3.8 Free Form
Words by Srishti Sareen
A story about lunch breaks, escapes and belonging.
Every afternoon, I find myself in the humble dining room of an unpretentious Moghul restaurant in the heart of Old Delhi. It is the only part of the day I look forward to.
Today is a bright day on the cusp of spring. The rustic, narrow street that my table overlooks is flooding with people rushing to their destinations. The traffic is howling in all directions, but the frenzy has found its rhythm with the echo of the Azan from the mosque nearby.
I look at my best friend who is sitting across the table from me while I sip on unnervingly sweet masala chai from a tiny clay cup. I met Riya in college, and now we work for the same company. I love having her around. She is lively and genuine and can have conversations with anyone, anywhere.
Illustration by Shilpa Sivaraman
“Why don’t you quit already?” she said casually while biting into the golden brown, potato stuffed, flaky, crisp samosa. I look at her as if she had lost her mind. “What I do right now would define what my life would be in the future,” anger crept into my voice. “Forget about the future, are you happy right now?” she snapped back. I let out a deep sigh, swirled the last bite of my samosa in the mint chutney, and thought about the hundred-page research paper on alternate investments that was sitting on my desk. I would rather spend my day in this run-down establishment that was a disguised connoisseur of rich and complex recipes. These recipes were straight out of the Mughlai royal kitchens, laden with saffron and dry fruits, where a beautiful rampage of color and fragrance always brewed. In this chaos, there was something grounding. Maybe in the age-old earthen pots, passed down from one generation to the next, or the slow cooked meat stews that kept cooks up all night. I sensed something real in this extravagance.
I could see Riya staring at me. I looked up to her glossy, kohl-black hair, and dainty nose as she said “Exactly”. Did she just read my mind?
While I was walking out of the little but crowded nook, a familiar face caught my eye. He looked like someone who would catch the attention of every passerby with his blue eyes, rough stubble, and long wavy black hair. We exchanged glances, and there was something about him that told me he was here for more than the creamy cuisine that the restaurant was famous for.
The next afternoon, left to my thoughts by the restaurant’s deafening decibels and Riya’s blabber about her boyfriend moving to New York, I spotted him again. He was sipping on his tea with a determination I had never seen before. He looked lonely but content. I wondered how he got there. I started contemplating my own life and whether I, too, would ever look (feel) as content as he did.
The next day, I found myself walking up to him. He wasn’t oblivious to the people around him. I know this because when I walked over, he asked me if I wanted to sit, as if we were long lost best friends. Was he used to strangers walking up to him? “What is your story?”, I went straight for the chase. He smiled. This person looked like he had been through enough in life to see through people like me. He introduced himself as Arman and offered a cup of tea.
As I sat there patiently waiting for him to get started, I noticed long, black bruises on his arms. Was he in the army? I thought to myself. Those bruises looked old. “The year 2010,” he said. “Huh?” I blurted staring at his rough stubble now. “The bruises. I saw you look at them. There was nothing I could do about it. My mother and brother were all I had.” I could not guess what he would say next but I was suddenly not looking forward to it. “They were killed when a crowd was tear-gassed at a protest on the outskirts of Srinagar. I was one of the few survivors but all I have left are these scars. A reminder of my loss,” his voice trailed off. I could not bring myself to look him in the eye, and instead moved a little in my chair and took another sip of the comforting cardamom-spiced chai.
He could not care less about my reaction and continued with a subtle but genuine smile, “but I am here now, and I love it. I took whatever little money we had left and moved to Delhi to open this place.” I was taken aback. I had seen him around every day, but the thought of him being the owner never occurred to me. “This is my home now. I have found peace in serving my customers. My guests are my family. You are my family now.” Arman said with a familiar glisten and content in his eyes that had pulled me into this conversation in the first place. I felt my lips quiver as I pressed them hard against each other. Tears welled up in my eyes and my throat felt heavier.
That day, for lunch we had Navratan Korma - a delicious preparation of nine different vegetables coated in a sweet cashew-and-cream sauce, Badam Pasanda Curry - a dish of lamb and sweet almonds, and finally, Murgh Musallam - a slow cooked whole chicken stuffed with minced meat with its ombre hue from a slow marinade.
Every afternoon we ate, and we escaped, while faint Sufi songs about lost love and cups of wine filled the air.