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Gastfreundschaft (Hospitality)

At a reading of her latest book, Gastfreundschaft, in Berlin in March 2019, Priya Basil related its conception story; her editor had asked her if she didn’t want to write something about food and politics. Upon reflection, she found hospitality in its various permutations to be the connective tissue between the two, and that is the book she has written: a book about food, politics, and hospitality. In many ways a deeply personal book, Basil’s account takes the form of a collection of vignettes, interwoven with stories of her own various experiences of eating, being hosted, and being a host. It tells of a childhood in Kenya, the daughter of Indian migrants, her family’s move to Britain, and finally her choice to settle in Berlin. As such, her reflections span broad expanses of time and space to include the deliberate manipulation of famine by the British in India – a kind of murderous inhospitality – to her experiences of Langar, the meal offered after Sikh religious services to which everyone, in principle without exception, is invited, first as a child in Kenya, and later in a temple in Reinickendorf in Berlin, and also includes her thoughts on and impressions of the reception of migrants in Germany in 2015.

Philosophical reflections, for the most part inflected by Jacques Derrida’s musings on the impossible possibility of hospitality, are interlaced with these personal experiences. She engages the power dynamics at play in hospitality, between host and hosted, the ways in which these can and should be negotiated and renegotiated, and how very fruitful it can be when they are. At the same time, she speaks to the genealogical exchangeability of hospitality with hostility – which, as she reveals, have the same Indo-European etymology. This she crystallises through stories of her grandmother, who as a woman of her generation and cultural background did not always have much choice in the hospitality expected of her. It is a very honest book, in which Basil appears not to shy from revealing also less flattering aspects of her own relationships to hospitality, and sometimes difficult family histories. Fans of her famous debut novel, Ishq and Mushq, will recognise the story told there in most of its salient features as autobiographical, including Sarna’s use of food and cooking to exert control and power in the face of feelings of powerlessness, accompanied by delicious and detailed descriptions of various meals. Like Ishq and Mushq, it may leave you hungry.

It’s a relatively quick and easy read, published in Beatrice Fassbender’s German translation first, with the English original only coming out later this year. Insel Verlag has published it as a beautiful little book that will fit in your coat pocket. Politically, one might have hoped for it to go a bit further in demanding something of its readers – particularly its privileged European readers – in the face of what might well be read as the multiple failures of hospitality we see across Europe today. But then some of Basil’s ideas, such as that of a Europe-wide public holiday to foster a sense of a shared European identity, or a European citizenship lottery for people from less privileged countries, are appealing for thinking outside the box, and being concrete, productive suggestions to help manifest hospitality and make it more achievable.

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