When they are not busy with their catering service, they can be spotted at the Dastkar Mela.
As I walked through Dastkar, packed with people checking out stalls selling traditional arts and crafts, essential oils, plant seeds, clothes and food, there was a distinct crowd that was drawn to the whiff of spices that came from the stall of Ilham.
'Ilham', which means 'positive' in the Dari language, is a catering initiative that was born after hours of talks between UNHCR, ACCESS Development Services, an organization that builds livelihoods and the Afghan women enlisted with them. Behind this counter were women clad in salwar-kameez and head scarves, rapidly chatting amongst themselves while cooking and taking orders at the same time. There was a method to this I was yet to discover.
These women are refugees who came to India at different points of time. Widowed and war torn, with hope of a better life for themselves and their kids, they came here to seek asylum and a dignified future. The influx of Afghan refugees to India started in 1979 when the Soviet invaded Kabul and continued through the civil rebellion against the Taliban regime. At present, there are nearly 11000 Afghan refugees registered with the UNHCR living in pockets of Delhi.
With smiling faces, they welcomed me with a cup of Afghan tea and fresh from the oven Afghan Kulchas.
“Hello”, greeted Qadria, a middle aged woman in her 50s, with a shy and kind smile.
Qadria was the only one who could speak Hindi. As I started talking to her, I realized her Hindi was flawless with no grammatical errors.
“Where did you learn Hindi?”
“Bollywood,” she said with a laugh.
That can’t be serious! But she was. Qadria is a big Bollywood fan. So much so that she taught herself Hindi to understand the movies better.
“Like Sunday is a holiday for you in India, Friday is a holiday in Afghanistan. I watched a movie every Friday and bought a Hindi dictionary to teach myself. I wanted to understand the dialogues better.”
The Ilham Stall at Dastkar
Even if the other women couldn’t understand Hindi, they joined the club at this point. They were all huge Bollywood fans and missing a Bollywood conversation was a sin.
“Who’s your favourite Bollywood actor?”
“Salman Khan,” giggled Farhat. Her 7-year-old son, Zian, who’s a huge SRK fan, came around at this point and winked at me like a perfect Bollywood hero act. It was a Khan vs Khan war right here. He even danced to a song before he left.
Naseema, who was busy baking cakes, was easily distracted by Bollywood and giggled her way through the conversation.
Farhat handling the deals
“So, why did you decide to cook?” I asked Qadria.
“I was a high school teacher. I did my Teachers Training Course. I thought I’ll get a teaching job in India but had to settle for cooking.”
“How do you manage so many orders?”
“Back in Afghanistan, we had a lot of parties at home where many people gathered. I cooked for many people then. That’s how I learned to cook for a crowd.”
On second thoughts, women have been cooking in their kitchen for generations but there’s been no money attributed to this.
“How many orders do you get in a month?”
“In the beginning we got quite a few orders. We even went to the Taj Hotel and cooked for 250 people and were greatly lauded. We delivered food to the US embassy too. But in the last one month, we haven’t got any orders.”
“Do you miss anything about Afghanistan?”
“After coming to India, I saw so many vegetables. I have never seen so many vegetables in my whole life. But there’s one called Gandana (or the Afghan leek), that I like so much but can’t find here. However, once I did see it in the INA market, but it was very expensive, around 200 rupees for a small bunch that I didn’t buy it.”
I promised to let her know if I found gandana for a reasonable price anywhere in Delhi.
Qadria’s favourite Indian dishes are dosas and momos. She goes to Central Market often and treats herself to these. They have a similar preparation to momos in Afghan Cuisine but according to her, nothing beats the spicy sauce they are served with here. Her eyes light up at the thought.
Chapali Kebabs being prepared. Photo source: Pinterest
“What about your family? Who do you stay with?”
“I have two sons and two daughters. My older son is 19. He’s registered with an open school at the moment. When he studied in Afghanistan, he was taught the course in German. He did not know English at all when we came to India. In six months, he’s learnt the language and started working in a call center. But now because of issues with his visa, he’s been asked to leave the job. He’s a talented, hard working and smart boy but we have been burdened by circumstances. My other children are sitting at home and I feel quite helpless. My eldest son wanted to be an engineer but I cannot do anything about it. I was a teacher and it saddens me to see my kids suffer. I feel sad.”
With problems of not getting a visa extension, despite UNHCR intervention, they face problems in renting out houses, opening bank accounts, receiving quality education and getting jobs.
At this time, people flooded the stall. Kabuli Pulao, Chapali Kebabs, Khajurs (Afghani donuts) and Kulchas (Afghani biscuits that have a sweet gingery taste) were a hot favourite of the crowd.
The famous Kabuli Pulao that got over in no time. Photo source: Kasmirobserver.com
I decided to chill with Zian (Farhat’s son). He, on the other hand, was busy making Bajre Ki Roti. It was a pleasure watching him cook. The stall next to Ilham was a Rajasthani food stall and Zian made the cook give him a lesson in roti making. He showed off his skills, ate half the roti and offered the other half. Zian knows Hindi and sings Hindi songs every two minutes. He is a crowd charmer and makes friends with almost everyone he spots.
Amidst the flurry of orders, I spotted Naseema whipping up cake batter and queueing them up for the oven. I sat next to her and participated in the process. She often spoke in Dari to me that I miserably and obviously failed to understand.
When Qadria finally joined us, I asked her why Naseema was baking incessantly.
“Today is the last day of Dastkar”, she replied.
“They will take away the oven today. So she’s baking cakes for her kids back home and working harder than everybody else to take this extra time out.”
Naseema is busy whipping up batters. She's too shy to look up
Initiatives like Dastkar help them to earn. They participated in Dastkar last year too and look forward to the next one from 15th to 26th December. Cooking gives them the therapy they need to tuck their past away.
Currently their delivery service has stopped because they don’t have the capital to invest. They have pick up points for their food though - one near Sai Mandir, Khirki Extension and the other near Jain Temple, Bhogal. If you want to get a taste of the food prepared by Ilham, you have to write in to firstname.lastname@example.org which I highly recommend.
Like a helpless lump of cornflour that gets turned into a tortilla under perfect heat, ACCESS helped in providing them with an identity, work that keeps them closer to ‘home’.
“Where do you see your future?” I asked Qadria.
“Future”, she smiled, “is best kept in the future.” No one could have put it more simply.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Priyanjana Roy Das
Photographs by Priyanjana Roy Das