Hamid’s Hands

By Kaisera Kanwar

Hamid had dreamt of pillowy naans and luscious, creamy curries the previous night, but sadly began the day with leftover rice and cold chai at the dhaba. His dreams often disturbed his appetite. How could he relish leftovers when his mind was floating with images of hot pakodas, makhani dal and syrupy shahi tukadas. He wasn’t undernourished, just deprived of the luxurious fare served at ‘Shahi Tughlaq Dhaba’ – his residence and means of livelihood.

The dhaba had been his whole world for all his fourteen young years. He had seen the steel vessels turn into copper thalis and the rusty fans into modern coolers. Hamid had no recollection of how he ended up here, and sadly neither did Karim Bhai. They all believed his parents must have been labourers who had nothing to give their newborn, maybe not even a home. All his early memories were of Karim Bhai and his fragrant food.

His days, come sun or rain began with the sound of clanging vessels and whistling kettles. He would hop off his bed squashed under the spice cabinets and rush to the hand pump behind the dhaba, to freshen up. “ The little one has woken up! “ , Karim Bhai would shout out and business would begin with the first order of ‘cutting chai’. Hamid’s duties at the dhaba were clearly chalked out, he would first collect milk from the dairy down the main road, then haggle with the old lady who sold them vegetables, lug the heavy bags of fresh produce with Reeta to the dhaba and by lunchtime start shovelling coal into the tandoor. The routine did bore him at times but the food always excited him. He had been pleading with Karim Bhai to let him into the kitchen and help with the ‘masala tadkas’ or even the fresh chutneys, but the man refused to budge, always citing hot oil and flash fires as the reason for his refusal. But Hamid too was hellbent on making it into the kitchen and watching the magic happen. After all he wasn’t a child anymore, he could handle the heat.

One summer night he crept into the kitchen, hoping to sneak a little midnight snack into his bed. It was extremely dark but he could feel a faint heat emanating from the corner where the tandoor was situated. The soft orange embers within the clay pit were the source of the heat. As he moved closer he recalled how Karim bhai had looked so confident slapping naans with his bare hands into the same fiery pit. Maybe he could try too? Many would have feared the hot coal, but Hamid didn’t. The idea of cooking something, anything lit this happy spark within him. So he thrust a little more coal into the tandoor and began searching for a little leftover dough. Bingo! There it was under the sugar tin. He knead it out with his hands and slapped it around on the marble slab a few times imagining up wonderful fantasies of being a professional chef like the ones on TV. Just as he was about to pop it into the tandoor , Karim Bhai all red eyed and angry entered the kitchen. “ WHAT IS THIS RACKET YOU ARE CREATING HAMID?! DO YOU WANT TO BURN YOUR HANDS!? HOW DO YOU THINK YOU WILL BRING MILK WITH BLISTERS ON YOUR PALMS? “, he thundered . Hamid was mum, silent with fear of getting punished or beaten. There was silence for a few minutes in the room, and then Hamid was hauled by his collar and left at his bed. He fretted thinking about his punishment, but soon fell asleep.

The next morning there was no hustle bustle to be heard in the dhaba. No vessels clanging, no kettles whistling only silence. Hamid was flummoxed. Was Karim Bhai unwell? Hamid then heard the sound of the shovel from the kitchen. Ahh… someone was there. He entered the kitchen and found it to be empty with only Karim Bhai present, no Reeta and no customers. Confused he looked up at Bhai who had stopped working at the tandoor and was putting something into his hand. It was the five spice special mix. ” But why  Bhai ?”, he asked. He got no answer. All he got was a nod towards the tandoor.

That day the dhaba was shut down for the first time since it was opened; that day Hamid burnt his hands for the first time while using the tandoor ;that day Hamid also learnt to name spices, saute onions, roast meat and churn buttermilk. That day a chef was born….

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