“Sir ji, did you call for me?” asked Mishra as he entered Mirza’s office.
Mirza was twirling a round glass paperweight on the rectangular slab of cut glass covering his oversized mahogany desk and staring intently at the screen of his computer. In the right corner of the desk was a stack of files, each color-coded and bundled with red string. He was pushing back on the revolving leather chair. The chair itself was covered with a towel discolored where Mirza’s head had rested for hours as he poured over official directives.
Mirza pulled a file from the stack, opened it, and handed a printout to Mishra. “Mishraji please look at this request which was dispatched to us via email.”
Mishra took the paper from his superior with a habitual obsequiousness perfected only through practice. He gazed at the contents. A major festival to promote India to big-wigs in Washington D.C. was being arranged. The Council for Cultural Relations had drafted the brochure promoting the event with statistics mentioning the 28 states, 24 official languages, 1,600 dialects and 1.2 billion people in India as a sign of India’s vastness and diversity. There were stock passages which mentioned India as a country of cows, rickshaws, and skyscrapers jostling with shanties. To underscore India’s rich and ancient heritage there was a comment about how Indians prayed to 330,000 gods and goddesses.
None of this was new to Mishra, who knew the gig: foreigners loved that exotic stuff. And as a low-ranking babu in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, he was more than happy to oblige. This time because there were a couple of culinary shows planned for the festival showcasing India, the organizers needed help in finding a way to highlight India’s culinary diversity.
Mirza was the first to break the silence. “So what do you think?”
“Sir ji, I think we need a zabardast statistic which will show that our own cuisine is the best in the world. What if we highlighted one food product and how we have made it better through ingenious jugaad?” replied Mishra.
Mirza nodded. “Yes, I agree, Mishraji. But we should talk about some kind of food product which the Americans can identify with.”
“Can I ask you a question, sir ji? What do the goras eat?”
“That is a good question,” said Mirza as he rubbed his finely clipped moustache. “I’ve never been to America. I was in England for a week last year as part of a cultural delegation. Their food is horrid. Their meat isn’t bad, but it is bland. And then there are potatoes. A whole damn lot of them.”
“Oh, potatoes sir ji? I am an expert on the aloo. You see I am pure veg and aloo is the only sabzi my wife can cook,” said Mishra somewhat philosophically. “Maybe we can highlight the various ways that Indians cook potatoes?”
“Mishraji, that is quite possibly the most brilliant idea you’ve come up with! Where would I ever be without you?”
Mishra beamed. “Please… that is nothing. I can do anything for you.”
Mirza ignored Mishra’s fawning. “So tell me Mishraji, how many ways can your wife cook the humble aloo?”
“My wife is not a very good cook, sir ji. My life is a very sad one,” replied Mishra with a comic expression on his face.
“Yes, well that can’t be helped now, can it? Go to a bookshop and procure a cookbook which has a number of recipes calling for potatoes and report back with how many ways there are to cook the potato in this great country of ours,” ordered Mirza.
“Yes, very good sir ji. But the Navkiran bookshop nearest my home only has recipes from Uttar Pradesh. How will I get other recipes?” asked Mishraji.
“Arrey baba, you don’t need other recipes. Just get one cookbook with recipes for Uttar Pradesh or any other state. Multiply the number of number of recipes you find with 28 – the number of states. Report back to me with a very nice round number.”
“Thank you for your guidance. I will revert back to you with just such a number as soon as possible. I will also check the number with Shri Gyanvikas Maharaj, so it is auspicious. Maharaj is a very powerful astronumerologist.”
“Well done, Mishraji! And that will be all,” replied Mirza as he looked back at his computer screen.
Last thoughts: this piece was prompted by the following passage promoting India at an ongoing cultural festival in Washington D.C.
“India is vast: 1.2 billion people; 24 languages; 1,600 dialects; 28 states; myriad cuisines; 330,000 gods and goddesses; 300 ways to cook a potato.”
This piece is fictitious. Of course.