A night at Congo Kitchen in Delhi

22 July 2016
DJ X mixing tracks at Congo Kitchen.
Shahid Tantray
DJ X mixing tracks at Congo Kitchen.
Shahid Tantray

On 16 July 2016, at around 8 pm, after a day of heavy rain, I navigated through the sewage-mixed rainwater streets to reach the MCD school at Rajpur Extension in south Delhi. I had been here the previous Saturday, on 9 July as well, to meet Ola Jason who runs a salon and office out of a 6x7 feet shop near the school. Hailing from Lagos in Nigeria, the 40-year-old Jason is primarily an actor and filmmaker. He has appeared in minor roles in the Bollywood films Sultan, the yet to be released Dangal, and the Gujarati film Carry on Kesar. “Back home, Indian films and TV channels are very popular, but here we don’t get African channels even on cable,” he told me, while shearing his compatriot Mike’s skull with an electronic trimmer.

Jason has lived in Delhi since 2011. Since January 2014, when the Aam Aadmi Party MLA, Somnath Bharti conducted a midnight raid against a group of Africans at Khirki Extension, Jason has also functioned as an unofficial representative for the city’s African residents through his involvement with community efforts and demonstrations, and by acting as an intermediary for the police and the media. “The Khirki episode was the first case, and it’s still ongoing at the courts. That’s when some of us linked up with human rights activists, lawyers and journalists to stop such stigmatisation.”

Apart from helping African expatriates find resolution in the cases that they have filed for violence and discrimination against them, Jason told me that the idea was to spread cultural awareness among the locals and foster intercultural exchange through food festivals, sports events and music. Asked about the things he missed about home, Jason shook his head and repeated “I miss so many things . . .” four times, before looking up with a wistful smile. That evening, as I left the shop, I heard Mike and Jason excitedly discuss the Wimbledon final scheduled for that night, and the prospect of Serena Williams lifting a twenty-second Grand Slam.

That night, on 16 July, Jason had promised to take me to one of the three African kitchens in Rajpur Extension. Rajpur Extension, located in Chattarpur in south Delhi, is replete with narrow alleys and myriad shops, and people milling about them. It has houses and apartment blocks—young, crumbling and often courting the illegal due to the avarice of small-time private builders; and the same congested spaces and intercultural juxtapositions that define the low-income and immigrant-heavy pockets in the city such as Rajpur Khurd, Chattarpur, Khirki, Munirka, Arjun Nagar, Uttam Nagar, Mukherjee Nagar and Kishengarh.

We reached by around 9 pm, and Jason parked under what seemed like yet another innocuous builder-apartment, scores of which are found across Delhi. There were no sign boards, and a pair each of cows and dogs blocked the main gate. I followed Jason inside, stepping over the reclined beasts—and after three flights of dark stairs and vacant flats, he knocked on an unmarked door.

Ishan Marvel is a reporter at Vantage, The Caravan.

Keywords: Delhi racism folk music Africa