The food that is sold by homeless migrants in the national Capital for their fellow migrants, in search for a taste of home
It’s 9pm. The cart is barely visible in the dark. But the stack of lukewarm puris sits on it like a beacon, illuminated by the gas lamp. The pale glow of the light is reflected off a blue plastic mug, half-filled with mango pickle. Two large vessels, each covered with a thali, are in the shadows. One has aloo subzi; the other is filled with rice.
This little mobile establishment, rather inviting to the hungry, is one of a dozen similar food carts lining Tagore Road, opposite the Ajmeri Gate exit of New Delhi Railway Station, close to the sleek Airport Metro Express building.
These thelas, or carts, are run by men who come from the impoverished regions of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Their daily patrons are fellow migrants from the same states who make a living by pulling rickshaws or hauling loads in the nearby Chawri Bazar, Daryaganj and Mori Gate. Most of them sleep on pavements. Their meagre earnings go into supporting their families back in the villages and buying meals from these carts. A plate of subzi and five puris is priced at 15 rupees here.
Priced at 20 rupees, the most expensive item here is the fish curry. We had it with rice. It was spicy and delicious. You have to come here to partake the kind of food that our city’s thousands of homeless rickshaw pullers and labourers eat daily.
“Machhi (fish) is the main dish for our customers, who are mostly Bihari and Bengali labourers,” says Anil Kumar Mishra, a cart owner who himself is one such migrant from Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. Explaining the steps that go into the making of the fastest-moving item (it’s already over by now), he says, “We get rohu (a river fish) every morning from Azadpur (vegetable market). It is washed with clean water, which we purchase from a tube well operator in Kamla Market. The big jar of water comes for 20 rupees, but we spend 20 rupees more to transport it here on a rickshaw. Then we make a mixture of haldi, besan and salt and coat the fish with it, which we fry in refined Ruchi Gold.” Raw mustard paste and tomato go into the gravy.
It is a few minutes past 10. Two men walk past, one of them carrying a heavy suitcase, impervious to the tangy food smells. Now only a few carts have customers — they all are eating quietly. One lungi-clad man dines sitting on his rickshaw, his back to the neon sign above the railway station building that proclaims its name in English, Hindi and Urdu. A native of Purnea district in Bihar, he says, “The food here is similar to the way my wife makes it in the village. But it’s not masaledar (spicy) enough here.”
This bunch of food stalls catering to the homeless but employed migrants is not the only such cluster in the city. They are spread out in various localities, wherever such men live and work.
Across the road, a boy is peeing under a street lamp. A group of porters huddle close by, having tea (the porters say they have a dedicated canteen in the railway station). The Airport Express Metro station dazzles with its white fluorescent lights and advertisement banners.
Done with his business, the afforementioned boy strolls over to Mr Mishra’s cart. “Muhammed Shoufil is my new helper,” says the thela walla.
A cart could be manned by three people: the owner, the kaarigar who helps with the cooking, and the “chhota labour” or helper, usually an underpaid adolescent who does the dishes, peels the vegetables and handles other odd jobs.
The afternoon hours — from 12-2 — are the busiest. That’s the time when trains arrive from Bihar. “Every day, they bring the locals,” says Mr Mishra, explaining that the thela vendors use the term “local” to describe the travellers from Bihar, West Bengal and Jharkhand. “They are brought by thekedars (contractors) to work as farmhands in Punjab,” he says. “Before taking a connecting train to Ludhiana or Jalandhar, they eat at our stalls. The thekedars bring the labourers here because they know it’s cheap and familiar food for them.”
Pointing at the nearby GB Road, the city’s red light area, he says, “Our story is the same as of those prostitutes. Gaali khao aur kaam karo (swallow the insults and keep working.)”
It’s almost 11pm. Calling it a day, Mr Mishra says, “These pans and plates will go down under the thela and I will make my bed on top. Tomorrow, as always, I will wake up at 5am and head to the railway station for latrine. There will be a long queue and it will take about an hour. Add half an hour more if I decide to take a bath. Then I’ll come back to cook the fish, the dal, the subzi and the parathas.”