While many Americans are celebrating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to lift mask mandates, and more diners are returning to restaurants, there’s a lingering feeling of helplessness among Indian communities, who are inundated with headlines reporting massive death tolls overseas from COVID-19. So far, more than 291,000 have died on the subcontinent, and health experts fear that number is much higher because many victims in rural areas have not yet been accounted for. Still, the situation is becoming more and more dire as hospital beds and other necessary resources are in increasingly short supply. Currently, more than 1,000 doctors in India have already died because of the disease.
When Basu Ratnam heard that India’s government mismanagement had led to a shortage of the oxygen tanks needed to aid victims — and that something as basic as air was in short supply — he decided to take action.
“It’s unimaginably difficult to comprehend,” Ratnam says of the devastation in India. “We have family and friends who are buying vaccines, buying remdesivir, oxygenators on the black market for 10 times the going price.”
So the New York restaurateur behind Inday leveraged his standing in the industry to help. He assembled a group of about 30 Indian restaurants from around the world to raise money for COVID-19 relief in India through an effort called 1 Billion Breaths.
Already, 1 Billion Breaths has pulled together individuals from across the continents. There are several New York restaurants involved, including Baar Baar, Amma, and Proper Indian. Elsewhere, participants include Badmaash in LA, Besharam in San Francisco, Superkhana International in Chicago, Chai Pani in the Atlanta area, and Ghee Indian Kitchen in Miami. Beyond the states, restaurants from Canada, Peru, and England have also joined, including London heavyweight Gymkhana. The restaurants will prepare special meals — for some, dishes that remind them of family — and from Sunday, May 23, to Sunday, May 30, proceeds from the sales of those meals will go to Oxygen For India, a nonprofit that distributes oxygen canisters across the subcontinent.
Despite the mounting momentum for the fundraiser, the Indian government hasn’t made it easy. Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime amended a law that restricts foreign aid from helping the country’s citizens. The law mandates that all foreign charities must get affidavits and notary stamps and then open bank accounts with the government-owned State Bank of India. The government claims the law brings about transparency so donations aren’t mishandled. Critics point out that the law has hindered other relief efforts and prevented life-saving oxygen concentrators from reaching those sick with COVID-19.
Meanwhile, a number of organizations have popped up claiming to provide COVID-19 aid, and folks question if the money will make it to those in need. Some Americans are already skeptical about sending aid overseas: “You don’t want to blindly write a check to India,” New York restaurant owner Roni Mazumdar (Dhamaka, Adda Indian Canteen, Rahi, and the Masalawala) says. By carefully vetting charities, Ratnam and 1 Billion Breaths want to make it simpler so Americans can donate with peace of mind.
The group of participating restaurants represents a diverse mix of cuisines from around the world. In Chicago, Superkhana International, known for its butter chicken calzone, will also hold a separate fundraiser Sunday, May 23, when two cooks — Thommy Padanilam and Sahil Singh — hold a pop-up. They’ll serve pothichoru, a dish from Kerala wrapped in banana leaf. It can be filled with rice, curry, and different meats and vegetables. It’s both customizable and portable, making it ideal for takeaway. “I’ve made it for my parents, and they gave it their approval, which is very hard to come by,” Padanilam says.
Padanilam also runs a condiment company, Thommy’s Toddy Shop, where he sells achar and other items. He will be dedicating all proceeds from sales through May to Mutual Aid India.
As far as the larger international effort goes, Superkhana, inspired by its signature dish, is rolling out a butter chicken potpie carryout meal for two for $68, which is the price of two oxygen canister refills. Superkhana co-chef and co-owner Yoshi Yamada says he and co-owner Zeeshan Shah felt compelled to help.
Yamada says it’s been “brutal and painful” for those with family members and friends in India. But the people with those direct connections shouldn’t be the only ones shouldering the burden.
“It’s not just about directly knowing someone in India or being culturally connected or in debt to India; it’s also very much about being aware that your friends and colleagues who have those direct connections to India have likely been touched by loss,” Yamada says. “It’s that huge and that devastating.”
The pandemic has forced restaurants to find new and more meaningful ways to serve their communities. Some began cooking meals for front-line workers, while others have distributed meals to those in need. It’s more complicated for the Indian community in America with the worry of multiple communities and several oceans separating them.
Mazumdar, who hails from Kolkata, lost a friend in India to COVID-19. While he mourns, he’s using 1 Billion Breaths as a way to prevent others from experiencing a similar tragedy.
“Restaurants always stood as vital parts of the social fabric of their neighborhoods,” Mazumdar says. “I believe they’re not just a place to go for food or just to conduct a transaction.”
Here’s a list of participating restaurants:
- Adda (New York)
- Amma (New York)
- Baar Baar (New York)
- Badmaash (Los Angeles)
- Besharam (San Francisco)
- Bhai’s Indian Canteen (Toronto)
- Bhuna (Portland, Oregon)
- The Bombay Frankie Company (Los Angeles)
- Chai Pani (Atlanta area)
- Coconut Lagoon (Ottawa)
- Coterie (Charleston, South Carolina)
- Curryish (Toronto)
- Dhaasu Cocina (Lima, Peru)
- East India Company (Ottawa)
- Ghee Indian Kitchen (Miami)
- Gupshup (New York)
- Haldi (Toronto)
- The Host (Toronto)
- Inday (New York)
- JKS Restaurants, owners of Gymkhana (London)
- Maa’s Indian Kitchen (Long Island, New York)
- Mantra (Toronto)
- My Shanti (Vancouver)
- The Onion Tree (New York)
- Paisley (New York)
- Proper Indian (New York)
- Rahi (New York)
- Superkhana International (Chicago)
- Taj indian Cuisine (Ottawa)
- Vij’s (Vancouver)
- One Billion Breaths [Official site]
- One Billion Breaths [Instagram]
- For India’s Medical Workers, Danger and ‘Heartbreaking Decisions’ [New York Times]
- India Coronavirus Map and Case Count [New York Times]
- India COVID: How law stops NGOs distributing essential aid [BBC]