Sunday, August 1, 2004

Scenes from a Pakistani Restaurant

Sadly, everything you read here is true. Except for the name of the restaurant and the characters.

“Yeh Hindu hai. Yeh meat nahi kaat-ta”. (He is Hindu, he doesn’t cut meat) announced the Shere restaurant manager with pride to the team in the kitchen.
I had just started work one hour ago, on a typical grey, wet Saturday afternoon in Rusholme, the Pakistani section of Manchester, England.

Full of idealistic thoughts which included supporting myself and
taking no money from home, I set out looking for jobs as soon
as I stepped off the plane in the UK as a grad student at the
University of Manchester. And slammed straight into the middle
of England’s worst recession. After being turned down by
everyone including McDonalds (where I had included my current Masters, my two BITS degrees, my 38 days at Index Computing and both PS I and PS II experiences, convinced that I would be a top hire), I
knew this called for desperate measures. I headed for Rusholme Road, the street lined with Indian and Pakistani restaurants in the South Asian section of Manchester. I turned into the first restaurant I saw. The manager was there. I told him that I was looking for a job. He asked me for two bits of information. “I am from India.” “I can legally work in England.” From his stunned reaction, it appeared
unlikely that he had heard any job prospect at his restaurant say
either of those things. I was hired on the spot. At 2 quid per hour, I had joined the ranks of the gainfully employed.

“What do you want to do?” the greasy manager asked, his white
shoes about as shiny as his bald pate. “Waiter banega?” (Will you
be a waiter ?). I had been hanging out with the students from Manchester Business School, discussing highfalutin’ things like investment banking, consulting, and the changing face of Euro -driven politics. I winced. Could I face running into my classmates,
dressed in the black and white garb of a waiter ? My un-Gandhian middle-class views on the dignity of labor made it difficult to risk this prospect.

Hiding in the kitchen seemed the natural choice. But I had one
condition – “Meat nahi katoonga” (I wouldn’t cut the meat.) I cited
religious reasons. The truth was I didn’t know how. He took me to the crowded room in the back. I was introduced to Shahji – the naan maker, who had stopped studying in 4th grade in Pakistan and spoke no English.

Khan Sahib was the cook. Nigel was the Nigerian dishwasher. I was
appointed assistant errand boy to all three. The next three hours went by pretty uneventfully. That is if cutting 3 sacks of onions and 9 sacks of green peppers (simla mirch) can be considered uneventful. As someone who had never cooked, and spent the last five years in Pilani messes, I was unprepared for this ordeal. The hour I
spent frying the onions to a golden brown passed by more difficultly.

Every time one of his employees came into the kitchen, the manager
would follow, and parade me like a newly acquired pet. “Yeh Hindu hai. Yeh meat nahi kaat-ta”, he would smile and say. I was an instant hit.

“Lets go shopping”, the restaurant manager said. Ten minutes later, we were headed back to the restaurant, a 20 lb bag of flour on my head. It was more dignified to carry it in my arms or on my shoulder, but it was so much easier on my head. Screw my dignity.
I held it on my fast whitening head,and walked down the street, praying that no one would know me. The manager walked a few feet ahead. I felt numb.

At 6:00 pm the hustle of the restaurant increased in preparation for
the 6:30 pm opening. Two waiters were there, young and fresh, their first day on the job. They looked 17, their fear-filled private-schooled faces a reflection of the leafy, air-conditioned, pucca bungalows of suburban Karachi that they came from – where the
maid washed the laundry, the guard took the dog for a walk. The fear in their faces strangely gave me strength. I could get through this.
At 7:00 pm, the manager came looking for the two new waiters he’d hired. They were nowhere to be found. Unable to withstand the culture shock, they’d run away. I felt sorry for them. And stronger.
By 7:30 pm the dishes were coming back faster than Nigel could handle them. As the dishes piled, I was added as reinforcement. My job was to load the dishwasher with the dishes Nigel gave me, and to
unload a minute and a half later.


Nigel had another responsibility. He had to empty the dishes
before they went into the dishwasher. And ensure that no meat coming back from the restaurant was wasted.

Whaaaaaat !!!

All the salad was recycled. Stained bits of onions were
washed and rearranged. And most importantly, all the meat and chicken left in the dishes was carefully extracted and put back into two bowls – one for meat, and another for chicken.

At least the gravy, thankfully was thrown away. My faith in the amazing institution of Indian restaurants, shaken to its core.

At Shere, the most astounding thing was the efficient meat
extraction process. It involved a woman, a fork, and lots of
screaming. Every half hour, the female owner of the restaurant (a
real b----- if I ever saw one) would come into the back of the
restaurant and scream at everyone for no reason. Then she would
grab a fork and head over to the trash can where all the food was
being dumped. She’d poke around. Every so often, she’d lift out a piece of meat, or paneer or chicken – sometimes half chewn, sometimes not – and wave it in Nigel’s face, screaming that he
was letting good food go to waste and threatened to dock his wages.
Nigel never said anything.

That first night, at 1 am, I tried to leave the restaurant after it had closed. The cook wouldn’t let me go without eating. He fed me a
good meal – good meat, good chicken, great nans. I felt like I was part of a team. Exhausted, numbed, and smelling of onions, I had the best sleep of my life.

I went back the second night – to a lot more onions, yelling,
screaming and chaos. The cook stormed out at 9:00 pm – after throwing a whole bunch of mixedup orders that had piled up on the
kitchen floor. Thankfully I did not have to clean any of it up. He
came back at 10:00 pm. At 1 am, I went to the manager, to ask for
my money. Two days, twenty four hours, forty eight quid ! I was
bone tired, but I was going to be rich.

He handed me a twenty pound note. “I’m keeping the rest of the
money or you won’t come back next week.” Tears welled up. I
pleaded but I was helpless. I walked out and went home. I could not shake the smell of onions for a week – even though I was taking showers twice a day.

The following week I got a job at the library. At GBP 5.65 per hour,
shelving books, with breaks in between. Thank heavens for British unions, I thought.

The story ends well. My local guardian, an angry Thakur from
Rajasthan was furious when he heard of my experience. He went calling the same day, and no less than Kenneth Clarke, then Home Secretary. After scaring the living daylights out of Kenneth Clarke’s assistant, he was put straight through to the man

Four months later, the restaurant was raided. Citing illegal immigrant workers and a series of serious health violations, the restaurant was shut down and the owners were fined GBP
8,000. Almost two hundred times what the restaurant owed me.

I celebrated. I recently went to Manchester to attend a friend's wedding. I drove around to Rusholme to see the restaurant. It was another drizzly Manchester morning. The whole area was deserted – things wouldn’t start to hum till later that afternoon. The restaurant was shut. The name on the board had changed. Vivid
memories flooded back, of walking down the road with the bag of flour on my head, of hundreds of onions, of the first twenty quid I had earned in England.

I put my hands in my pockets and walked back to the car. I stopped to look back one last time, and felt a calming sense of closure.

1 comment:

Shobhit Chugh said...

I have heard of the wonderful Indian Food in London. Never eaten there though. I am not sure if I ever will now...