Friday, February 12, 2010

Food for Thought

After months of relentless bad press and political stand-offs, it took one frizzy-haired 35-year-old Australian and her campaign, Vindaloo Against Violence, to restore the image of Australians as friendly, warm people always ready to embrace something new – including lots of new Indians in their country.

It all started on the hot night of January 20th in Melbourne. Mia Northop, a digital media designer, and her architect husband were driving to their neighbourhood curry restaurant in Flemington. The conversation turned to the recent attacks on Indians in Melbourne, and Mia recounted a report she had read that day about Indian businesses, particularly restaurants, suffering because their main clientele – the Indian student community – were reluctant to step out after sunset. What a shame it was, she felt. Then suddenly she said, “What we need is a flash mob – thousands of people going to an Indian restaurant at the same time to show their support!”

The comment was meant in jest but a germ of an idea had formed in Mia’s mind. Why not, she thought. It would give out such a powerful message. The following Friday, she tentatively broached the idea before a few friends she was having dinner with, and they loved it. Mia made up her mind to go ahead with it.

In order to send the message out, she decided to use the medium she knew best – the digital media. In the past, she had often used the internet, particularly the social media, to promote products and services for companies. Now she would use it to promote a cause closer to her heart. She spent the weekend building a simple, easy to navigate website in blue, green and white inviting people to an open event cheekily called Vindaloo Against Violence. The message was simple enough: As an Australian, show your solidarity with the Indian community by eating at the nearest Indian restaurant on February 24. Then she posted the event on Facebook, created a twitter account for it, and cross-referenced them to the website she had built.

Mia believed that the attacks on Indians were the work of a fringe in Melbourne. Most Australians she knew felt a strong repugnance to these attacks. And yet, they had no way to voice their views. The Australian prime minister and the police chief seemed to be speaking for all of them. But given a chance, she felt the silent majority would take the opportunity to show that they cared for the safety of the minority communities.

Her hunch turned out to be absolutely right. Within days, the event had gone viral over the internet with her facebook event registering over 10,000 visits and over 7000 people confirming their participation. Many left messages showing their support for the cause and with helpful tips on good Indian restaurants. Several people have begun planning smaller events – book readings, women organising hand-tattoo nights, Bollywood themed events and outings – to combine with the Indian food. Northop was particularly touched by one email sent to her by an old woman from a tiny country town in Victoria telling her how the people in the town had decided to organise an open-air Bollywood film show to follow the Indian dinner. Her simple urge to get people to eat at an Indian restaurant had tapped into the community feel of the town.

Her event quickly caught on with the Australian media, with all major newspapers reporting it. More importantly, it got a liberal mention in the Indian media as well. After more than a year of bad press, Indians were finally seeing the other Australia – one inhabited by easy-going, conscientious Australians who want to distance themselves from the country’s fist-heavy, gang-happy fringe. In turn, Northop received several emails from Indians showing their appreciation of the gesture.

Indian food, believes Mia, was the best way to get Melbournians together. With its great weather, abundant space, and lively street life, the city has always had a rich restaurant and cafĂ© culture. All Melbournians consider themselves proud foodies. In turn, Indian cuisine with flavourful curries has caught on in almost all countries that Indians have migrated to. It seemed like a perfect combination to bring all Melbournians – Indians and otherwise – together.

Though, India has always been a part of Mia’s life – her mother was always fond of cooking Indian curries and tandoori chicken, several of her friends and former boyfriends were of Indian origin, and she is a regular practitioner of yoga – she doesn’t consider herself an Indophile. Her initiative was more driven by her concern that the world was getting the wrong impression of Australians. She says, she would have started the initiative if the violence had been targeted at the Sudanese, Lebanese or Chinese communities too. She just wanted the rest of the world to know what a marvellous place Australia was to live in.

With her initiative set to be a resounding success, Mia is now wondering where she will eat on February 24th. Perhaps, after all the madness of the month, it will be a quiet dinner at her local Indian restaurant in Flemington, Taste of India.

If you are still undecided on where to eat at on February 24, try this lovely vegetarian Indian restaurant called Nirvana Vegetarian Cafe on 486 Bridge Road, Richmond (03-9428-408). It is run by my friendly, talkative mother-in-law and the food is great. On the other hand, she might try to convince you to see light and turn vegetarian.


Appel said...

Lovely! There's a brand new Taj Hotel just a block away from where I stay. They have this really good menu but I haven't tried it. Wish you could join me for dinner!

globalbabble said...

Taj always has great food and service. So would love to hear your review of it. Can't believe it has reached South Africa though!

Mia Northrop said...

Thanks for such a lovely post. Your perspective has refreshed my energy around pulling off this event.

A lovely thing happened yesterday: a stranger emailed me and invited me to her home for a home-cooked Indian meal, to express her appreciation of the cause. I was so chuffed. The generosity of some people! My husband and I will be dining with her and her husband the night before the event.