Mumbai: The golden Honda pulled over to the kerb alongside the restaurant on a quiet afternoon last week. A window rolled down. A 100-rupee note popped out, courtesy of a woman in a headscarf who would identify herself only as Mrs. Abbas. Then, as quietly as it came, the car sped away.
Inside the Mahim Darbar restaurant, seven men sprang to their feet: gaunt, beleaguered men with pocked faces. This was the moment they had been waiting for. Abbas had, in a quintessentially Mumbai way, bought them lunch.
The world is filled with eating houses of every kind, from hamburger joints to three-star restaurants. There are places you drive through and places where you sit down. But the world may be unfamiliar with a Mumbai variation on the theme: the hunger cafe.
Meal ticket: Men wait outside one of the many charity restaurants known as Wardi hotels in Mahim in Mumbai. (Photo: Michael Rubenstein/HT)
It takes a city like Mumbai, frenetic, transactional and compassionate, to erect eateries for the malnourished. They are not soup kitchens, for denizens of this city have little time to serve other people food. In a city that never stops selling stocks and shooting movies, they prefer drive-by benevolence.
The hunger cafes have stood for decades on a stretch of road in the Mahim neighbourhood. Mumbai's broken, drifting men squat in neat rows in front of each establishment, waiting patiently. Vats full of food simmer behind the doors. What separates them from the food is the per plates cost of 25 cents (Rs10.7)—a gulf harder to bridge than one might assume. But every so often, a car pulls up and makes a donation, and the men dine.
The owners describe their mission as charity, but their establishments are profit-making, if only meagrely so. Only, in India, perhaps, where no business niche long goes unexploited, would a group of restaurateurs rely for their livelihoods on the starving.
In the cafes, poverty is distilled to its essence. The true burden, more than the lack of money, may be the vulnerability to other people, the dependence on their whims.
If, as a rush-hour commuter passes, her eye happens to catch your hungry gaze, you will eat. If she is on the phone or toggling radio stations, you may not. Life on the lower rungs can be that simple.
To parade the hungry in this way can seem cruel. But it may not be unwise. Elsewhere in the world, charities might raise money in schools and in houses of worship and serve food free in the quiet of a shelter. At the very least, the men might be allowed to sit inside the restaurant, not on the edge of the sidewalk.
But in India, with its feudal vestiges of class and caste, that may not work. Among the swelling middle class, anonymous, chequebook-style charity has yet to catch on. Indians have shown scant enthusiasm for giving to abstract causes. Indian charity is feudal charity: making donations to those below you in your household chain of command. The most common charity remains paying for your driver's $200 surgery or for the tuition of your maid's children. It is the charity of the layered feudal manor. It depends on the performance of need by the servant and on the master's sense of paternalistic obligation.
To bring these men indoors with the notion of safeguarding their dignity would risk their starvation, in the calculation of the restaurateurs. They believe the men must be exhibited—sunken and sad-eyed. They must gaze at passers-by with that obedient, mournful, reverential stare that well-born Indians have learnt to expect. They must be advertisements for their own cause.
"If they sit inside, that would be a misconception for the people who are giving money —that those people are eating," said Shaib Ansari, the 23-year-old proprietor of the Mahim Darbar restaurant, opened by his uncle more than four decades ago. “We don't let anyone sit inside until someone pays for them to eat.”
But now the Honda had come, and it was time for the men to pass from outside to inside, from the ground to the table, from desire to fulfilment.
The waiter was a grown man less than 4ft tall and as skeletal as his customers. He began preparing meals for the men, filling orange plates with rice and pouring on a yellow curried gruel. It was a Muslim establishment, serving carnivorous fare. But in deference to Hindu patrons, the gruel came in a vegetarian version, too.
The restaurant sees some men (and it sees only men) once. These are the ones who tumble into hunger and just as quickly pull themselves out. Others come for a few months, men who have lost their jobs in the volatile labour market that is replacing the old job-for-life socialist ways. Then there are the regulars. In this restaurant, it is no privilege being a regular. It is a category populated mainly by the sick and the unstable—or, as the owner puts it, the “mentally retired.”
Raju Subachan, 30, belongs to the second category, the unemployed. He came two months ago from Allahabad, in the North. He found work as a waiter with a catering company; he ferried around food, never imagining that he would go hungry one day. But Mumbai can be callous. Catering firms fire employees at whim, and Subachan soon found himself adrift.
He made clear, sitting in the doorway, that he was not a free-food junkie. During a month of joblessness, he had come only three or four times. On this day, he had already eaten once, at noon, and was waiting for a second meal, which he anticipated would keep him from feeling empty until morning. And then the golden Honda arrived and brought him to his feet.
He sat alone, plunging his fingers into the yellow mush on his plate. He ate quietly and quickly. When you eat like this, with your dependence exhibited to the world, a meal no longer feels like something to linger over.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES