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BARKAT by Vikas Khanna : Giving from the heart
Publisher : Ebury Press
Review by Darshan P. Kaur

As someone with a career in Sourcing, I will confess that when I picked up Barkat, the book by New York Based Michelin Star Chef-filmmaker Vikas Khanna, my interest in it was professional, as I was curious about the crowdsourcing aspect of Feed India, one of the world's largest food drives during the lockdown in 2020. The book cover states that this book is the inspiration and story behind the Feed India drive. I had myself witnessed the food drive unfold on social media and therefore, I was keen to learn about what went on behind the scenes.

However, as I started reading the book, and the story of a boy from Amritsar talking about his biji (grandmother) and the lessons she taught him began to unfold, my professional interest was quickly replaced by a personal interest to learn about the man behind the mission. Vikas has written this book as a memoir detailing the aspects of his life that led him to undertake a massive philanthropic mission to Feed India which, as it turns out, was only dealt with as one chapter in the entire book. Vikas has written this book from the heart, and I figured it deserved a review from the heart.

First things first, what does the word ‘Barkat’ even mean? Those of us (like this reviewer) born into Punjabi households intuitively know what it means, but there isn’t a simple English one-to-one translation. I guess you could call it abundance but that just won’t do it justice. Its much more than that. It’s a feeling, a spirit of sharing and caring. As Vikas quotes his grandmother in the book – “Even if you are poor, it doesn't matter, as long as you are willing to share whatever you have”. These words kind of encapsulate the spirit of Barkat.

As Vikas talked about his childhood in the book, I was transported back into mine. Practically the childhood of any child growing up in the middle class in India in the 70s-80s, watching the epic TV serial Ramayana as a family, taking the wheat grains to the grinding shop, and bringing back the hot-to-touch bags of atta (flour), making of suji (semolina) halwa for festivals and celebrations, rickshaw rides etc. Additionally, since I grew up in a Sikh household, I could also relate to the visits to the Golden Temple, the concept of langar (community kitchen), and the receiving and giving aspect of the langar (prasad and Seva). His narration of the technique of getting a larger helping of the Kadha Prasad by spreading both palms together instead of keeping one hand over the other and using an innocent face made me laugh, because as a foodie, I used to do the same thing. His grandmother’s teachings as well as the institution and practice of langar and other traditions of the Golden Temple have remained a substantial influence in Vikas’ life besides teaching him resilience and the power of faith.

One major facet of Vikas’ story is the support of his family. Whether it’s the Blue Tandoor (Indian Clay Oven) his father bought for him, his Chacha ji (father’s first cousin) encouraging his passion for cooking, his brother influencing him to fly like Jonathan Livingston Seagull and make it to the shores of America, or most importantly, his mother inspiring him to not give up on his mission to Feed India with the words “I want you to rise to this occasion because I have given birth to a Warrior who is going to stand in the middle of the battlefield and feed India”.

Vikas also narrates the incident of a Muslim family saving his life in the Bombay (presently Mumbai) riots of 1992 and how he has been keeping a Roza (fast) in the month of Ramzan every year since then to honor the family that saved him. This incident also had a profound impact and became a factor in shaping him to be the person he is.

Vikas came to the US on 2nd December 2000. He talks about his heartbreaking and back-breaking journey in the book. As he writes, “America doesn’t spread red carpets for anyone; everyone has to come here and prove themselves” – words which all of us immigrants and first-generation Americans can relate to. He chronicles his journey from being in a homeless shelter to cooking for firefighters after 9/11, to being asked to leave an American restaurant because his presence was making some women uncomfortable (in the wake of 9/11), to cooking at the James Beard Foundation, to doing a fundraiser for the tsunami in South-east Asia, and to winning the Michelin star in 2011 with a lot of failures, obstacles, and heartbreaks in between.

Vikas’ style of writing about his life is almost self-deprecating and his narration of one of India’s largest food drives is written in a very matter of fact way, and with a lot of gratitude. For a person who has achieved so much, won so many awards, fed Presidents, World Leaders, Spiritual Masters and even royalty, has been named in the list of “50 Sexiest Men Alive” by People Magazine and earned the title of “New York’s Hottest Chef” from Eater NY, he remains firmly grounded, humble, and connected to his roots.

I am not surprised though, because having met him a couple of times myself, the one thing I distinctly remember about him is how kindly he was treating everyone who came up to talk to him. I also remember getting into a silly argument with him and then saying that he was acting like a “Celebrity”. His response was “Celebrity wali kya baat dikh gayi mujh me?” (What is so celebrity-like about me?). His book reflects just that. He is still that little boy from Amritsar, totally unfazed by all the glory and accolades the world is showering upon him, focused on flying to newer heights and doing all he can to uplift those in need along the way. His story is the story of Barkat.

Barkat is available on Amazon on Kindle and as a Hardcover : Barkat: The Inspiration and the Story Behind One of World’s Largest Food Drives FEED INDIA: Khanna, Vikas: 9780670095162: Books