Between March and May this year, Riddhi Dastidar knocks on the doors of Mazdoor Kitchen—a welfare initiative that feeds Delhi’s labourers and homeless—many times. During these visits, they unravel a story of persistent survival in the face of state failure.
In summer, I think about heat. April is hot, the hottest month in Delhi after May. Depending on where you are, the heat feels different.
You can mark summer by the colours and flowers that march across the city. The shrill red of giant semal in March before they burst into puffs of cotton-silk floating on hot gusts of wind. The violet of jacaranda wilting on a warm pavement in April. At last, the insistent yellow of amaltas in May, in step with the burning heat. In summer, heat is the only thing.
In April this year, 14 people died at an open-air award ceremony in Maharashtra from heat-stroke. Doctors said that their kidneys and brains had shrunk. I imagined a brain in a saucepan, sizzling, shrinking. The real-feel was closer to 40, while the air temperature read 38. Mere air or land surface temperature—what you see on a weather report—is insufficient as a measure now. We need to adopt a heat-index.
Heat is localised—how hazardous it is depends on green cover and built environment. Closely spaced tall buildings with air conditioners whirring inside create urban heat-islands outside. Furnaces in which the mazdoors work, laying bricks under direct sun. Seventy-five per cent of India’s labour force is employed in outdoor (heat-exposed) work.
Between March and May, I made several visits to the Mazdoor Kitchen, a community kitchen that feeds mazdoors (labourers) among others, in a nondescript alleyway in North Delhi’s Malka Ganj. I got a little lost, and the sun was unforgiving. The streets of a crowded urban village, lacking shade, are hotter than the tree-lined university campuses beside them.
In 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit Delhi, numerous civil society initiatives sprang up to fill the gap in basics that had become suddenly hideously visible. Three years later, most have stopped but Mazdoor Kitchen is still going. Every day, around 450 packed meals are prepared here. I was grateful to knock on their doors, and have them unlatched for me.
On Sunday, the black board reads kaale-chane ka pulao (see the recipe here). By now, there is a set menu for each day of the week, always including rice, pulses, and seasonal vegetables. For many, this is the only meal they will get that day.
Wooden doors open into a small aangan (courtyard). In the ground floor of a multistorey building, there are three rooms, each leading into the next. The outside room is where the food is packed for distribution, with pink walls lined by jute bags of pulses and grain. The middle holds a passageway and a narrow kitchen used only for tea.
Blue crates full of hairy potatoes, green snake-gourds, pink onions, rotund pumpkins. A fridge full of tomatoes, garlic, and ginger.
Vegetables are bought in bulk from the nearby Azad market sabji mandi by Mohammad Sarwar, who procures produce, drives the car, and distributes the food. Earlier, he distributed food at five different points including Azad Market, Filmistaan, and Roshanara Road, but now as funding has dried up (they are entirely crowd-funded), they only go to the road outside Nigambodh Ghat.
The end-room has a bed and a wall lined with tall square tin canisters of masalas. Bhekram the caretaker sleeps here at night, safeguarding the food-stocks. The room smells of haldi, dhania, red chilli powder, jeera, aamchur powder. The air is spicy, and I sneeze.
Nandita Narain and her husband Rashid began the initiative in May 2020 when migrant labourers across the country began their long walk home after the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed. Along with the present-day core team of two cooks, a caretaker, and a distributor, they also have people come in to pack the food. Until recently, when ill-health made him stop, Rashid would taste the food that went out and eat lunch at the kitchen every day. He insists that their food adhere to a standard—it must be filling, nutritious, and tasty. And, there must be some variety through the week.
Rashid—a theatre-practitioner and one-time sous chef in Australia— still oversees all the logistics at Mazdoor Kitchen. Nandita is a professor at St Stephens. On my visits, I met Rashid and Nida (the elder of two daughters Nida and Nabila) at the family-home in the Delhi University campus. The front garden spilled over with baby lettuce, green chillies, kale, Nepali spinach, tomatoes, and broccoli alongside workhorse herbs like kari patta and thyme. Black cats (three, at my count) wandered out from behind the shrubs, and jumped up on the table inside where we drank chai.
Rashid was reticent, reluctant to talk about the work. “People wait for us. It’s like ghar ka khana (home-cooked food) so they know that they will have at least one good meal a day. We try to give them a solid, healthy meal which weighs anything between 480-525 grams,” he said.
Nida, who works in gender professionally, and oversees outreach and fundraising for the kitchen, prodded him to talk more about his love for food, and the philosophy behind Mazdoor Kitchen. Nida had grown up in various houses across the DU campus because of her mother’s job, she told me, but they would be packing up and leaving all this behind soon, as Nandita’s retirement draws closer. Her parents would really miss this green space, she fretted.
