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03.05.2018

A mammoth thermos is brought in. Next, a set of glass cups, one for each person. A box of chocolates is laid out. A fresh Afghan cake is summoned.

The deep maroon carpet on which we sit exudes a warmth like that of its hosts - a warmth that has nothing to do with Delhi’s April weather. "This is our culture,” says M., aged 23. “It's nothing in comparison to how we would have received you back in Afghanistan." This isn’t that. It is only a semblance of Afghanistan, in a house located in the narrow, dusty lanes of south Delhi’s Khirkee village.

This city has been home to M.’s family – which includes a younger sister and their mother – for four years now. The cake we are eating was made by the family’s newest member: M.’s fiancé, whom I’ll call B. Here on the terrace of this flat that they recently rented together to save costs, B. also runs his kitchen-plus-bakery.

Both M. and B. are in the business of food. In late 2017, M. and her mother set up a stall at a food festival at the nearby Khoj Studio, an artistes’ association (where we also met Angela, from Cameroon). B’s was the dessert stall alongside. The two women were dishing out Afghan delicacies – ay khanum, bolani, shor nakhod, and ashak – that they had cooked with a twist to suit Indian tastes. “We made it a little spicy and had also offered non-meat variants,” says M. It did so well that they ran out of food.

A special place-holder was ashak, an Afghan version of dumplings with lentils and gandana, a leek, that M.’s mother tells us, “is grown in every kitchen-garden of Afghanistan.” Here, like many other Afghan cooks, they replaced it with spring onion. “You might occasionally get gandana here in Delhi when Afghani Sikhs bring small quantities to sell it in Afghan neighbourhoods,” M. explains. “But it is very steeply priced and runs out with the blink of an eye.”

In her mind’s eye, M.’s mother is seeing Logar, a province about two hours’ drive from Kabul. “We had pumpkins this big,” she says, stretching her arms as wide as they’ll go. “Two adults would be needed to carry one pumpkin that would settle four meals for us.” Her eyes widen as she remembers a fairy-tale detail. “As a child, I would hide under the huge pumpkin leaves while playing hide-and-seek.” M., thoughts hijacked by the heat, says it feels like doomsday is on its way in Delhi: “Lagta hai qayamat aaney wali hai.” Her mother, thoughts still plying between Logar and Kabul, says that back home the very hottest day is as cool as the lowest setting on an air-conditioner in a Delhi home.

***

By now, B. has returned, panting and sweating. His baking-room upstairs, we’re told, feels like a furnace when the oven is on. B. gave up the tiny neighbourhood bakery that he had leased, unable to make the rent, so he now supplies to its current leaseholder from this kitchen. “Afghani sponge-cake, roht (a sweetened bread for breakfast), corn-cookies, walnut cookies, baklava, salted cookies and namkeen,” he says of his wares. We should say here, from our experience at the Khoj festival, that B makes the best cream rolls we’ve ever tasted.

Six-and-a-half-feet tall himself, in sleeveless t-shirt and track pants, B. seems more like an athlete than a baker. “I used to work for the Kabul branch of a global security company,” he says. His five-foot oven up on the terrace is ready for its next cake, but this evening, he is doubling up as a carpenter and an electrician, trying to fix up an exhaust-fan in this bakery. (It doesn’t work: he’ll have to call in a professional the following morning.)

The weather outside turns suddenly windy, and B. tells his fiancée, smiling: "Qayamat seems to have been delayed." It’s been less than two years since he came to India, but B. is quite fluent in Hindustani, even demonstrating with a quote from Sholay: “Hum angrezon kay zamaney kay jailor hain”. M. repeats it and they laugh at their own Dari-laden accents. “I also have a selfie with Anil Kapoor from when he visited a mall in Noida,” B. says. The names of Salman, Sanjay Dutt, Amitabh Bachchan fall rapidly into his conversation, but his smile and chatter grow faint on queries about life back home. The fragility of their country represents difficult memories to everyone.

M.’s family, too, has had an uphill journey. She says her father was the victim of a political assassination 20 years ago. At the time, her mother was pregnant with M’s younger sister, who’s currently the family’s steadiest earning member, with a job at an NGO. (Employment remains elusive for asylum-seekers in Delhi.)

Since they arrived in India in 2014, M.’s mother has put her tailoring skills to use. M. herself has been a crafts-designer at a play school, a receptionist at a corporate office, and a marketeer for Afghan dry fruits. With their catering venture not really having taken off, and her mother recovering from health complications, M. is now considering returning to the crafts business. “A dealer of old furniture had agreed to take me on-board to refurbish furniture on per-unit commission-basis” she says, but her mother has objections. “She would have to go to a dingy warehouse for it,” she says.

“If we had a brother, things would have been better,” M. says, exasperated. “But I’ll be there,” B. chimes in, trying to lighten the mood, but it has, by now, turned somber. It takes the ringing of the doorbell and the arrival of M.’s younger sister, in a salwar-kurta designed by M., to change things.

“I am the papa to all these kids,” the sister says, sitting heavily on the carpet, tired from a two-hour commute. B. opens up his wide smile and starts chattering like a baby as the little sister continues her grumpy senior act. Laughter is this family’s appetizer to dinner.

Getting there: To place orders, call: +91 9821420953, 9873670937.

Akshita Nagpal is a multimedia journalist based in Delhi. Her work has appeared in The Caravan, Scroll, and The Hindu, among others.

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