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August 14, 1997


Pav Bhaji in Camden Town

Mike Guest at his pav bhaji stall Text and photograph by Amberish K Diwanji, in London some time ago

It's a special place, Camden Town. Alive, throbbing with enthusiasm, fun, laughter, shopping, more shopping and eating. A fair contender for the-liveliest-spot-in-London tag. Which could have something to do with the fact that it transforms into a market town, come Thursday to Sunday. The stalls spread all over the place -- jackets, jeans, clothes, T-shirts, trinkets, toys, sandwiches, hot dogs, Chinese knick-knacks and food... hey, that's strange! Where is the Indian food joint? How can there be no Indian food place in a country where Indian curry (an item unavailable in India!) is the national dish?

I was not to be disappointed. Behind the Camden lock market, where wares are more Orient than Occident, stood a stall that would thrill the heart of any Bombayite: there, before my longing eyes, was a stall selling pav bhaji. Giving into a bout of homesickness, I went up to the owner, confident of meeting an Indian who probably spoke Gujarati.

A tall, well-built, blue-eyed blond stood behind the counter. The closest person to India was the other gent, but he looked distinctively south east Asian. Surely there was some mistake. Where was or were the Indians? Surely a joint selling Indian food must have an Indian connection. Ordering a plate of delicious-looking and headily aromatic pav bhaji (other dishes offered included chicken curry, lentil curry and samosas), I struck up a conversation with the Briton behind the counter.

"My name is Mike Guest," smiled my host. "And I own and run this place, along with my colleague Justin, who's a Thai." Okay, no Indian owner/staff member. And yet the pav bhaji was tasty; I enjoyed it immensely. How on earth did a Briton end up cooking and selling something so Indian?

"I guess there has always been an Indian lurking in me," he crinkles his eyes. "I've been cooking Indian food since my teens." But surely he must have some Indian connection -- maybe he was born there, or a parent or family member came from India (Britain is teeming with people related to someone linked to the subcontinent). "No, none whatsoever," he replied. Had he been to India, though? "Of course! I've been to India several times."

Did someone guide him, at least initially? I know I was beginning to sound a bit desperate, but that was exactly how I felt. The autodidact revealed hidden hands. "It began with the first Indian friend I made at art school. It was his wife who showed me the importance of spices when she made me throw away my pot of curry powder and replaced it with a small collection of packets, containing all the basic spices needed to make authentic Indian food. I've been cooking and eating Indian food ever since. Over the years, I've spent many happy hours in the kitchens of Indian friends, learning their secrets, techniques and recipes." The result? He set up this stall about five years ago.

Guest has since honed his knowledge with recent visits to Delhi where he picked up recipes for Punjabi food, chicken curry and tandoori paneer, all of which are extremely popular in UK. Guest says that, though he tries to be as authentic as possible, he cannot ignore his British clientele. "I have to cut down on the chilli a bit, otherwise not too many people will eat here."

It is not just Indian food that has enamoured Guest. He is extremely fond of Indian classical music and culture, too. "I was in my teens when I saw a series of programmes in which Yehudi Menuhin introduced the king, Ravi Shankar, and classical Indian ragas to the world. I was hooked; I bought everything that was available in UK which, back in the 60's, only amounted to a handful of records. I was immersing myself in ragas while my friends were all tuning in to the Beatles. Since then, I have been in harmony with Shankar's music, very much like one tuning fork resonating to the vibrations of another."

Of all the people in the world, Guest's interest in Indian music has embarrassed his Indian friends in Delhi. "My friends in Delhi bought me tickets for the Ravi Shankar show only on the condition that I would not ask them to accompany me," he says with a laugh. "They said they couldn't stand such music."

To further explore his love for India, Guest tried to learn Hindi. "But my teacher insisted by beginning each day with a Sanskrit prayer, which was very embarrassing as far as I was concerned. So I gave it up."

And then, he doesn't get to hear enough spoken Hindi. "Most of my Indian friends try to persuade me to speak their first tongue, Gujarati or Urdu. Without exposure and constant practice, it's very hard to build a vocabulary and become fluent."

What are his future dreams? "I want to put up a website on Indian cooking and am preparing more recipes for that purpose. People in the UK love to make Indian food look mysterious. Actually, it's quite simple and natural. There are just some golden rules you have to master first. I would like to make all this known."

I point out that pav bhaji is actually a Bombay dish, and invite him to the city. "I would love to," he says. "I hope I can do it some day." I prepare to take his leave, having paid only two-and-a-half pounds for a wonderful meal. There are quite a few people waiting to eat: obviously, business is booming and I am occupying precious space.

"You know," says Guest, as I leave, "I don't believe in reincarnation, but... sometimes, I just wonder if I was an Indian in my last birth."

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