The fundraising for the kitchen has been dreadfully slow this past year, and its future remains uncertain. Rashid shrugged at the crisis of money. Over the years, many have asked—what if the people they served grew dependent on the kitchen’s food? Of course it’s not a systemic solution, but for as long as they could run the kitchen they would keep doing it, he said. “It’s as simple as that. I’m not trying to do too much. I’m just trying to do what I can with what I have, and do it well. And my team understands that.”
Frankly, it is a small space to cook food for hundreds. Cooking for many is an exercise in endurance. It requires big things. Giant kadhais, spatulas with foot-long handles (the size of my forearm), kilos of rice in jute-bags. For washing utensils, a hose instead of a tap in a sink. A hardiness against incredible heat.
In this weather, standing over a hot flame as tomatoes split apart to make red bubbling paste and haldi melds with sizzling onions could be called a heroic feat. In May, my cell phone overheated and went black, while I merely stood to one side, watching cooks Sagar Thapa and Suraj stir pulao in kadhais the size of baby bath-tubs.
By the time the cooks arrive, Bhekram has already boiled soya nuggets, rice, and kaale chane (black chickpea) in massive pots. The next thing is to add water, salt, haldi, and cook the masala. Mix it up, simmer, and done. Wash up.
I accompanied Sarwar on his rounds of food-distribution. He parked on the side of the road near where a homeless shelter had stood until recently. Off on the side, in the forest scrub leading into the wilderness of the Delhi Ridge, we waited as people emerged in ones and twos and threes. Almost all men, many with their belongings in a backpack, a cloth bundle, or just carrying a plastic packet. They took extras for others who stayed hidden, and dispersed quickly. Some scattered here and there under the shade of a tree or the pavement to eat. Their clothes—their striped shirts, paint-stained trousers—were dusty.
Common beliefs around homelessness tend to assign moral failure to it, with rhetoric considering homeless persons ‘sad, bad or mad’. However, in Indian cities, it is largely the homeless population that makes up ‘unskilled’ or casual labour. The mazdoors.
In Delhi, Harsh Mander and Smita Jacob’s 2010 study on urban homelessness showed that among the homeless, 27 percent are rickshaw pullers and 18 percent are casual labourers. The remainder work as construction workers, handcart pullers, catering workers, ragpickers, and street-vendors like balloon sellers. Only two percent of homeless persons in Delhi do not have any kind of employment.
When it comes to the homeless, the research by Centre for Equity Studies indicates that men are largely migrant labourers who send money back home to their families, women are often forced into it by abandonment, and many others are disabled. And over the last decade, there is an increasing number of people pushed into homelessness by forcible eviction i.e. demolition of their homes, classified as ‘encroachments’ by the government.
The findings from the study—focused on enquiring into homeless deaths on the streets of Delhi— revealed spikes in deaths around extreme temperatures. This was in accordance with a WHO report that found hunger and homelessness made people susceptible to extreme weather. Cold-wave deaths make headlines, but as one of the world’s climate-change affected hotspots, heatwaves are just as dangerous.
Lately, as the capital prepares for the G20 summit in September, a beautification campaign has been underway. Part of this has involved demolishing the MCD-built shelter next to Nigambodh Ghat which used to be the food-distribution point. “All the way from Tibetan Market to Nigambodh Ghat, under the length of the flyover you’d have people sleeping at night. Everyone knew to come here (near the Kashmere gate metro station) to find day-labour—someone to work at a brick-kiln or haul material,” Sarwar explained. Now hidden out of sight, it’s difficult for them to be scouted for work.
People don’t want hand-outs, Sarwar told me. “They take the food regretfully. They’ll tell me, humein haath pair chalana aata hai, kya din aa gaye.” We know how to use our hands and feet [to work], what days we have come to.
Indeed, the Centre for Equity Studies reports that over their many years working directly with urban homeless people, the main demand has consistently been a network of community kitchens and canteens that supply not free but low-cost and hygienic, hot cooked meals. “The police descended on the place, beat the stragglers, and told them to leave,” he recalled. “They filled them in buses and dropped them off at far-off places like Narela. Some found their way back on foot. And bechare, some are still wandering, lost. Go anywhere, the police told them, but don’t stay here. It doesn’t matter to them what happens—just that these poor people should not be seen here.”
Further north, in Peeragarhi chowk near Punjabi Bagh, wedding banquet halls line the road. Anchoring the big business that is weddings, are banquet cooks, sweating profusely and working 16-hour shifts. That used to be Sagar, the oldest team-member and main cook at Mazdoor Kitchen.
I asked him how he came to be in the cooking line. “I’ve done the same work wherever I’ve been,” he said. After falling out of school, he joined the roadside momo-making trade. Next came eight years in the ‘hotel-line’ and mastering Indian Chinese. From there, he ended up at the banquets in Peeragarhi. He worked at the Seven Seas in Rohini for two years.
“The lockdown happened, and I lost my job. I sat home for a month, jobless. I didn’t even have money for food. Itna bhookh (such hunger),” he said. Eventually, he ended up at the original pandemic-era Mazdoor Kitchen, in a much larger space.
His wife, Riya, was the second cook at the kitchen, but she has just had a baby, so Suraj is substituting. On my second visit, after the food was cooked, the kitchen team sat in a circle directly under the fan in the front room to pack. Two of the team, Rajrani and Malti, who are hired specifically to pack the food, came some time after the cooks arrived. Rajrani was initially hired as a nurse to look after a man whom Mazdoor Kitchen was helping with medical expenses after he was injured while doing day-labour. She was chattier than Malti, talking about her upcoming eye-surgery, her son’s job at a halwai ki dukaan (sweet-shop), and the rising prices of vegetables.
Sagar and Suraj watched a football match on their phone, laughing from time to time. They spoke in Nepali with Bhekram, and it irritated Rajrani who said, “How do we know you aren’t gossiping about us?” Sagar retorted, “It’s your thinking that’s the problem.”
This reminded me of something Rashid has said, impatient with the impossibility of community-kitchens in India. “So many divides of caste, religion, and region. One community is distrustful of the other; so and so won’t eat with this one,” he’d said. In the kitchen, I see what he means.
Still, they work as a team. Through the kitchen, Sagar has been able to buy some land back in Nepal, and started two fast-food joints of his own in his neighbourhood in Delhi. That’s not nothing.
Rashid is baffled when people ask him if he feels good about the work he’s doing here. “I don’t feel good about it at all, I feel terrible,” he said. “The point is that no one from civil society should have to do this. And you see such abject poverty that you know what you’re doing is not even a drop in the ocean. How can you feel good about it?”
The National Food Security Act should take care of the people they feed. Food is a right. But migrants can only access the ration system at their permanent address, Mridula Chari points out in her piece on why Indians are still going hungry. Like many in informal labour, mazdoors fed by Mazdoor Kitchen generally do not have their documents like ration cards—so they’re excluded by the mandatory linkage of Aadhaar cards to rations.
“So you see the need, you do what you can. Crowdfunding is tough. People in India need to change their concept of need,” Rashid said. “It’s not about daan dena (charity), it’s madad karna ek doosre ki (mutual aid), which is radically different. Need is a situation. Today it’s this person, tomorrow it could be you.”
At the kitchen on my last visit, we talked about cravings. Suraj and Sagar, sweaty from their labours over the flame outdoors, settled in front of a giant creaky cooler that they and Bhekram got to work after several attempts. Malti and Rajrani sat on their haunches, holding open packets into which pulao was portioned and ladled. They plopped the parcels into big canvas bags, which Sarwar would drive out at four thirty in the evening. The entire operation shuts shop for the day by six thirty pm. Only Bhekram, who lives here, stays behind to guard supplies.
As they steadily packed the meals, we discussed food preferences. The most important quality of a momo was its juiciness, we agreed. Rajrani prefers simple food, her favourite is bhindi ki sabji. When I am exhausted, I crave the Indian chinese chilli-chicken-chow mein familiar to Sagar. Crisp, red, salty, sweet.
“Chilli chicken kha kha ke pak gaye hain,” he said. “If I don’t have to make it for 15 days, and someone buys it for me, then I’ll love it.”
Because this is Delhi, people like rajma and chhole chawal best, the team said. They discussed introducing chhole kulche on Sundays as a treat, weighing bulk costs. Rajrani had a contact; she’d make enquiries.
Riddhi Dastidar is a writer and reporter in Delhi. In 2021, they founded the collective Mutual Aid India with disabled and queer friends. They are writing their first book of fiction. You can find more at riddhidastidar.com or find them @gaachburi on the socials.
In light of the 77th Independence Day, The Locavore and Mazdoor Kitchen are fundraising all of August 2023 to contribute to ‘Freedom from Hunger’. The funds from this campaign will help sustain the kitchen’s daily meal operation and provide ration to families that need it. If you would like to contribute, visit this ketto page. To know more about Mazdoor Kitchen, their journey, and their work, follow @mazdoorkitchen on Instagram.