A Dastarkhwan (Table-Spread) of Dreams

The Dastarkhwan Canteen

A young Abeeda plays cheerfully with her colleagues as she enjoys a rare break in the middle of a rather lazy Saturday. She is barely twenty five years old, yet her hands look like they’ve been roughened up by decades of struggle. She chases her friend across the kitchen space with a rolling pin in a playful mood only to be rebuked by their madame-in-charge who for all practical purposes has become their second mother and the kitchen, their second home.

Many like Abeeda would argue that this is more of a home to them than the places they have lived in, for this is a place that enables them to truly grow and become self-reliant while they enjoy each other’s loving comradeship. They all have, and for all purposes still do continue to live in hunger, poverty and squalor. Abeeda’s husband is an alcoholic and has repeatedly abused her throughout their five years of marriage. She always wanted to leave her husband and go back to her ‘ammi’ (mother) but she couldn’t be a financial burden to her family. But what could she do to earn money? She had no skills to speak of nor any formal education of any kind. She was married in her late teens to a man who abused her for the greater part of her married life.

Stories like Abeeda’s are far too common in the area around Okhla, an impoverished neighborhood in South Delhi inhabited mostly by Muslims although several lower caste Hindu families are also known to reside there. This fact was known all too well by the members of Ekta, a self help NGO, that works exclusively with women from impoverished socio-economic backgrounds. In the autumn of 2014, the members of Ekta organized a program in which the current vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, Prof Talat Ahmed was invited as a special guest. Prof Ahmed then worked up a plan with the NGO and provided them with a canteen space near the Zakir Hussain Central Library area of Jamia. The startup capital was provided by a band of women who donated ten to twenty thousand rupees each, often selling their wedding jewelries. The university gave them the space and the electricity at a subsidized rate. Since then they haven’t looked back.

There are many women like Abeeda who have been rehabilitated to a different place by the NGO and given a chance to stand on their own feet by working for the canteen. Dastarkhwan, as it is officially known, is famous throughout Jamia for having the unique distinction of being run exclusively by women.

“Many were apprehensive of our venture because they weren’t sure if women could run a business.” said the manager. “ Prof Ahmad had faith in us and we started with less than a dozen women and now we have close to three dozen working women, all from impoverished backgrounds without any major working skills.” She further added that, “ We had to train them in the art of preparing food in the huge amounts we had to make in order to stay away from bankruptcy.”

Ruksar, is an aspiring lawyer who immigrated from the small town of Muzaffarnagar, in western UP. She has enrolled herself in the department of Urdu language and literature for a BA course while she prepares simultaneously for her LLB entrances. Her family wasn’t supportive of her desire to study as they wanted her to get married. But Ruksar is determined as ever to become a lawyer. She came in touch with the NGO through one of her relatives who was working in Jamia as a member of their staff and there was no looking back. Ruksar’s education although subsidized by the University due to her family being from the low income group, wasn’t as cheap as she thought it would be for textbooks and notebooks cost her money. Thankfully as one of the few literate women in Dastarkhwan, she got herself a part time job as their book-keeper. She also serves guests with a quintessential smile sometimes when other women are occupied with too much work in the kitchen.

The extended Dastarkhwan family.

Deepa was born and married to a Hindu family, who were at first apprehensive about her working in a predominantly Muslim university canteen, but communal divisions couldn’t stop her from integrating well into the canteen workforce with whom she now shares family-like relationship. There are several Hindu women now working in the canteen. Deepa is working several hours a day to pay for her son’s medical expenses who is suffering from a rare cerebral disease.

“We do not discriminate in the kitchen. We welcome women of all background. We spoke to families who were apprehensive at first but when there is hunger, there is a mutual recognition of destitute among people that cut across these social divisions” says a member of the managerial staff working with Ekta. “On quite a lot of occasions we have been asked by students if we make certain women wash the dishes or clean the tables because of their caste, to which we have always maintained that that is not the case. We try and rotate between women who clean the dishes this week with those who prepare the vegetables the other week. But we try to give them the work that suits their skills. Only a limited number of women have the skills to cook in the huge amounts we need to. Those women are chosen on their merit and definitely not on the basis of their caste.”

The canteen sells delicious food at really affordable rates which makes Dastarkhwan a popular hangout zone for students in the main campus of Jamia. Since their inauguration in January 2015, they have expanded their business and recruited more women.

On being asked about their future plans, the madame-in-charge said, “ We would like to expand this into a full-fledged catering business. We have already catered for birthday parties and nikahs of people within Jamia who had approached us. Having our own business would be a dream come true.”

As the sun set over a sultry July sky in Delhi, Abeeda walked nervously towards her madam. “Madam ab main ghar jaoon?”. She collected her handbag, wrapped her dupatta around her head like a Hijab and slowly made her way out of the kitchen hugging her colleagues goodbye. There was a jaded look on her face that gave away the hints of struggle that she has gone through, but her eyes emanated a hopeful glow. A hope that she will one day stand on her own two feet and pay for the education of her own two daughters.

Meri ladkiyon ko school bhejna hai taki voh aagey chalkey naukri kar sakey. Ajkal padhai-likhai ke bina naukri kaun deta hai?” (I want to send my daughters to school so that they can go on to do a job in future. Who will give her a job without a formal education?)
A report on the canteen by BBC Urdu

The names of women in this report have been changed for matters of privacy.

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