by Abhinav Kumar
We did not expect to be let in. Although all of us had respectable jobs, we looked like teenagers, dishevelled and bedraggled. As our car approached the gate, I attempted to hide the turmeric stains on my T-shirt.
“All yours, Manan,” I whispered as the security guard darted towards the driver’s seat, an air of importance about him.
Manan is a Kashmiri. Not a very good one, for he barely speaks the language, and we all knew that he’s never been to Kashmir. Yet, the only thing we desired at the moment was to somehow make our way to the canteen at Jammu and Kashmir House. Manan had promised that no Kashmiri place worth the name could go without serving kabargah, or lamb ribs. And so, on a dusty Delhi evening, Atishay came over to my house and together we went to Manan’s, and made our way to the corridors of power in Lutyens’ Delhi, not to conduct important business or even to soak in the beauty and symmetry of that part of the city, but for a far more noble pursuit – kabargah.
“Where to?” the guard said, looking at us one by one.
“Dining hall,” Manan said in Hindi. “We want to eat,” he added in broken Kashmiri. It sounded more like a plea than a statement of intent, but the guard seemed uninterested.
“Name?” he asked nobody in particular, sticking to Hindi.
“At least say Bhan to strike a Kashmiri chord!” said Atishay. It wouldn’t have made a difference, for the guard scribbled in his notebook and opened the gate to let us through.
“I can’t believe that did the trick,” Manan said as we parked.
“Me neither,” said Atishay. “The last time I had to pretend that I was a journalist covering a cricket match at Willingdon Camp.”
“It’s because I spoke in Kashmiri,” Manan said, sticking his chest out. Manan is a scrawny fellow, so this made for a more of a comical than impressive sight.
“Pah,” I said. “The guard wasn’t even Kashmiri.”
“Of course he was,” Manan protested. “Did you see that nose?”
“Since when have you been an expert on Kashmiri noses?”
It is a common misconception amongst Delhiites that state bhavans are seedy and decrepit, a view no doubt fed by the familiar vision of crumbling walls splattered with paan stains that any discussion on government buildings evokes. A stroll through Chanakyapuri, however, disabuses the beholder of any such notion. Most state bhavans are imposing, palatial buildings, radiating the majesty of the embassies that line Shanti Path.
“It’s like they made it larger and more impressive than the rest to compensate for the dismal state of affairs,” said Manan with a faraway look as we entered J&K House, his heart going out to his suffering brethren.
“Oh, be quiet. You’re a pseudo Kashmiri at best,” Atishay said. “Snug in your Pamposh Enclave mansion while they suffer in the gutters.”
I thought it was a bit rich of us to engage in convivial political discourse when all we really wanted from the Kashmiris was their food, so I remained silent.
Nobody questioned us as we sauntered through the ornate hallways.
“This is what I love about these places,” Manan said, as we passed one sleepy room after another, each with a grander name than the last. “The way they’ve built them up, you’d think that the most important business of the government is conducted in these very corridors. As if 370 was drafted right here in… Chinar Hall.”
“A terrible mistake if there ever was one,” said Atishay. I wondered what was making him so contrarian about things today, particularly since I’ve never known him to have sharp political views. It’s a lovely feeling, though, to know that you could test someone’s patience, risk-free, the way we could test each other’s.
Manan ignored him, and we meandered on, unimpeded.
“Are you sure we’ll get kabargah here?” I asked, moving on to more savoury topics, my voice thick with doubt. Ornate or not, there wasn’t a soul in sight, let alone some expert Kashmiri khansama. We hadn’t even managed to locate the dining hall.
“Yes yes, don’t worry about it. It’s not possible for a Kashmiri kitchen not to make it,” Manan said for the umpteenth time.
“I hope you’re sure,” said Atishay as we turned a corner into a large lobby. “When I came last, there wasn’t much on offer. We had the most excellent seekh kebabs though. This trip won’t be a waste even if we get those.”
We finally encountered a few bored looking officials in the lobby, who were able to direct us to the dining room. More than at our scruffy mien, their countenance gave away a mild surprise that anyone should seek a meal at J&K House.
The dining hall had clearly been built as an afterthought, for, in an ugly contrast to the otherwise elegant building, it was tiny and insipid. Uncomfortable looking flat chairs were set around tables that hadn’t had a thorough cleaning in weeks. If it was the kind of place that dished out meaty delicacies like kabargah, it was surely one of Delhi’s best kept secrets.
“If you had just invited us over for kabargah once in all the seventeen years we’ve known you,” I grumbled as we approached the only free table, “it wouldn’t have to come to this.”
Manan had the shame not to offer any reply. Our table was strewn with bits of rice left behind by previous patrons. Two couples occupied the other two tables who, judging by the stony silence in which they concentrated on their plates, were not on talking terms with each other. As is my ignoble habit, I stared at their food, trying without success to determine what they’d been served. Simple eaters, I concluded as we took our seats. Age, probably, I thought in a burst of mental sympathy.
An elderly server approached with plates.
“And what’s there to eat today?” Manan asked in Hindi. Evidently this chap didn’t have the Kashmiri nose.
“If you could just give me a minute,” the man said, setting a plate before each of us. “I just have to finish serving the other tables.”
“While you’re at it, maybe you could clean this one?” I said.
“Of course,” he said, pursing his lips. He whipped out a rag and proceeded to carefully steer the rice bits over the edge of the table, after which it would undoubtedly be someone else’s problem.
“That’s extra spit in our food, thanks to you,” Atishay said under his breath and we had to suppress our laughter, not least because we were worried that the unhappy couples at the other tables might faint at the slightest sound. The entire place had a slightly depressing vibe. I wondered who came to eat here in the usual course, and why.
“I hope they have kabargah, and not tabakh maaz,” said Manan with the air of a true connoisseur. Of course, we were none the wiser.
“What’s the difference?” Atishay said, having no barb to offer for once.
“Well, both are lamb ribs. But tabakh maaz is a Muslim preparation. More spice. Kabargah is a Kashmiri Pandit dish. Less spice, but more ghee. People tend to confuse the two, of course, but they’re really very different.”
My stomach rumbled. I hoped the cook knew how to make at least one of the two.
Presently, our server reappeared, and we could have sworn that he had aged a couple of years from the last time we’d seen him. Perhaps we shouldn’t have asked him to clean our table after all. Manan repeated his query.
“And will we get kabargah?”
“Ah, Sir,” the man said, with a sly, triumphant grin. “It’s Tuesday, there’s no meat today.”
We stared at each other in horror.
“It’s all right,” said Atishay, recovering first. “We’re prepared to wait another…seventeen years?” He shot an accusing glance at Manan.
We burst out laughing, and the sound shattered the silence of the depressing little room tucked away in the bosom of this splendid building, rang across our disapproving neighbours, past the ornate corridors and into the balmy night.
Pic from https://www.flickr.com/photos/chunso/