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Ambitions burn, even at a kebab stand

Akram Khan, a waiter at a sidewalk stand in Delhi, has big dreams of

July 26, 2009|Sam Dolnick | Dolnick writes for the Associated Press.

NEW DELHI — As the grill man stirred the glowing coals and the bread man rolled balls of dough, Akram Khan, the waiter, watched the traffic rumble down the pocked road.

Soon, crowds would start arriving at this sidewalk kebab stand, families in expensive cars and partygoers fizzy with drink.

Most wolf down their food, sweating over the spicy chutney as they gossip about politics, cricket, and the missing monsoon.

But linger on this cracked slab of pavement and you'll witness the frustrations, hopes, contradictions and pleasures of life in modern India writ small.

Aap ki Khatir, or "At Your Service," is an improvisation, like so much else in India. It's made up of little more than well-seasoned meat, a grill and a plastic set of table and chairs.

It's not zoned, licensed or subject to any health codes, so the owners pay a monthly bribe to a local police officer, a government official, and an electrical engineer who keeps the stolen power running. Countless businesses have similar arrangements, including the kebab stand's neighbors.

Money can get you far in India. But religion can get you further.

Several years ago, as Khan tells it, the city planned to clear the ramshackle block that's home to the kebab stand, a shuttered beauty parlor and an auto repair shop. Overnight, the community built a small Sufi shrine on the pavement and convinced the authorities that it had always been there. Disturbing it would anger the neighborhood, they said. The government backed down.

Point to the fresh garlands and candles now strewn across the fake shrine, and Khan shrugs.

"This is India," he said. "If you put a rock on the ground, people will worship it."

Another maxim: If you have an open space, someone will fill it. As evidence, he pointed to a rival kebab stand, recently arrived and just steps away.

It was opened by a former customer of Khan's who copied the formula. The name Aap Ki Khatir became Sab Ki Khatir -- At Everyone's Service. Both establishments boast creamy chicken malai tikka, as decadent as an ice cream sundae, and kakori rolls made of butter-soft mutton. Though the cooks and owners are all Muslim, they don't serve buffalo meat -- the legal alternative to beef -- out of respect for their Hindu customers.

The mechanic's towers of tires form the border between the grills, a line the rival waiters dare not cross.

"He is a friend-enemy," Khan says of the former customer, a neighborhood figure he has known for years. "We no longer talk. But this is what happens in business."

Khan, 31, is a pudgy man with spiky hair and a high-pitched laugh. He has lived in Delhi for more than a decade, but the other employees -- cooks, waiters, cleaners -- are part of the flood of migrants who have left their villages in the poor, northern state of Bihar to work in India's giant cities.

These men live together in Old Delhi, across town from the kebab stand, inside a single hot room that doubles as the restaurant's kitchen. Aap Ki Khatir's sidewalk can fit little more than the grill, so the men shuttle the food across the city every evening.

They spend their days chopping onions and rolling dough amid laundry lines and boiling pots, their mattresses within reach of the mutton marinade. Each hopes to get promoted to the grill, where they can earn tips, but for now they are little more than indentured servants, their pay being their free room and board.

Khan wants to open his own restaurant and earn enough to buy a house for the woman he loves, who lives hundreds of miles away in Raipur, in central India. He found her in the most untraditional of ways: in an online chat room, where he spends nearly as much time as he does at the grill.

They have met only once, and she has since broken up with him, but Khan remains smitten.

"When I am with her," he says, "I feel like I am in an AC room." In a city as sweltering as Delhi, there is perhaps no stronger declaration of love than to liken it to air conditioning.

Though he's an unabashed romantic, Khan knows too well the obligations that family entails. When his brother lost his job, Khan got him work at the kebab stand even though it meant cutting his own pay. When Khan counts his tips, he puts aside money for his two unmarried sisters, both perilously close to the age when Indian society deems them too old to find husbands. Without them, he says, he would be free; he also says he would be unmoored.

I recently told Khan that after two years in India, I was moving back to the U.S. He shook his head and smiled his wide smile.

"Brother, you find the location and we will open a USA branch," he said. The Indian dreamer still looks West.

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