My first encounter with Anthony Bourdain was almost a decade ago. I didn’t have much of a social life, and while other 16-year-olds were exploring parties, alcohol, and hookah bars, I was quite content with my TV. Even so, there were days when it let me down. On one such day, I was mindlessly flipping through channels, when I noticed a stunning specimen of a man on Travel and Living. Salt and pepper hair, deep baritone, and covered in tattoos — he was exactly the kind of man I would’ve fallen madly in love with, albeit a little older.
I was in the middle of the Romania episode of Bourdain’s iconic ‘No Reservations,’ and I was obviously captivated. The episode itself was rather controversial, and widely considered not the host’s best work, but it was a cultural immersion of a kind I had never experienced before. After all, up until that point, Romania in my head seemed almost mythical — the land of eerie castles and Dracula. The very fact that I was watching Bourdain talk to people, visit local eateries, take the train, made this far-away land real.
That being said, it was perhaps the one instance when Bourdain, much to his disdain, actually felt like a tourist and not a local. His commentary on the first restaurant to went to (‘kitschy homage to imperialism’) had me in splits, and I knew I’d turned into a Bourdain fangirl.
Since then, I’ve watched more episodes than I can count. Jeddah, Santiago, Sardinia...I’ve been on journeys I could never even dream of, thanks to Anthony Bourdain. What I loved was his well-known ability to connect with people on just... a human level. Whether his travelling companion was Zamir, or former-President Barack Obama, he made everyone he interacted with feel at ease. He made every country his home, every culture his own. But what’s remarkable is, he did this with empathy, with respect, and with a kind of understanding that immediately made ‘the Other’ one’s own.
Needless to say, his death hit me in ways I didn’t expect. It was sudden, yes, and the fact that it was suicide made it all the more surreal. After all, he seemed to have it all but succumbed to the demons in his head. And more than a week on, as I struggle to come to terms with this massive loss, I realize what a wonderful teacher he was.
As people, he taught us to be open-minded, to think differently, to understand, and to listen. And in the India of 2018, these lessons couldn’t be more important. I can just picture him ridiculing our ‘beef ban’, making a snarky remark about government propaganda against non-vegetarianism. More importantly, he would be aghast at what we have become. Lynching people for being different, for being minorities, for looking different, on the basis of rumours...it goes against everything the man stood for.
Anthony Bourdain was all about bringing people together. He was all about diversity, be it in food, beliefs, or opinions. And in the India of 2018, we could all do well to remember his wise words: “I don’t have to agree with you to like you or respect you.”
Featured image courtesy of David S. Holloway/CNN.