Faheem Muqeem made biryani after weeks last Friday. It was 5pm, and Muqeem had layered meat and rice into a massive pot, and said he was excited to get his spices out again to do what he does best ― make biryani. He sounds almost relieved to be able to cook biryani. “Finally, I made something special,” Muqeem told HuffPost India over the phone.
Muqeem is a biryani vendor who has been out of job for a month. His biryani kiosk has been shut for 35 days now. For several weeks, Nizamuddin — where Muqeem lives in Delhi — has also been sealed after being declared a ‘hot spot’ for coronavirus infections. However, Muqeem has not taken a break from cooking for people.
A Biryani Seller Cooking For Free
“Since the lockdown began, I have had no earnings. The catering I used to do has also stopped and pre-orders have been cancelled,” Muqeem said. But he was not alone in his ordeal. At least 800 people in the neighbourhood — whose savings are meagre and lives depend on daily cash flow — were left struggling for two square meals a day after the lockdown was imposed. Prior to the lockdown, Muqeem said he’d earn up to Rs 1000-Rs 1200 daily. And without work and having to feed his family of three people, he was fast burning through his lean savings.
That was when Sheikh Jilani, an elderly man who lives in Nizamuddin and runs a string of coaching centres, kicked off a drive to feed the poor and also offered the courtyard of his ancestral property — a massive kitchen called “Langar-Khana” near the dargah which opens its doors only during the Urs — to cook for hundreds of people. Among the people being fed are taxi drivers, autowallahs, rickshaw pullers, vendors who aren’t being able to make rent and some outsiders and pilgrims who got stuck in the lockdown. The population is a majority of Muslims, with a few dozen Hindus as well.
Muqeem was appointed head cook for the initiative, with five teenagers working under him, hoping to hone their cooking skills.
Thirty-five-year-old Muqeem has no formal education, and started out as a child, working as an apprentice to his father — a cook at a local hotel.
“Like myself, there are many others whose work has stopped because of the lockdown and they have no money to buy food. So, people in the locality came together and arranged for flour, pulses, grains, vegetables and spices which we use to cook food for almost 800 people in a day,” Muqeem told HuffPost India.
Though Muqeem himself fasts for 16 excruciating hours every day, he and his team manage to cook for sehri and iftar for 800 people in the locality. The team of 4-5 people cook nearly 150 kilos of rice, 1,600 chapatis and at least two curries every day.
The menu is usually decided taking the available funds into consideration. “We made egg curry with potatoes yesterday for sehri. For iftar, we made chicken biryani today. Again for sehri, we will make ghiya-chane ki dal (chana dal with gourd),” Muqeem said.
For the last few weeks and the most days they served iftar and sehri, Muqeem and his team could only make vegetarian food as the funds were low. However, as more people came together and started donating, the team started making non-vegetarian food available for people.
“Humara toh humesha hi special khana banane ka mann hota hai inn logon ke liye, kyunki Ramzan ka mahina chal raha hai. Hum safaayi ka poora dhyaan rakhte hue, poore dil sey khana banate hain (I always feel like making special dishes because it is Ramzan, and people crave special food during this time. Making sure of safety, we cook with all our heart,” he said.
“If we’re making egg curry, the curry will be made separately, the eggs are boiled and fried separately. It’s a lot of work, but we don’t want to serve shoddy food to people. Today, we have made chicken biryani. People will get excited,” Muqeem said, with a hint of joy in his voice. In his stall, chicken biryani, made with a lot of spices in the Delhi style is his specialty. So on Friday, the opportunity to make biryani thrilled him.
“I am not taking any money. This is something we as a community are doing. I am not the only one whose work stopped; it is every second person out there. From the food that I cook, some comes to my house also and that’s how we are managing,” Muqeem said.
Muqeem is the sole breadwinner of his family consisting of his wife and two young sons. “I start cooking at 1 pm and finish making iftar by 4-5 pm. Then the food gets packed and is distributed. Then after iftar and maghrib’s namaz, we start working again to cook sehri from 8 pm till midnight,” the cook told HuffPost India.
