gurudwara. People, irrespective of their economic or social status, sit on the floor and eat together. People from all communities and religions are welcome there. The basic concept here to reinforce is that in the eyes of God, all are equal. It brings in the much-needed humility and modesty required to balance the vanity that comes with material success.

Some of my fondest memories are related to the non-stop clanking of utensils and fresh aroma of lentils being cooked in these community kitchens. I have spent endless mornings running around these langars while my mother volunteered there.

The so-called progressive society has failed miserably in empowering all. There is constant strife between colored and white races, men and women, LGBTQ and cis-gendered, heterosexual people. It never ends.

Technological advancement, educational brilliance, nor financial success have been able to make us better human beings. I see it everywhere around me. We live in a global community, but explicit and implicit racism exists. This failure of humankind to embrace everyone with their diversity of color, background, and upbringing is damaging the fabric of human society. The lines of cracks and disorientation are getting darker and deeper every passing minute.

I was outraged initially by the assumption that a small-town boy from India from a not-so-rich family must have experienced hunger. But as a mother of two young kids, I don’t want to pass on my opinions and judgments to them. I want them to see an individual for who they are, irrespective of their background and origin. I want to leave them a better world to understand and explore.

I want to leave my anger aside and understand where did our educated and progressive society fail?

I come from a country and culture where my actions define me. So, the natural question in my mind was what can I do as an individual to fight this?

These are some of my endeavors:

>> I ensure that I treat everyone with respect.

>> I do not assume. I ask. I admit I don’t know when I don’t.

>> I remain open to discussion.

>> I listen to your story.

>> I introspect.

>> I equip my intellect to see the world as it is and not through any colored glass.

>> I learn more about you.

>> I let go of biases in my mind.

>> I try to make this world a better place for you and for me.

It is time to start healing now and let go of anger. 

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