It’s well past morning tea-time, but at the chai-dukaan run by Burma’s Chin asylum-seekers in west Delhi’s Bodella village, it’s always time for tea and snacks. Every Bodella resident happily offers coordinates through the village’s narrow lanes, steep like they belong in hill country - perhaps the very landscapes of Chin state.
Reality check: the chai-dukaan is not much of a shop, just the one-room-and-veranda abode of a family. Two worlds stand neatly separated here; home and shop, Burma inside and India outside. The divisions are marked by wooden slabs lined with stools against the walls. Shelves are stacked with packed foods; they also divide the lodging space from the store from the room’s latter portion as the family’s lodging space. The food is equally unassuming. There’s pae palata, a deep-fried, heavily layered roll made of all-purpose flourand filled with mashed lentils (the palata is a cousin of the paratha). There is also the last piece of a deep-fried banana and flour dumpling whose name we cannot verify.
35-year-old Rin, resident and one of the store’s three cooks, is busy dodging hurdles and finding treasure with two Indonesians and an American, playing a game on his phone. His youngest sibling, 15-year-old R., fetches our pae palata from a container that is ubiquitous at Delhi’s momo stalls. In this room full of family – their nieces and nephews, brother-in-law, and parents - and neighbours who keep dropping in, R and Rin are the only ones to know Hindustani or English.
Rin gives up the game after a loss and turns to us. Back home, “we would get up and go to the tea shop early morning around five for tea and snacks, where they’d have hot and fresh pae palata.” That tea was a simple concoction of the basics, quite unlike Delhi’s spice-filled version. “There were countless other eatables,” he says. Ei kyar kway, a deep-fried rice-flour cake, he shows us by pulling up a YouTube cooking tutorial. He drifts at the mention of buthi kyaw - gram-flour coated, deep-fried chunks of bottle gourd – and samusas, a version of the Indian samosa “with a thinner crust”. After this ritual, lunch was unheard of.
The last time Rin was in a shop that sold all this was 14 years ago, before he came to India. Like a number of Burma’s ethnic minorities, the Chin people, who are by and large Christians, have faced severe persecution since Burma’s military takeover in 1962. In 2011, the UNHCR counted 7,500 Chin refugees in India and, at least as many seeking asylum. In 2013, a UN partner organisation estimated that 99 per cent of Delhi’s immigrants from Burma were Chins.
Among them was Rin, who first came to Mizoram, that shares a border with Burma marked by the Tiau river. “It was a journey of 24 hours from my home,” he says. “Back then, I had no idea about Delhi.” For a decade, Rin worked in the hills, digging up land for road-construction works. When he came to Delhi in 2014, he worked for a year as housekeeping staff in various Delhi and Gurgaon restaurants.
“But I sustained robbery attempts and bullying while returning from late-night shifts,” he says, “even though I only had a bicycle and little money on me.” That’s when he and his two siblings – brother and sister - began this tea-shop. This afternoon, the brother is out to meet a friend and his sister is away for her all-day sewing classes at a centre by Don Bosco, a humanitarian organisation.
Here on the blue-coloured walls of his home-shop, home is a visible sentiment. We see maps of the historical Chin country of 1822 , posters of Jesuh, or Jesus, and other Christian figures; posters of models wearing traditional Chin-clothing; and a four-feet tall wall-mirror on one of the tabled walls to amplify the visuals. On the shelves, packets of tea and coffee sit alongside packets of spices resembling the Indian garam masala in form, and other sundries. There is also a paan-counter, mostly the preserve of Rin’s elderly mother. Back home, they grew chana, tomatoes, peas and almonds - but these, of course, are nowhere to be found on the shelves.
Rin’s make-believe Burma also gives a taste of home to Rohingyas like Hashim, his neighbour in Bodella, whose native Rakhine state also borders Chin state back in Burma. Himself a former tea-stall owner in the neighbourhood, the middle-aged Hashim is now a regular at Rin’s tea-shop. He takes an instant coffee “that is so strong it makes sleep go away,” he says, so that he can resume his day as an e-rickshaw driver.
His is among the 30-35 Rohingya families living in Bodella, Hashim says (most other immigrant Rohingyas live in south Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar area). He gives Rin’s food a miss - it’s alien to his region. He recalls Rohingya snacks that serve the same function as the pae palata for the Chin: “dophira and fakkon pira for winters and for summers, respectively.” Similarly distinct are their two languages.
Yet both can chat in their common broken Burmese. For Rin, Burmese was the medium of instruction in school, where he studied till class three. His own Chin language, that is written in the Roman script, had to be learnt secretly in churches and in private tuition homes. Hashim counts on his hands and shares with pride: “I know five languages – Rohingya, Burmese, Bangla, Hindi, and Mok (spoken in Burma’s Shan state and in small parts of Thailand, Laos, and China).” In his functional Hindustani, he tells us these were all part of the baggage he picked up on his travels seeking asylum.
Before he leaves for work, Hashim talks wistfully of how much he liked running a shop like Rin’s; unfortunately, he had to shut shop due to business dipping. Rin feels Rohingyas such as Hashim have it easier blending in Delhi. “They appear like Indians, while we look like Nepali people,” he says.
The Chin’s food, like their appearance, sometimes brings scorn from unfamiliar locals. “Most Indians hate the smell of ngapi and ask us not to make it,” he laughs. Ngapi is a pungent-smelling paste-form condiment of fermented fish, prawn or shrimp with salt that is a wildly popular across Burma. It is also available for sale in Rin’s shop.
He’s modified his own eating and uses the ngapi sparely in his meals. For now, he’s more concerned about keeping the price of his pae palata steady: the oil he fries them in has grown costlier by 15 rupees a litre. Already, his menu has whittled down, bereft of the soup and noodle dishes he once offered. “Now there are hardly any customers, as most Chins have migrated to countries like America, Canada and Australia.” He will go too, “to Burma, if and ever it is possible to go back. We do not know about tomorrows.”
Getting there: Rin’s shop is in Bodella village, Vikaspuri. Call 8826053199 to learn more.
Accessibility: Two stairs to the ground-floor entrance, no ramp.
Akshita Nagpal is an independent multimedia-journalist based in New Delhi.
Wake up to daily updates on what to eat/shop/do in your city