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Rechercher

A Patna Hindoostan by Nigel Roth



If you ever decide to have dinner at Gymkhana in Mayfair, who’s Michelin award for fine Indian dining is well-regarded, you’ll want to know four vital facts.


First, it probably won't be cheap.


Second, its name describes a type of Indian racket-ball court, and is a marriage of the Hindi word gedkhana with gymnasium, itself a bastardization of the Greek word gumnasion, meaning to exercise naked, by the colonial ethnic-cleansers of the British empire.


Thankfully, the wait staff adhere to a strict code of attire, namely, wearing some, so you won't be put off your 'wild muntjac biryani, pomegranate and mint raita'.


Which leads us nicely to the third fact, that no-one in India actually eats food that resembles this in any way, and the concept of fine dining that fuses Indian food with Western culinary preferences could even be seen by some as cultural appropriation.


But the British are good at that; their national dish is chicken tikka masala.


The fourth and, you’ll be pleased to know, final fact is that if you are eating at Gymkhana or any of the other thirteen-hundred Indian restaurants in the UK - a further seven-thousand-two-hundred are actually Bangladeshi, but most diners couldn’t give an onion bhaji about the distinction - you are doing so thanks to Sheikh Din Muhammad.


Sheikh Din Muhammad, or, to use the Westernised version that he had to get used to thanks to the inability even then of the British to respect names that don’t start with John and end in Smith, Sake Dean Mahomed, was born in the state of Bihar, in the city of Patna, which, when Mahomed was born in 1759, was being ravaged by the Bengal Presidency, a subdivision of the oppressive British Empire.


Mahomed was born into a Muslim family, descended from the great Nawab of Bengal, the hereditary equivalent of a Grand Duke in Europe. On his father’s death, he was fostered by Captain Godfrey Evan Baker, an Irish officer who introduced him to army life in the East India Company, and launched him on a medical career as a trainee surgeon.

When Baker resigned from the Army in 1784 and moved back to Cork, Ireland, so did Mahomed, preferring the uncertainty of life far away than the tyranny of the colonial dictatorship that had invaded every aspect of his world.


In Cork, Mahomed honed his English language, and fell in love with Jane Daly, whose family didn’t immediately warm to the idea of a matrimonial bond between their ‘pretty Irish girl of respectable parentage’ and this recently-arrived Indian doctor. And, of course, in true Irish style, it had been made illegal for Protestants to marry non-Protestants.


So, to curry favour with the Daleys, Mahomed converted to Anglicanism.


They then eloped to a nearby village where people didn’t know them quite as well, and were married, before eloping even more to London, where they set up home in Little Ryder Street, around 1800.