Keeping the notebook aside, he gets up and starts to pace under the tree. “I have to go to London," says Mahendra Shah, 29, a kitchen assistant in a restaurant in nearby Khan Market. We met him one evening in Lodhi Garden, a park famous for its ruins, trees, birds, lovers and VIPs. Shah’s duty hours are from 10 am to 3 pm, and from 7 pm to 1 am. During the 4-hour break, he walks to Lodhi Garden. “I sleep here for an hour and then study cooking in the remaining time.”The pages of Shah’s notebook are scribbled with recipes. A migrant from Nepal, he is not fluent in Hindi. Long pauses punctuate his talk as he gropes for the right English words.
Five months old in Delhi, he lives in a rented room in Zamrudpur, a village near Kailash Colony. There are no windows in Shah’s room, which opens into a congested lane. It was different in Nepal where Shah’s village lies in a valley.
“There are mountains. Our valley is not plain, it has slopes.” Taking out a pen and paper, he draws a relief map of his district, his eyes watery, his fingers moving fast on the paper. “There is a river towards the south, Rapti. Another river is Babai. My village is near Babai. We have jungles there. We also have farmland.”
If the home is in such idyllic surroundings, why come to this smoggy city? “For money.” Taking out a black and white picture of Beena, his wife, from the wallet, he says, “My parents introduced me to around 15 girls but I liked no one. Finally, I was shown Beena and I agreed.”
Although homesick, Shah is not losing his focus: moving to London. “I have applied for the visa. My aunt’s son is a chef there. He struggled a lot. Like me, he, too, first came to Delhi and worked his way through various restaurants… even in 5-star hotels. When Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf came to Agra, the hotel in which he stayed… well, my aunt’s son was a cook there. He went to London after his friend there called for him. Now he is calling me.”
The evening sky is turning black. Shah gets ready to return to Khan Market. Throwing his bag over the shoulder, he says, “Lodhi Garden is very green, but I don’t like the couples here…” Referring to romantic pairs who flee from their conservative neighbourhoods to get intimate in the anonymity of the park, Shah says, “It’s embarrassing for families to come across these couples while taking a walk. These people should go to some other place.” After walking some distance, he turns back and says loudly, “Once I’m in London and I get a job there, I’ll call Beena.”