At 4 in the afternoon, in a small room taken up by flour dust, balls of finely kneaded dough are weighed on a scale. They’re wrapped in folds of soft cloth before being stretched and flattened. A wooden stamp is used to mark a pattern of concentric dots on each before they’re tossed into the fire pit. The flour, water, salt, baking soda and yeast that go into this preparation are all from India. The tandoorthat the bread is baked in has been assembled in Bhogal in south Delhi. But the bread that finally emerges from this operation bears a foreign flavour. It is the traditional Afghani roti.
Ainuddin and Mohammad Sarwar, two friends from Afghanistan’s war-torn Takhar province, set up the Afghan nanwaee (bread shop) seven months ago on Bhogal’s congested Central Market road.
Oven fresh: (clockwise from top) Sarwar with a customer; the old bakery in Lajpat Nagar; Afghani roti; Mullah Jan; and dough ready for the oven. Photos: Jocelyn Baun
Ainuddin, who is known here as Mullah Jan, is only 26. He looks far older, sitting on a table covered with a carpet from back home, counting change. By 6 in the evening, he is expertly wrapping batches of roti for the steady stream of customers—Afghans, a few Indians and expatriates—who come by to pick them up at Rs10 apiece.
“We usually buy our bread and don’t bake at home,” explains Mullah Jan. He learnt Hindi from the movies and speaks it well as we converse. The Afghans who stop by talk to him about the weather or their children. They speak in Dari, the variety of Persian spoken in Afghanistan. They rarely mention how much bread they want. Mullah Jan intuitively packs it—one, two or even four—in sheets of newspaper. He knows the families well. Most come by three times a day to buy bread that is baked to coincide with meal times. The bakery sells around 600 rotis each day.
The May data of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) puts the number of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in India upwards of 11,000, making them the largest community of official refugees in India. Unofficial figures are higher. And almost all these Afghans are settled in Delhi, split between Lajpat Nagar, and more recently, neighbouring Bhogal.
They come to escape the violence plaguing their country, but medical tourism is a growing reason as well. Syed Ghulam, who stops by to say hello to Mullah Jan and Sarwar, introduces himself as a medical tourist guide and translator. “I help the Afghans with hospital formalities,” he says, fishing for his visiting card. Sarwar breaks in on hearing this: “We Afghans were never as sick before. It is only now…because the Americans have planted bombs in our land.”
Most of the 300-odd families settled in Bhogal have disposable wealth and brokers say real estate prices have gone up because of the Afghan community. Mullah Jan and Sarwar have their own reasons to be here. They would like to get married. Sarwar says poverty and drought has raised the bride price, known as walwar, to exorbitant levels in Afghanistan. According to tradition, prospective grooms have to pay the bride’s family in order to wed. This has risen to as much as $10,000 (around Rs4.7 lakh) these days. However, Afghani custom calls for a senior family member to make the proposal. The two don’t have any family here. “We will make proposals for each other,” says Mullah Jan, smiling, suddenly shy.
He has known Sarwar since they were boys. They left Afghanistan at the age of 15, when they were pulled out of school by members of the Taliban. The two travelled through Iran and Pakistan. They landed in India last year. Here in his little flat adjoining a mosque in Bhogal, Mullah Jan feels at home.
Mullah Jan comes from a family of nanwais or bread-makers so setting up a bakery in Delhi was the sensible thing to do when they landed here. Afghans in the neighbourhood were keen on this too. They had to go all the way to Old Delhi for the quality of roti they were accustomed to. Afghani bread is also available in the areas of Nizamuddin and Lajpat Nagar but since it is bought thrice daily, even a 15-minute commute is cumbersome.
Manjit Singh Modi, the Sikh owner of Modi Pastry shop opposite the street, says that in winters, when more Afghans descend on the city, the queues at the bakery stretch right up to his shop. He personally likes the rogani bread the most—a butter-infused edition made only in the mornings.
When asked about their loyalty to their bread, the Afghans refer to the “other” bakery. The only other thriving Afghan bakery is in the main market of Lajpat Nagar-II, where it has existed at various venues for the last 15 years. There, the bread is baked in a wood-fuelled oven. Around 1,000 are sold every day for Rs8 each. According to what Mullah Jan has heard, at least 20 such bakeries dotted the city in the 1980s. Then, large batches of refugees moved to the US and Canada, and the bakeries shut down.
Apart from these two, there’s the Kabul Restaurant in Bhogal (two shops down from the bakery), which is also less than a year old. Lajpat Nagar has two more eateries, in addition to an Afghan provision store. The Afghan restaurants are known for their korma pulao—a flavour-rich rice preparation with generous helpings of mutton slivers and raisins.
As the bakery gets ready to shut at around 10 in the night, Mullah Jan pours out a last cup of Afghani chai. It is best had with cold bread, he says, as he puts a dollop of white butter on one piece. The business isn’t very profitable yet and his parents send him money occasionally. He calls home every day but doesn’t miss Afghanistan as much, he says. He has everything he grew up with here: Bollywood movies, Shah Rukh Khan posters. The local cable service provider even broadcasts Afghani television. And then there’s the food, he says, gesturing to Kabul Restaurant. “Things might look different but everything sounds and smells so familiar. What is there to miss?” he says.
He stops talking as he tears a piece of bread and brings it to his mouth. The taste of memory is warm on the tongue.