“At the Lahore Karhai” (More Poems About Food and Drink)

It’s been two weeks since I said I’d soon be inaugurating a new occasional series of posts on the blog on poems about food and drink and so I guess I’d better get on with it. As I said in that first post, these will be poems either directly about food, drink, eating, drinking, hunger, thirst etc. or poems that use related metaphors to talk about other things or poems that mention food or drink just in passing. To begin the series I have a poem I have posted on social media a number of times over the years: Imtiaz Dharker’s “At the Lahore Karhai”. Dharker is a poet with a background/biography that drives a certain kind of South Asian nativist insane with rage: she was born in Pakistan, raised in the UK and now spends her time between the UK and India (as far as I know). She was a candidate for the poet laureateship of the UK in 2019 before withdrawing her name from consideration.

This poem is from one of her earlier collections, I Speak for the Devil published by Bloodaxe in the UK in 2001 and Penguin India in 2003. The poem itself is from 1999. I decided to begin this series with it not only because I do like it so much but also because its setting is a restaurant and an experience of conviviality that we are currently denied by the pandemic. I have no restaurant review for you but here is a restaurant poem.

First the poem and then some stray observations about it

At the Lahore Karhai

It’s a great day, Sunday,
when we pile into the car
and set off with a purpose –
a pilgrimage across the city,
to Wembley, the Lahore Karhai.
Lunch service has begun –
‘No beer, we’re Muslim’ –
but the morning sun
squeezed into juice,
and ‘Yaad na jaye’
on the two-in-one.

On the Grand Trunk Road
thundering across Punjab to Amritsar,
this would be a dhaba
where the truck-drivers pull in,
swearing and sweating,
full of lust for real food,
just like home.

Hauling our overloaded lives
the extra mile,
we’re truckers of another kind,
looking hopefully (years away
from Sialkot and Chandigarh)
for the taste of our mothers’
hand in the cooking.

So we’ve arrived at this table:
the Lahore runaway;
the Sindhi refugee
with his beautiful wife
who prays each day to Krishna,
keeper of her kitchen and her life;
the Englishman too young
to be flavoured by the Raj;
the girls with silky hair,
wearing the confident air
of Bombay.

This winter, we have learnt
to wear our past
like summer clothes.

Yes, a great day.
A feast! We swoop
on a whole family of dishes.
The tarka dal is Auntie Hameeda
the karhai ghosht is Khala Ameena
the gajjar halva is Appa Rasheeda.

The warm naan is you.

My hand stops half-way to my mouth.
The Sunday light has locked
on all of us:
the owner’s smiling son,
the cook at the hot kebabs,
Kartar, Rohini, Robert,
Ayesha, Sangam, I,
bound together by the bread we break,
sharing out our continent.

are ways of remembering.

Other days, we may prefer

A few comments. I should admit sheepishly first of all that as someone who teaches and writes about the novel I am terribly self-conscious about how unsophisticated I am in my understanding of poetry. I am very weak on prosody in particular and so will try my best to avoid embarrassing myself on that front. In fact, I will restrict myself to a few fragmentary observations.

  • Movement. Movement is central to the poem. It begins with the movement that takes us to the setting of the poem, to the Lahore Karhai: the journey across London, described heretically as a pilgrimage. This journey evokes another indirectly (in the second stanza), a journey of another kind, made by people the speaker is aware she cannot claim identity with (in the third stanza); at another remove still is the diasporic journeys that have brought her to London. At the level of form, the poem itself is on the move, its rhythm and energy, especially in the early stanzas, mimicking the movement it describes of the packed car heading to the Lahore Karhai.
  •  The question of home and community. The only set location in the poem is the restaurant. It is a poem about intimacy, about family but it takes as its location not the family kitchen or dining room but a restaurant. Though it participates in a familiar diasporic identification of cultural identity and food it refuses to situate this within the bounded domestic space of family. Instead we are in a restaurant, a space of a larger conviviality, with “the owner’s smiling son”, “the cook at the hot kebabs” drawn into the circle of intimacy of food, “bound together by the bread we break”. And, of course, the speaker and her family are not from Wembley—they come from “across the city”.
  • Hybridity. First the language; the refusal to translate “yaad na jaye” into English even though it signals early in the poem the theme of memory and connection that is central to it; the refusal also to italicize the food names. And also the motley crew at the table: “the Lahore runaway”, “the Sindhi refugee”, “his beautiful wife who prays each day to Krishna”, “the Englishman too young to be flavoured by the Raj”, “the girls…wearing the confident air of Bombay”. The poem enumerates this hybridity—religious, national, intergenerational—but does not make heavy weather of it.
  • Lightness. The poem does not make heavy weather of the hybridity it describes and it is also unwilling to allegorize identity too heavily from the scenes it describes. The past may be worn “like summer clothes” but it clearly cannot be discarded either. We are in a contingent moment, not in a distillation of identity. “These/are ways of remembering”, yes, but, “other days, we may prefer/Chinese”.
  • The Lahore Karhai. I have no idea if the titular location was/is an actual restaurant in Wembley. In my desultory “research”—I hesitate even to use that word—I have discovered that there are more restaurants in Wembley with Lahore or Lahori in their name than there probably are in Lahore but I’ve not found one named the Lahore Karhai. There may have been one that closed down—was it a significant name? Or did she choose it for its generic nature? I also confess I have not tried to track down what Dharker may or may not have said about this poem: perhaps this is a non-mystery.

Okay, that’s enough burbling from me. I do recommend the entire collection highly (this shopping link goes to Content, the indie bookstore in our town).

Next week: another poem set in a restaurant, but in another city. I look forward to reading your thoughts about the poem or about my readings of it in the comments if you are willing to share.

4 thoughts on ““At the Lahore Karhai” (More Poems About Food and Drink)

  1. This is one of my many favorites by Dharker. The poem has that quietly confident and unfussy tone that marks so much of her best work. And the reference to the Grand Trunk Road (a nudge to Kipling readers?) captures space and time beautifully while reminding us of the colonial history of India/Pakistan versus the actual British location of the Lahore Karhai in Wembley.

    For some reason, this reminds me of Philip Larkin’s poem, “The Whitsun Weddings,” another all-time favorite of mine–maybe it is the combination of a journey plus the snatching of an ephemeral momemnt in time? I don’t know.

    The only weak line in the poem for me was “we’re truckers of another kind.” Why belabor the obvious here, I wonder.


  2. Such a nuanced interpretation! I find the “refusal to italicize food names” a bit passe and unnecessary considering the discourse around footnotes, italicizations etc. Can’t wait to read the other interpretations!


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