Saturday, October 28, 2006

Suri’s success & fabulous food
hushwant Singh

KHUSHWANT SINGHThe last time I met Lalit Suri was at a crowded book launch presided over by the Prime Minister. Although we had met twice earlier and exchanged correspondence, I did not recognise him. I did not think he had any interest in books. There were dozens of others, all rich and celebrated, who I was sure had not read anything by me nor knew what I looked like. They were there to have darshan of Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur and hoping to catch their eye.

When the party was over, he came and re-introduced himself: "I am Lalit Suri. We’ve met before. We should get to know each other better." We shook hands. "Come over for dinner and we can resume our acquaintance," I said. "Whenever you like," he said giving my hand another shake.

That was not to be. On October 10, 2006, Lalit Suri succumbed to a massive heart attack while on a visit to London. He leaves behind a chain of a dozen five-star deluxe hotels to the care of his wife and four children. By all accounts all his hotels are well-managed and up to required standards.

His death reminded me of our two earlier meetings. The first must have been over 25 years ago. I happened to be lunching with someone in the Taj in Bombay. At the other end of the dining room I saw the actor I.S. Johar whom I had known since my college days in Lahore, sitting with someone I did not know. We waved to each other. A little later Johar and his companion walked over to my table and he introduced his friend. "This is Lalit Suri. He wanted to meet you. He says you are a great chamcha of Sanjay Gandhi." Johar loved embarrassing people. Suri had a smirk on his face. I was irritated and determined to settle scores with him.

I didn’t have to wait too long. A couple of months later I happened to be in Delhi and called on Sanjay Gandhi on some business. Lalit Suri was with him. As Sanjay tried to introduce us, I interrupted him "We’ve met before. He tells everyone I am Sanjay’s Chamcha." Sanjay went red in the face. Lalit Suri did not know what to say. I felt triumphant.

I had another grievance against Suri. Among the many things he acquired was an afternoon tabloid published from Delhi. Its editor entered into a contract with me to reproduce one of my columns. It appeared every Saturday but no cheque ever came. My reminders went unnoticed, my telephone calls unanswered. In sheer desperation I wrote to Lalit Suri with a copy to the editor. The editor ticked me off for writing to his boss. The boss replied in a lofty tone that he had nothing to do with the day-to-day running of the tabloid. I sent them a legal notice. My column stopped appearing but money owed to me was paid in instalments.

The sourness in our relationship was removed by the intervention of Mrs Harjeet Charanjit Singh, Chairperson and Proprietor of Hotel Le Meridien. She happened to be with me when Suri rang her up on the mobile. She told him where she was and asked him to talk to me directly. We did at some length.

I admire people who make it good on their own. Lalit Suri was a good example of a man who from a modest beginning became a multi-millionaire and twice member of the Rajya Sabha. He belonged to the Kukhrain biradari which among others comprises Kohlis (the Prime Minister and his wife), Nandas, Anands, Sahnis, Chaddhas — all known for their spirit of enterprise. I have little doubt if fate had spared him, he would have gone much farther. He was only 60.

Gluttony unlimited

It is truly amazing to see some people eat vast quantities and varieties of dishes at different meals and yet avoid getting obese and dying young by over-eating. I had one experience of a Kashmiri hospitality extended to me when Bakshi Ghulam Ahmed was Chief Minister of the state. The dinner consisted of 31 courses; I was unable to cope with more than two but had to sit through the meal till the others had finished. I swore never again to eat in a Kashmiri home.

Having just finished reading William Dalrymple’s masterpiece The last Mughal (Penguin), I noted the varieties of dishes served at meals in establishments of both English officials as well as the Mughal darbar on the eve of the First War of Independence 1857. Sir Charles Matcalf who was the British resident had laid for breakfast selection of crabbed chops, brain cutlets, beef rissoles, devilled kidneys, whole spatchocks, duck, stew Irish stews, mutton hasks, brawns of sheep, heads and trotters as well as an assortment of Indian dishes as Jalfrazie, prawn do piaza, chicken malai, and beef Hussainee. Added to this list were a number of Anglo-Indian concoctions such as kidney toast, Madras style, Madras fritters, and left over meat refined with ginger and chillies. Then, of course, there was the ultimate Anglo-Indian breakfast of Kedgeree, a perennial favourite, even though in Delhi it was considered inadvisable to eat fish in high summer.

In feast laid out at every meal for Bahadur Shah Zafar was even more than the British residents, except for the taboo on pig meat — and later beef as well in deference to the sentiments of his Hindu subjects.

It can be presumed that the vast array of delicacies were there to be seen and picked from; the rest were left for the household members and the huge staff they maintained.