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23 May 2011, Gateway House

Lajpat Nagar: The adventure begins

The search for Afghani history within India takes us into the streets of Lajpat Nagar, Delhi, where Afghani refugees, assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, run restaurants that serve up a delicate Afghani cuisine.

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I travel to Lajpat Nagar searching for Afghan restaurants, finding two of the four in the area.  Lajpat Nagar, I am told by Aparna, has a history of accepting foreigners and displaced people:  During Partition in 1947, it was one of the first places in Delhi to offer safe refuge to people fleeing what is now Pakistan.  “Lajpat Nagar identifies as a place where you can come and be absorbed,” Aparna says.  I quickly become absorbed.  I quickly become overwhelmed.

The place feels and looks like a compound, overcrowded and congested, with store shops, street venders, rickshaws and residents vying for the right to move on the streets. The area is segmented into blocks, partitioned by two train tracks and Ring Road, a massive highway. Children play in the streets and in two limited, fenced off green spaces.  Men congregate around chai venders, store fronts and rickshaws, engrossed in conversation or lazily staring out into the busy road-space.  Women move together in small groups, no larger than three at a time.  They do not stop to congregate like the men do.  Aparna warns me not to talk with the women.

I am uncomfortable here, primarily because of my affluent American background. My perceptions of concrete-geography and human-space themselves need to be redefined in order to feel comfortable.  To them, I am just another outsider from the highway, stepping into Lajpat Nagar to be absorbed.

I spend my afternoon in Afghan Restaurant & Direct Pizza.  I am the only customer, served by two twenty-something Afghan young men.  The place is small, but beautifully decorated.  The most visible Afghan symbol is a large rug hanging in the back of the restaurant, embroidered with a picture of General Masud. Masud is often described as Afghanistan’s most cunning military mind in Afghanistan in the past century.  He became the commander of the Northern Alliance, maintaining the only military resistance against the Taliban and Al Qaeda during the 1990s while the world’s attention shifted to the Yugoslavia crisis.  Days before 9/11, Masud was assassinated by two Al Qaeda operatives.  His death provoked one of the largest gatherings of Afghans to attend the funeral of a military commander.[1]

Next, my trip takes a slightly terrifying turn. The massive Mahatma Gandhi Road that runs through Lajpat Nagar and neighbouring areas Jangpura, Nizamuddin and Bhogal, has been shut down by a group of six thousand angry protesters. Aparna calls me to tell me not to go into any of the affected areas because they were “tense”; autorickshaw drivers refused to take me. The unrest , I learned, was due to the demolition of the Noor Masjid in Jangpura, which came after a three month battle. Fortunately, an agreement is reached between the two warring parties, and it’s agreed that the mosque would be rebuilt.[2]  Thankfully I’m able to return into Lajpat Nagar by Saturday to meet with an Afghan student. It proved to be a pivotal day for my research.

Kabul Delhi Restaurant Manager: Lajpat Nagar

I walk into the Kabul Delhi Restaurant around 11am.  It’s a new place, and has quite a bit more traffic than I’ve seen so far. The perimeter has framed pieces of the country, from beautifully embroidered Qur’anic symbols with gold and silver stitching, to landscape portraits that enlarge the small space with their beauty and breadth: snowcapped mountains over a rugged landscape, amber plateaus colored only by the clothing of Afghans in transit.

It’s here that I meet Jamshed, my soon-to-be friend and trusted translator among the Afghans in Lajpat Nagar and Bhogal.  We sit down to a delicious Afghan spread: a full helping of Afghan Naan, one order of mutton Kabob and one order of chicken Kabob, and a hearty order of Quabuli Pulao (a brown rice pilaf with raisin).  To top our meal off, Jamshed recommends we drink “dough,” a salty yogurt drink mixed with cut-up cucumbers.

My first interview is with the restaurant manager: a tall, lean Afghan man wearing a fitted black dress shirt.  He and his family migrated to India five years ago as refugees, because of high unemployment and child kidnapping at home.  He explains that Lajpat Nagar is accommodating because he can buy goods and services from other Afghans, who speak his language: Dari.  He claims that’s a big pull for many Afghans.  All around us, Afghan men and women, young and old, are sharing food and conversation together.

Like the majority of refugees, he gets assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), since India has no national refugee protection and is not a signatory to either the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol.  He’s one of an estimated 9,000 Afghan refugees in India, and carries a “white card” to prove his status and right to live in Delhi.  If he wants to emigrate to a country in the EU or North America, he will need another card (e.g., a blue card).  Education is provided by the UNHCR; though some families opt to have their children taught by private teachers while others stop their children’s education early.

While waiting for our bill, Jamshed encounters Ali Rashad, a friend who I am able to talk with briefly.  Ali is a second year political science student, who received private education until he arrived in Delhi from his home city of Herat.  I ask Ali about his view of India. “Democracy is strong here,” he says. “India is one nation with many religions and it’s peaceful.”  Like a good rising political scientist, Ali has been trained to study how power affects patterns of social organization.  “Have you heard of the caste system,” Ali asks. “The caste system is very bad.  India has a clear divide between the rich and the poor.”  Despite that, Ali says the positives the country has to offer outweigh the negatives.  Ali tells me that Lajpat Nagar has recently become more Afghan, with Kabul Delhi Restaurant and the Afghan restaurant down the street among the newly established businesses.  Our check arrives, and I thank Ali for his time.

Ryan Stillwagon is a student at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania.

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[1] Ahmed Rashid, Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, New York: Viking Press, 2008, 22.

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