“Barkat”, translated roughly into English, means “abundance”. The abundance of “Barkat” isn’t necessarily that of wealth or material, but generosity of heart and faith – the belief of sharing whatever little we have in the spirit of goodwill. Thus begins the story of the Michelin-star chef, India’s beloved culinary icon Vikas Khanna’s food distribution drive, Feed India – in his memoir Barkat.
When India imposed its first lockdown in March 2020, none of us had imagined its catastrophic consequences on people’s livelihood, health, and hunger. As the rigorousness of lockdowns and covid infections squeezed individuals’ earnings, the worst-affected were seasonal and temporary employees who suddenly found themselves without employment and left to fend for themselves without pay or any assurance of paying work in future.
Despite the gloom and hopelessness, good Samaritans came forward to do their bit to help. Khanna, who was thousands of miles away in New York, launched a food distribution drive through his social media account.
He teamed up with India’s National Disaster Relief Force to distribute more than 50 million cooked meals, dry ration, slippers, sanitary pads, masks, and other essential supplies across hundreds of cities in India. What felt like an insurmountable, if not impossible, challenge to undertake, was spearheaded by the simple belief that we are all capable of “Barkat”.
Khanna is no stranger to writing. He’s authored several books about food, festivals, and even written fiction for children. He is comfortable donning many hats at once and unlike most of us, he looks quite dashing in them.
I have been following Khanna through a variety of cooking shows, interviews, and reality TV. Like Sanjeev Kapoor before him, Khanna is adulated by foodies and TV audiences. In a country where food assumes centre stage at social gatherings and is often a means to express love and care, it is no surprise that celebrity chefs such as Khanna become household names and national icons. What, then, does his memoir tell us?
From Amritsar to America
To me, Barkat appears as a love letter to Amritsar. For Khanna, who left for the United States some twenty years ago and has worked abroad for most of his life, the book is a gift of gratitude to his humble roots. The Michelin-star chef takes a backseat and we meet the small-town boy who spent hours talking about food with his grandmother, running errands for the kitchen, and avoiding the playground because of clubfoot.
In a country where the kitchen is almost exclusively associated with women, young Vikas was an anomaly with his interests in the culinary arts. While reading about his fond memories of pickling lemons, baking breads, and winnowing wheat, I was struck by the rather liberal mindset of a family that allowed a young boy to unashamedly embrace what was traditionally considered a “feminine” interest.
Khanna recalls his most treasured gift from his parents – a clay oven tandoor in which he learned to cook Punjabi dishes to perfection. A gift that conveyed the wholehearted approval of his family to nurture his true passions.
He also acknowledges how faith and community inspired him on his journey to some of the most renowned kitchens in the world. Like many devout Punjabis, Khanna has utmost reverence for the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Rather than simply inheriting his faith, Khanna grew into it. He recalls how the temple has been a steadfast companion through times happy and trying – it is also here that he received his first lessons in sharing, kinship, and selflessness.
As a child, Khanna remembers that celebrations of any kind would begin with “langar seva”, or participating in the community kitchen to feed thousands of people who would visit the temple in search of blessings and comfort. It is among the hymns of gurbani and cooking together that the chef learned about the bounteousness of “barkat” – to serve and be good without expectations.
Rewards of kindness
In this memoir Khanna touches only briefly upon his journey as a chef in India. Interestingly, here he looks back to working at a Mumbai hotel through the riots of 1992. A young man and an outsider then, Khanna remembers the unexpected act of kindness of a Muslim family which sheltered him while the city was burning outside.
When Khanna made his way to America after parting ways with his catering business in Amritsar, he fell upon hard times as his race and nationality replaced his skills and determination in the identity hierarchy. After the terrible events of 9/11, Khanna found himself at a crossroads – he could either pack his bags and return to India, nor carry forward his learnings from home to feed those in need. As an unknown chef who was slowly breaking into New York’s culinary landscape, Khanna writes about the extraordinary circumstances that allowed him to help a country that had thus far been rather unwelcoming to him.
In what appears to be a fairytale journey, Khanna seems to show where perseverance and steadfast beliefs can take you. Other than his love for food and hard work, I was surprised by how indebted he feels to his family and god. No matter how far he strays from home or how big the laurels he achieves, it all comes back to being inspired by the humble clay tandoor and the magnanimity he’s witnessed growing up.
As Khanna narrates his extraordinary story, he pauses every few pages to laud the idea of “Barkat”, which appears to permeate every culture in India. He draws upon examples from various festivals and faiths, where people come together over food and benevolence, in a way that upholds the very idea of India. In an atmosphere of increasingly fraught relationships between religious communities, Khanna (perhaps unwittingly) reminds us that India is home to charitable people who have always gone beyond their means to shelter one another.
These are crucial lessons that inspired Khanna with his Feed India initiative. He admits to initial jitters at undertaking the mammoth task of feeding millions of people. His hesitations were put to rest by his mother who reminded him of “langar seva” and having the privilege to help those in need. The success of Feed India is an incredible example of human goodness and Khanna has a simple observation: if every person agrees to do one good deed in their lifetime, the world would know no scarcity.
But despite a Michelin star and authorship of several titles, Khanna is no writer. I won’t be so harsh to say he’s bad at it, it’s just that he’s better with a ladle than he’s with a pen – and that’s all right. There are stories worth telling regardless of the author’s writing prowess and in such cases, the onus lies on the editor(s) to clean up the text and make it palatable. While reading Barkat, I was annoyed by how carelessly it had been edited.
Khanna’s memoir is full of heart. It has all the right elements to be a noteworthy memoir – family and faith, struggles, and achievements, a person adored by many. The formula should be infallible. And on these counts, Khanna delivers. There’s an appealing earnestness and honesty in his writing, despite the lack of a finishing touch that good editing delivers.
Barkat: The inspiration and story behind one of the world’s largest food drives, Feed India, Vikas Khanna, Penguin Books India.