Make good art. That’s what author Neil Gaiman advises for when life gets you down, or even when you’re up on high. Fortunately, Chef Suvir Saran, who dishes out more than life has served him, has been doing just that long before Gaiman’s commencement speech that made the phrase famous. With his fourth book, Instamatic (Milap Publications, 175 pages)
As the chef of Devi in New York, the first Indian restaurant ever to get a Michelin star, New Delhi-born and Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai trained, Saran has been and is many things in life: a chef, an artist, a singer, a writer, an educator, and most recently a survivor.
Having established himself as a chef du jour in the US with two Michelin stars, having written three acclaimed cooking books, and having established a livestock farm in New York, Saran was ready to work on his magnum opus: a book with a 1,000 recipes. “It is while I was working on this that I had a mini-stroke, followed by seven concussions, rendering me practically blind in one eye and afflicting me with aphasia, which affected my language and motor skills, and causing me to lose chunks of my memory,” says Saran, amazingly without a trace of bitterness.
However, it was more than crushing (not just because the book of a 1,000 recipes was out of the question) as Saran went from being someone who was “fiercely independent to someone who needed constant looking after and unable to do most things myself. I was ready to die. And then I came home to New Delhi after 27 years.”
A NEW CHAPTER
“I celebrated New Year’s on an aeroplane, flying out of the US on the night of December 31, 2018, and sipped tea with my mother on her verandah under the Indian sky on the morning of January 1, 2019. Since then, I have seen how empathic and nurturing our country can be,” says Saran, noting, “India is a land of magical incongruence, where the sheer number of us sometimes makes us apathetic to others, but where when we care, we do so completely.” Since then, doctors are amazed at his rate and levels of recovery as people with aphasia don’t typically have the dexterity he now possesses with his eye and fingers. “I used my iPhones to take pictures to bring objects closer so that I could see them and write my thoughts on the phone with a hand. And that’s how the seed of Instamatic was planted,” he says.
“Once I started posting pictures and my thoughts on survival and appreciating life anew, friends from all over started saying I need to write all this in a book. And that invigorated me, I didn’t feel useless anymore, and immersed myself in this work,” says Saran, recalling how four friends (including Under the Tuscan Sun author Frances Mayes) rang him up over a two hour period exhorting him to write the book he now has. It was another friend (Yogi Suri of Milap publications) who convinced Saran to publish it here rather than with his usual American publishers.
“I’ve been the busiest in a long time since the pandemic hit. Even as it helped me realise how lucky I am to have food on my plate and the support systems I do, it has made me strive to help others, not because it’s a good thing to do, but because it’s the human thing to do,” says Saran, who is now occupied with Zoom calls from morning to night, with individuals as well as organisations, speaking about how to survive and thrive.
As he notes, “sleep has never been a friend, I can’t get myself to sleep more than three-four hours a day. “I have my work of course, with the book and other projects. And if I can provide any kind of support to anyone from a confused 18-year-old to a sick 75-year-old to women’s emancipation just by speaking, how can I not?” After all, cometh the hour, cometh the man.