By Sourish Bhattacharya
BEING VEGETARIAN, Prime Minister Narendra Modi won’t get to savour one popular Japanese dish that continues to be celebrated as the everlasting legacy of an Indian revolutionary who prepared the ground for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. Indo Karii, or chicken curry served with rice and pickled vegetables, is the name of the dish and it is still the best-seller at Shinjoku Nakamuraya, the Tokyo restaurant where the riveting story that started with a bomb attack on a British viceroy ended its invention.
Rash Behari Bose (1886-1945), whose memory survives in the name of an important arterial road in Kolkata, was the head clerk at the Forest Research Institute in Dehra Dun when he came in contact with leaders of revolutionary groups active in Bengal and Punjab. Inspired by them, he participated in the conspiracy that resulted in a bomb being hurled at Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, the British viceroy responsible for the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to New Delhi, on December 23, 1912.
The viceroy escaped with minor bruises and Bose’s role in the conspiracy was never established by the British Raj police (Bose, to cover his tracks, is said to have even organised a public meeting in Dehra Dun condemning the attack!), although three revolutionaries named in the bombing — Basant Kumar Biswas, Master Amir Chand and Avadh Behari — were hanged to death. Bose’s involvement with revolutionary groups eventually came to the knowledge British intelligence agencies, leaving him with no option but to flee the country.
Bose landed in Japan in 1916. It wasn’t the best thing to do, for World War I was on and Japan had allied itself with Britain, but he found a powerful supporter in the ultra-nationalist politician, Toyama Mitsuru, who belonged to the secretive Genyosha society. The Bangladeshi Tagore scholar, Probir Bikash Sarkar, who first brought to light the connection between Bose and Indo Karii, shared the story in an interview with The Sunday Guardian newspaper last year. (http://www.sunday-guardian.com/artbeat/emissary-of-freedom-a-food-in-the-land-of-the-rising-sun)
The Japanese police were on Bose’s trail, but they were wary of raiding the house of a politician as influential as Toyama, though they were certain that he had provided shelter to the fugitive revolutionary in his home. Toyama eventually asked his good friend, Soma Aizo, and his wife Kokkou, who owned a popular bakery named Nakamuraya in the Shinjoku entertainment district, to hide Bose in an attic in their home above the store. It was Toyama again who prevailed over the couple to get their daughter, Soma Toshiko, to marry Bose.
Toshiko succumbed to tuberculosis in 1925, leaving behind a son, who later died fighting the Americans in Okinawa, and a daughter, who inherited the store but stayed away from the limelight. The Indian son-in-law did not wish to be a freeloader, so, even as he continued with his espousal of the cause of his home country’s independence, he suggested to his in-laws that he would start selling chicken curry, cooked with authentic Indian spices and not English curry powder, with rice.
Before Bose came on the scene, the Japanese, as the Indian-Canadian cookbook writer and blogger (Curry Twist), Smita Chandra, cooked curry the British way: “meat and onions were fried in butter, curry powder and stock added, and the mixture simmered slowly”. (http://smitachandra.com/blog/2014/4/1/japanese-chicken-curry-in-tokyo) Bose did it the way he had had it at home and he would make it a point to taste the curry before it went to his patrons. His creation was an instant hit and Bose even partnered with Japanese farmers to grow long-grained rice and chickens needed for it.
Japanese newspapers of his time were full of stories about ‘Bose of Nakamuraya’ and his curry, which they christened “the taste of love and revolution”. Bose established the Indian Independence League, convinced the Japanese to allow Indian POWs to form the Indian National Army and paved the way for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose taking charge of the rebel force. His comrade was the engineer Aiyappan Pillai Madhavan Nair (1905-1990), fondly remembered as Nair-san in Japan, who served as Netaji’s valet. After World War II, Nair went on to establish Japan’s first Indian restaurant at Ginza in Tokyo.
The restaurant, which opened its door in 1949, continues to be famous (as we learn from the Tokyo edition of Time Out magazine) for “its ‘Murugi Lunch’, a hearty meal that includes mashed potato, boiled cabbage and a curry that’s been simmered down along with a leg of chicken (which contains meat so soft that it practically falls off the bone the moment you pick it up) for an incredible seven hours”. The magazine goes on to say: “You’ll probably want to tuck in as soon as arrives at your table, however, the recommended way to enjoy this fantastic meal is to grab a spoon and mix everything — which includes a portion of turmeric-flavoured rice made with Iwate prefecture rice — together.” (http://www.timeout.jp/en/tokyo/venue/2729)
Bose, ironically, was sidelined by the Japanese war-time leadership in favour of Netaji and he died, like his wife, from tuberculosis in 1945. Two days later, his home was reduced to rubble in bombing by the Allied forces. He may have been forgotten in his home country, but his chicken curry remains alive in the popular imagination of his adopted home. It is served at Shinjoku Nakamuraya — and it is present on every supermarket shelf in the form of packed ready-to-eat meals.