By Sushmita Bose
I’ve never dined at Rang Mahal restaurant at the JW Marriott in Dubai — though I’ve been meaning to for a while (in fact, I came this close to visiting when it had organised a cookout recently). Atul Kochhar, the first Indian chef to have fetched up a Michelin star (for Benaras restaurant in Mayfair, London), used to be its star power (he’s based in London, but visited Dubai often enough).
Not any more though. A recent statement by the hotel talks about the termination of Kochhar’s services in the wake of his anti-Islamic tweet; Rang Mahal will no longer be associated with him. Chances are you already know how the ‘Case of the Celebrity Chef Becoming Persona Non Grata’ devolved — but in case you don’t, here’s a roundup:
A few days ago, Atul Kochhar did something remarkably stupid — in response to Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra’s apology (again, on Twitter) for being part of a Quantico episode that portrayed Indian nationalists as Hindu terrorists (I have NO idea why Priyanka decided to apologise for playing out a fictitious character in a work of fiction, but that’s another story). He posted a tweet that was — quite rightly — construed as ‘Islamophobic’; he said Hindus [in India] have been “terrorised” by Muslims for the past 2,000 years. Not only was it inflammatory, bigoted and culturally insensitive (Rang Mahal, for instance, is known to draw in Middle Eastern clientele, so how can he cut the hand that fed him, many asked?), it was also factually incorrect… Islam hasn’t even been around for 2,000 years.
The tweet — for very good reasons — drew major flak, prompting him to delete it, but it was too late; screenshots of it had gone viral already.
Atul Kochhar, a great chef by any global standard, had suddenly left us with an extremely bad taste in the mouth.
So, why did I just say his tweet was remarkably stupid — and not devilishly deviant?
Because he said sorry — multiple times, in a series of tweets, in a series of statements. And I have no reason to argue that he’s not genuinely contrite. “There is no justification for my tweet, a major error made in the heat of the moment…,” his first apology read. “I sincerely apologise. I am not Islamophobic, I deeply regret my comments that have offended many.”
Subsequently, he even tried (what I think is) a cover-up: apparently the word ‘Islam’ had been fed in by auto-correct; it was originally supposed to have been “invasion”. I wasn’t buying it, but it was, clearly, a desperate act by a man desperate for damage control. Somehow, that makes him very human. He messed up, but he’s sentient enough to realise he did something damaging.
Kochhar’s small-minded tweet — and its screenshot — is meant for the garbage bin; it needs to be forgotten — not resurrected. By engaging in its ramifications, over and over again, we are giving credence to something that deserves utter anonymity.
Worryingly, there’s also another aspect to be considered: a polarisation of belief systems — which already seems to be happening on social media. There are some groups wanting to boycott Marriott hotels in India, whereas the “liberals” are hailing his sacking as an exemplary move. Does the world really need one more ideological conflagration triggered off by a — sorry to downgrade social media — tweet?
I’ll probably stand by JW Marriott for sacking Kochhar. What he did was bad press. And bad press is bad news in the hospitality industry.
But the rest of us need to give Kochhar a break. “I would like to apologise unreservedly to my Muslim friends, the Islamic community and everyone I have offended with my recent tweets,” his latest Twitter post [on this matter] read. “They were insensitive and wrong. My work and my restaurants are defined by a passion to unite cultures through food, love and understanding. I have let myself and my colleagues down. I am upset and sorry for the pain I have caused and ask for your forgiveness [sic].”
Somebody who has a verified Twitter handle called DubaiNameShame has put up a post which sums it up so well: “Alas there are many who will analyse every word and still not accept this apology… I accept it, I feel it is said with true remorse and believe lessons learned. This Muslim accepts an apology, I hope others do to [sic].”
That made me think of the wisest adage in the world: to err is human, to forgive divine.
Sushmita is editor, WKND. She has a penchant for analysing human foibles
* Views of the author are personal and may not reflect those of the newspaper