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Growing up Indian-ish

My Grandad, more affectionately known to my family as 'Poppop', was born in India. One of 10 siblings, he was born in Bombay in 1925. He was definitely raised in Jabalpur, a city in the central Madhya Pradesh. These are the things I know to be true.

Whenever I do get the chance to sit down to excavate memories from his childhood, he talks nostalgically of getting a good education, of riding his bike around the dirt tracks, of being mischievous to the amusement of the servants in his house.

His mother was brought up in a convent due to the death of his grandparents. His mother, like her own parents, were all of Irish heritage. The only detail I have about my great-grandfather is that he was a Fife Major in the British Army. The waters are muddy on whether my great-grandfather was British, how it was that he came to find himself in India and how my great-grandparents met some 5,500 miles away from the British Isles.

I’ve attempted this conversation with Poppop countless times in the last few years, and countless times we reach impasses at the cul de sacs of his 94-year-old mind.

His emigration to the United Kingdom took place in 1946. At just 21, he embarked on a three-week voyage from Bombay to Europe by boat, docking first in Italy before arriving here in England. He made his way up north to the East Midlands, meeting my Nana along the way and eventually settling in the quiet market town of Loughborough, where he’s been for over sixty years.

Because of Poppop’s lived experience growing up in India, I too have been brought up to feel a bit Indian. Exactly how Indian I feel then is complicated, which is to say I haven't yet quite figured it out. Indian-ish, perhaps. My childhood was peppered with many trappings of an Anglo-Indian identity, never feeling Indian but never feeling fully English either.

Nowhere was this more obvious than the food we would eat.

One clear example of this was breakfast. With two working parents, I would routinely get dropped off at Nana & Poppop’s bungalow during the week for them to feed me and then drive me to primary school. Like most British children, breakfast at a Grandparent’s house sometimes meant small cardboard variety boxes of sugary cereals.

Unlike most British children, it would sometimes also mean frozen parathas.

Brought out of the freezer in a sandwich of greaseproof paper, they would go into a frying pan or under the grill to crisp on both sides. A thick layer of salted butter was then smeared on top before it would make its way to the dining table. Phase one of the eating operation would be rolling it into a greasy cigar with my fingers. Phase two would see me slide the warm butter into my mouth, drip by drip, before tearing into the paratha with my teeth.

There was also a contrast at dinner time. Eating there after school often meant reheating a Sainsbury’s ready meal. Their freezer always seemed to brim with Blue Parrot lasagnas and carbonaras, all brought over by my Mum earlier in the week to ease the burden of feeding me. And yet, on other days, it would be a temperately spiced pork vindaloo, thick garlic dal, rice and poppadoms. As I got into my teens, the poppadoms went up a notch from plain to spicy.

If my aunty and cousins had stayed at my grandparent’s bungalow during the holidays, you could guarantee that something would simmer gently on the stovetop for when they arrived. Invariably, that pot would be a buffad, a spiced pork stew with cabbage, potatoes and other vegetables.

This meal always struck me as curious. It was ostensibly a British dish but with flavours, spices, not of these fair isles spiking each mouthful. It wasn’t until my grandparents gifted me Anglo-Indian Delicacies by Bridget White that the penny dropped.

In the book’s introduction, White shares how the creation of Anglo-Indian food from the British colonisation of India birthed a fusion of something ‘neither too bland nor too spicy, but with a distinctive flavour of its own’.

Like buffad, the cultural heritage of Anglo-Indians feels like a distinctive flavour of its own. For the most part, I’ve never felt anything other than English - whatever that means these days. And yet, an afternoon sweet treat at my grandparent’s house could on one day be a couple of ginger biscuits and on another a syrupy jalebi from a bakery on Leicester’s Golden Mile.

In sum, descending from an immigrant whose heritage feels distant and exotic can be knotty. I’m not confident I’ll ever have a firm handle on it but the more time I spend thinking and writing about it I come to the conclusion that it isn’t problematic. Food has always been a vehicle for us to tap into his past, adding more colour to the parts of our own identity that don’t feel fully attached. As bewildering as my family tree is, we all grasp at the hitherto untold memories that are only unearthed over a table of pickles and chutneys.

food & writing