A night at Congo Kitchen in Delhi

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

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.

The “kitchen” was set in a double-bedroom flat, opening into an entrance hall with a kitchenette that led to the two rooms down a narrow passage. The air-conditioned hall and the rooms—containing empty tables, chairs, barstools and couches of varying shapes and sizes—were dark, but for the revolving, multicoloured projections emanating from Chinese bulbs. The ceilings were marked by plaster designs that are characteristic of Delhi’s builder apartments, such as concentric circles around the fans and shabby cornicing. The medium-sized fridge was packed with Heineken and Kingfisher beer; and a table by the kitchen held a basic sound mixer, with a couple of small amplifiers underneath.

“This is a space where we can come together, be ourselves and indulge in things that remind us of home, like our music and food—and it’s not expensive like other places in Delhi,” Jason explained, before introducing me to the 26-year-old Congolese proprietor from Kinshasa, Michel Kitanda (Jason left the kitchen to go home soon after). Kitanda moved to Delhi in 2009, and works as a French-English interpreter for hospitals and patients who come from Congo for treatment. All these years, he told me, he had been a good customer at African kitchens in Delhi. Four months ago, he decided to open one of his own in Rajpur Extension, but it shut down due to problems with the landlord. The present kitchen had become operational only the night before. It had started with a condolence meeting for Michel’s brother, Olivier—who was murdered two months ago on 20 May, in a night-time brawl over an auto-rickshaw in Kishengarh.

“Our kitchen is different from others,” Michel agreed when I pointed out the discrepancy of the term, “It’s more like a mini-club for the African community. We can't put up signs and openly promote this place, because we could get into trouble. So, it's sort of underground, mostly for the African community, though we're open for anyone who wants to come.” But, he did concede its location left a lot to be desired, “We're still in the ghetto. Olivier and I had planned to start an African restaurant somewhere in Delhi, in a market, so that more people can share our food and culture.” The kitchen—kept well-stocked with beer, whiskey, wine and cigarettes—functions from midnight to dawn, with a fixed dish each night, and musical performances on the weekends. Information about these is spread through word of mouth and WhatsApp groups. Michel handed me a cold pint, led me to one of the inner rooms and left to buy supplies for the night. He asked me to stay, enticing me with the prospect of “traditional Congolese music, live!”

Half-way through the drink, my eyes got used to contemplating the tacky lighting, and I watched Michel’s compatriot Rashid go about his share of the chores, readying the place. An hour later, another person joined us: Tony Kibambe, a gregarious 28-year-old who wore a Real Madrid jersey and a cap that said, “BO$$.” Kibambe told me that he is from Accra, the capital of Ghana. He was the in-house disc jockey for the kitchen during weekends, and otherwise provided technical support at a call centre in Gurgaon. He showed me some music videos of popular Nigerian artists such as Selebobo and Wizkid, who sang in a mixture of English and Igbo. Kibambe studied electronics and computers at Acharya University in Bangalore. His younger brother is now pursuing a degree in polytechnic engineering there. The rest of the family is divided between Canada and South Africa, he told me, before moving to the hall where he connected a laptop to the mixer and started playing rumba tracks.

Michel finally returned around 11.30 pm with ten kilograms of chicken, among other things. He then sprayed the entire apartment with room freshener to curb the smell of smoke, before setting up a vessel over the stove and filling it with cooking oil. Over the night, as customers walked in, Michel or Rashid would plop in a whole skinned chicken, and serve it fried, with French fries, mayonnaise and ketchup. “Our traditional way of cooking is difficult, and we don’t get the ingredients here,” Michel told me, “so we usually cook simple food like fried chicken, mutton, fish and plantains, or eggs and potato.”

Past midnight, groups of two to five people started trickling in. Throughout the night, there were at least thirty people in the flat at all times. Most of the guests knew each other, and gradually, as things settled down, various languages, and the smell of fried chicken began to circulate. A majority of those in the house were men, and the women mostly kept to the inner rooms. Everyone seemed modishly and colourfully dressed for a night out in flashy shirts, gowns, skirts, tracksuits, dashikis, accessorised with hats, jewellery and sunglasses.

At around 12.30 am, four members of the Delhi-based Congolese ensemble, Rio de Djika began to play, what I was told was a mix of rumba rock and soukous. That night, the line-up consisted of three vocalists with two microphones, and a pair of drumsticks that one of them would clack together to complement their keyboardist. The electronic beats were provided by DJ X, whose Congolese father had married his Gujarati mother years ago. Slowly, fuelled by the beer and bustle, the atmosphere became festive as people swayed in their seats. Meanwhile, Michel kept a tab of everyone’s drinks and food in a notebook. Each time the band got carried away during a crescendo, he would silently gesture, indicating that they needed to keep it low. The singing—primarily in Lingala with a bit of French and English—was throaty, soulful and plaintive; at times intense, at times joyous. Over the next hour, the voices came together over a range of scat harmonies, chants, refrains and verses sung in chorus or round. The set finally ended around 2 am, after which DJ X took over the proceedings entirely.

Apart from the music, it felt like this could have been any other party in Delhi. Michel and the others told me, it was primarily educated, middle-class Africans who came to India—mostly for education, healthcare or professional work. This, those I spoke to said, was because they are the ones who are able to afford it, usually. “If you want to go to Europe or America, they ask you lots of questions—about your family, your bank balance, and everything. With India, it’s not so difficult to get a visa,” said Kibambe.

As the night went on and people ate, drank, smoked and interacted with each other—the sense of exclusivity, along with the games of socialisation, courting and camaraderie seemed de rigueur. People sat around, either contemplative or laughing, while couples flirted in the corners. Others were glued to their smartphones, even as some of the guys horsed around, dancing with each other.

At around 3 am, the tempo began to pick up again, and tables were dragged aside to make more room for dancing. That’s when I left, after a visit to the red-lit washroom—down the stairs, and out of the piss-stench basement, into the cool monsoon air.