By Sudeep Sonawane
Doha, Qatar, June 19, 2016.
I sense a languid mood on entering Gokul Gujarati Restaurant. There are no diners. The silence and compressor cooled air is a relief from the 44 degrees heat, and the hum of car tyres on the sun-baked Ibn Mahmoud Street in Fereej bin Mahmoud, Doha. A couple of expressionless waiters stand, leaning against the wall next to the kitchen. The middle-aged captain, wearing polythene cap, looks bright. His expression says the cash till will jingle a lot this afternoon.
My thoughts break as my cellphone comes alive with Mark Knoffler’s Heavy Fuel ringtone.
“Hey, I’m at Mannai Roundabout. Could you direct the driver to the restaurant? My driver speaks Hindi and English.”
“Yes your excellency,” I reply. The driver sounds confused. I tell him, “Give the phone back to Sir.”
“Chief, please name a landmark wherever you are.”
“We are near the roundabout below Jaidah Flyover.”
“You have passed the lane where you had to turn right,” I tell him. I give him the directions again.
The cellphone goes silent for a few seconds and then cackles again. “Yesss! I have seen York Fitness Centre. We are heading back to Mannai Roundabout to take the turn. I shall see you in five minutes.”
A few minutes later, I step on to the street. The baking heat gives me a mild thermal shock. After awhile I see a black BMW, with South African flag fluttering in the breeze, heading towards me. I wave out and point the free parking space to the driver.
The Republic of South Africa Ambassador to Qatar, Saad Cachalia, steps out of the car and says, “It’s good to see you!
I approach him and shake his hand. “Welcome to Qatar’s only Gujarati restaurant,” I say and escort him to the restaurant.
“I’m living in Qatar over four years, but I’ve not visited this part of the city,” he tells me as we enter the restaurant.
Instead of heading to the table I point out, the envoy goes over to the waiters. He greets each one in fluent Gujarati ‘khem chho’ (How are you?) and asks names while shaking hands.
While watching him talk to them, I recap his resume, he emailed ahead of the interview. As he settles down, I ask, “How many languages do you speak?”
“Besides English, I speak and understand to varying degrees Gujarati, which I learnt late in life, Afrikaans, Sotho, Hindi, and Urdu languages. I can read Arabic and speak a little.”
The captain arrives and asks the envoy in Gujarati, “What would you like to eat?”
The envoy looks at me with an expression that says, “You order since you dine here regularly”.
“Gokul serves only Indian vegetarian cuisine,” I tell him.
“No problem,” the envoy replies. “I needed a change from meat and chicken. I chose this restaurant because my roots go back to Gujarat and I’m looking forward to enjoying Gujarati vegetarian cuisine.”
“Two thalis,” I tell the captain. I explain to the envoy that thali (a steel plate with rim) comprises one dry vegetable, one with curry, two thick lentil curries all loaded with spices; salad, pickles, curd, papads, snacks like khamund dhokla, fritters and for dessert gulab jamun (spherical sweet dumplings made from sweeten flour) and jeelabis (similarly deep fried and soaked in sugar syrup).
“I’m aware of what delicacies a thali has, the ambassador says, “but I have not eaten them in a Gujarati restaurant for a long time. I’m pleasantly surprised to know about Gokul in this part of Doha that I’m visiting for the first time.”
Another waiter arrives and places two glasses of mango juice on the table.
From which part of Gujarat do your ancestors hail? I ask.
He takes a sip. Aah, this juice is refreshing! This must be Alphonso, he says and launches in to his family background.
“My great-grandfather Ahmed Mohammad Kachalia was from a village called Dabel near Navsari, around 250kms from Mumbai. They spelt our surname with ‘K’ that time. I visited Gujarat only once in my lifetime in 1974 to meet my grand-uncle Molvi Ismail Kachalia, a Padma Shree awardee, in village Kallakacha near Navsari. He was then in exile for his African National Congress work.”
He pauses, and attacks dhoklas, sponge type yellow gram flour dumplings and theyplas, spicy flatbread.
We eat silently for a while. The waiter arrives and serves more chapattis (soft flatbread). A few minutes later, the restaurant owner joins us. I introduce Pradip Joshi to the ambassador. Both men speak in Gujarati.
“I’m from Porbandar,” says Joshi.
“Wow, M K Gandhi’s birthplace,” the envoy says. “We have a sizeable Memon community from Porbandar in South Africa, they speak Kucchi language.”
The owner agrees. “How long have you been doing business here,” the envoy asks him.
“Around ten months. I ran a small restaurant in Musherib for two years. This is larger and seats more diners.”
After demolishing potato-peas and lentils curry with chapattis, I ask the envoy, “Is it strange to give a media interview in a humble neighbourhood restaurant?”
“I’m people oriented. I don’t look at their rank and status. Equal rights are family legacy, and our ties with Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress values. Conversing with a Gujarati-speaking journalist, a Gujarati restaurateur in a Gujarati restaurant in Qatar is a first for me.”
He demolishes a dhokla, and asks Joshi, “How many Gujarati families live in Doha?”
“Many people regularly dine here. I do not know the exact number of Gujaratis in Doha.”
How many Gujaratis live in South Africa? I ask the envoy.
“The Indian-origin community tips over one million, and Gujaratis around a quarter million. A few hold the Indian link, but for many, it severed long ago.
“South Africa is a rainbow nation. It is a melting pot of different cultures like Dutch, British, Malay and Indonesian. Historically, South Africa and India share strong political, social, and cultural ties. Indians first arrived in Durban in 1860s. They worked in the sugar fields under semi slavery conditions.
“In modern times, ties between South Africa and India grew strong. India is the first country to play a cricket series with South Africa after the International Cricket Council readmitted it, post-apartheid era. The cultural exchanges are vibrant. South Africa’s salubrious locales offer settings for many Bollywood films. Indian classical music maestros such as flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and dance troupes have performed. Similarly, South African groups perform in various Indian cities.”
He wipes sweat beads off his forehead with a tissue paper, and adds, after a pause, “South African musical bands regularly perform in some hotels here in Doha.”
“Is the food too spicy,” I ask him. “I can handle this stuff,” he replies. “I’m eating Indian food after a long time.”
“What impresses you most about Qatar?”
“People are friendly… their hospitality stands out. Qatar has good places for people to socialize and dine out. I love driving around. I have visited every corner of Qatar. My visit to Gokul adds Fereej bin Mahmood locality to my list. I’m glad I visited this restaurant before I complete my tenure in a couple of months.”
“What are your achievements as South Africa’s envoy to Qatar?”
“President Jacob Zuma’s visit to Qatar recently is a high point as well as ministerial visits, besides business delegations from South Africa.”
The waiter arrives with more curries, but the envoy gestures he satiated. He just takes a small sip of buttermilk. “I’m lactose intolerant,” he says and wipes his mouth with a tissue paper.
Are you happy with the volume of two-way trade between the two countries?
“It is around $7 billion, but weighted in favour of Qatar because we import oil, gas and petro chemicals. It has increased from $4 billion in 2011. South Africa exports automobiles, machinery, textiles and fruits,” he says.
He pushes back his chair, speaks for some time with the waiter, and heads to the washbasin. He returns and asks the waiter for the bill. The waiter looks at the owner who smiles and says, “You are our guest.”
The envoy insists on paying. The owner refuses. “Well, you will have to take the payment when I visit Gokul with my family,” says the envoy. The owner smiles and nods in affirmation.
We step out and head towards his car. He thanks me for introducing him to the Gujarati restaurant. “This is an unforgettable experience,” he says as we shake hands and bid goodbye.