It makes his heart full, he said. “Everybody is troubled. We are still getting some food and managing two rotis a day. Some people don’t even have that. If I can use my skills to cook to feed others, why shouldn’t I do it?” he said.
No Work, Food Or Home
Nasir Ali, a tailor based in Nizamuddin has been one of the beneficiaries of the initiative. Ali, is the only earning member of his family of five — wife and three daughters — who live in Rampur in Uttar Pradesh. For the past two decades, Ali used to make a few hundred rupees every day tailoring salwar suits and burqas.
Ramzan is crucial for Ali’s business and people line up to get new clothes stitched. However, this year, his shop has remained shut for a month now, he is down to the last few hundreds of his meagre savings and that too, he has to keep for his wife and children who don’t earn. “I usually earn a little more during Ramzan. I buy new clothes for my family with that money. This year, I have been reduced to becoming a beggar,” he said.
While money has always been scarce in their family, it has never been this bad, Ali said. Born to a poor family, Ali said he learned stitching to make sure he never has to resort to begging like he had seen a lot of people around him do.
When the lockdown began, Ali had assumed an odd stitching job or two would keep coming to him. But it stopped completely as his customers started feeling the pinch of their businesses shutting down, or jobs witnessing pay cuts.
“I couldn’t make last month’s rent, so I was asked to vacate the room where I lived and ran the shop,” he said. An acquaintance gave him shelter. As he couldn’t even make his way back home in UP, spending on food for himself everyday started to feel like bleeding money. Back home, eating two proper meals also became a challenge for his family.
Ali said he’d starve if not for the initiative to feed the poor. “I am thankful to Allah that he sent these people. I can at least have food twice a day and also fast during Ramzan,” he said.
His family back home has also run out of money to buy food and is now surviving on alms. “Sometimes neighbours send them food, occasionally a relative who has money is buying them some basic ration,” Ali said.
Sultan Abrar, is a small-time itr (perfume) seller who comes down to Delhi from Bangalore every year around Ramzan to make some quick money. As the lockdown was imposed, Abrar’s business shut and he couldn’t make it back home. With no sales, he did not have money to rent a place or book a hotel room. He is now living in a godown in Nizamuddin, which a businessman opened up to provide shelter to people stranded there.
“Some people are selflessly making food and providing us with timely meals for sehri and iftar. If this arrangement was not done, I would have had to break my fast with just water,” he said. Abrar said that the food reminded him of home, it was tasty and hearty. Over the last month, he said that very unexpectedly, he was served pulao, chicken and then on Friday, a delicious biryani for iftar.
Abrar used to earn Rs. 300-400 on a daily basis during Ramzan. “My work stopped. My itr bottles would get wasted and wouldn’t sell now. It’s a huge financial blow for me.”
Abrar’s earnings take care of his sister back in Bangalore, who he said is also struggling for food.
Sunil, a daily wage worker who was employed at a construction site in Bhogal when the lockdown began, has also been living in Nizamuddin. “When the lockdown was announced, I panicked as I would not be able to pay rent and live in the room I used to anymore. Some of the people who were working with me were coming to Nizamuddin hoping to find shelter and I came with them,” he said.
The construction worker who hails from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, is now living at a friend’s house in Nizamuddin. “I used to earn Rs. 400 everyday. I have been here since the lockdown was announced. The police won’t let us leave. Luckily, food has been arranged by some kind people of Nizamuddin. They get us food twice a day, and it’s still fresh and hot. We don’t even have to go out, they deliver it at the room itself.”
The Hindus stuck in Nizamuddin have different eating timings than the Muslims during Ramzan. So Muqeem and his team made sure they didn’t go hungry. “We make the Hindu brothers’ food in two drives, once in the morning and then in the evening. It gets delivered at 1 pm and then 8 pm to them,” he said.