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On any given day on Mandi House’s Tansen Marg, the ‘Chinese Vans’ used to add to all the drama in this theatre hub, with tantalising smells and fire-coloured food. You had only to utter these words to be promptly directed to this adda, where, in place of vans, stood two near-identical tin shops - the kind that are an ubiquitous presence around sarkari offices in Lutyens Delhi - named Turant (not Torrent) and Guruji.

But gone, for now, are the noodles somersaulting over woks, the scraping of pans being cleaned and onions being chopped, and the garlicky vapours of summer and winter alike. For over a fortnight, Turant & Guruji have remained shut as they try to get their food licenses renewed from the New Delhi Municipal Corporation. The tightening of controls over food safety have affected them as never before, Bir Bahadur, manager at Turant, tells us. “The license renewal takes about a month but the shop would always stay operational during this time, unlike this year,” he says.

Their absence has thrown a pall over the area. Muskaan Singh, a student at the nearby College of Art, swears by the chilly-potato at Turant. “I’ve been absent from the area because of college fests,” she tells us, and came back to a nasty surprise when she found them gone. Her junior, Aman, practicing live portraits of people eating at BM Foods on nearby Safdar Hashmi Marg, declares his loyalty to the momos at Guruji. Arguments over taste are traded between the two.

Turant is the older presence: Bir Bahadur says it started up in 1990. He also unclouds the mystery of why it is known as the ‘Chinese van’. “I started this shop out of a Tata 460, driving it to this spot each day,” he explains. The mini-truck came to be known as the van and the name stuck. “When my vehicle became too old to be allowed to ply around 8-10 years ago, the NDMC gave this tin-shop.”

Meanwhile Chander, the owner and manager at Guruji claims a 40-year presence in the vicinity. “I’ve been at this spot for four years, but, we’ve been around for 40 years through our old shop in Connaught Place,” he says. When we visited last week, Guruji’s employees, who also live on the roof of this tiny shop, sat drinking chai on the mats that usually have patrons squeezing for space.

The blazing sun had heated up the tin-shop, and the trees overlooking the pavement offered slight comfort. Ram, a migrant cook from Bihar, who remembers the previous license-renewal exercise three years ago, says, “In my four years here, I have never seen such a long suspension of work.” Raju, also from Bihar, hopes for work to resume simply so that he can be paid once more: “Our boss said he could not afford our salaries since there has been no business.”

Twenty steps away, Bahadur and his colleagues are tidying his freshly-painted shop. “The medical examination of our cooks has been done and reports will be submitted soon,” said Bahadur. The shop has also been renovated in keeping with health and other licence concerns. They’re even ready for a second legal twist: “The owner, Mr Raza ul-haq passed away since the last license renewal,” he explains, “and the food safety license needs to be transferred to his wife’s name this time.”

Later in the evening, 32-year-old Akhilesh Shukla from Allahabad sits on the footpath before the vans, rolling a cigarette that he’ll share with his friend, Raju Karke from Almora. “We would get free from work by 7pm and come here for chowmein and to wait on our bus,” says Shukla. The two know each other through work: they’re both drivers in nearby Bengali Market. This evening, the spot of their evening ritual is dim and dull, and they pass the cigarette back and forth to draw in quiet puffs. A chartered bus arrives, managing to disrupt the unusual silence on this road. They board, home-bound: there’s no entertainment to be had in this theatre district for now.

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

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