KASHMIR In Capital: Old Delhi’s Delicacy Maker

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 Ghulam Hassan at his Old Delhi restaurant. KO Photos by Romaan Arora

Kashmir has seen many migrations in past. The reasons being famine, starvation, and exploitation by successive rulers. However, a new wave of migration started in the early 1980s and 1990s because of the rising political turmoil in the valley. This migration that resulted in economic prosperity also brought a sense of missing out and regret. In the first part of the ‘Kashmir in Capital’ series, Kashmir Observer talks to Ghulam Hassan, a well known Kashmiri restaurant owner in Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid area.

By Romaan Arora

SHAHJAHANABAD, Delhi – On a chilly December morning, one can see several Kashmiris — single and with family — moving a little ahead of the Jama Masjid, towards a small, yet lively restaurant.

They’re going to the most famous Kashmiri eatery in the area — Kashmiri Restaurant.

The restaurant termed as home by many is run by Ghulam Hassan Sarkar, an erstwhile resident of Budgam, Kashmir.

In 1985, Hassan, now 60, came to Delhi as a struggler—running from his homeland’s political troubles—for a better life and employment opportunity.

“My mother was against my decision, as she always believed that a little earning at home is better than making fortunes elsewhere,” Hassan said, as we sat to talk about his life and times in India’s capital.

In the first five years after arriving in Delhi, he was indulged in the Shawl business that eventually resulted in the loss.

Then, he tried his hands on carpet business, before finding his call in Wazwan eatery.

But even as the man from mountains was resilient enough to create his niche in the sweltering plains, Delhi never made it a cakewalk for him.

“The beginning was full of difficulties,” he recounted with solemn expressions. “There was no food and I used to sleep empty stomach, with tears coming out of my eyes. Even then I had to pay Rs 60 per month as rent.”

That tumultuous period lasted for a decade—between 1985 and 1995. He still feels pain of that troubling time.

“Sometimes there was only rice to eat,” he said with tearful eyes. “And sometimes, there was nothing…”

Amid hardships, a moment of happiness came when he married a local girl in 1992.

“After marriage, I was allotted a small house by my in-laws here in old Delhi,” he said.

“From that house, I worked quite hard and opened this restaurant in around 1995.”

By then, his homeland was mired in the throes of raging conflict with Delhi desperately trying to revive “democracy” in the strife region.

Despite longing for his home, Hassan chose to struggle in the heat of the capital—then remote-controlling the erstwhile state through president’s rule. Even Radio Kashmir was airing the Kashmiri bulletin from Delhi with a signature style: “Ye Radio Kashmir Hai, Ab Aap Sunye Nayi Delhi Se Khabrein”.

“Back then, many Kashmiris were migrating to other parts of India for better employment opportunities,” Hassan recalled. “It was hard for any business to prosper in the valley due to the uncertain situation.”

However, as he stood steadfast in the capital commotion, Hassan rose to become a prominent eatery face away from home. He developed good relations with big hotel owners such as Karims and Al-Jawahar.

But while he was growing in business, many of his competitors tried hard to create obstacles for him.

“They never wanted a Kashmiri to own a restaurant here because they thought it will cause them losses,” Hassan said with a smile.

“However, Almighty had some different plans for me, and today I’m here quite well settled.”

But things changed in the Covid era — handing him a daily loss of around Rs 10,000.

Yet, he didn’t shy away from adhering to the quintessential Kashmiri hospitality.

“My own beloved people were stranded here in Delhi during Covid lockdown, and I just couldn’t have let them die with hunger,” Hassan recalled the initial Covid-lockdown experience.

“I provided them with food for around two months and along with the help of the Delhi government, arranged a special train for them from Delhi to Jammu. Sustaining lockdown was hard, but with the help of Allah, I’m happy I could play my part to spread some smiles.”

His ‘service to humanity’ came when he had already lost around Rs 20 lakhs in pandemic.

He said he could’ve reversed that loss by sacking his employees. However, he still remembers his own struggling days in Delhi.

This same compassion reflects in Towheed Alam, one of Hassan’s employees.

“Hassan Sahab has treated us like his own sons,” Alam told me as we sat to talk about the Budgam man in Old Delhi.

“I have never faced any problem in my entire life working here. He is a great man and he cares for us. I can’t expect this sort of love and care from a local restaurant owner, and he being a Kashmiri has proved true to his identity and every other thing Kashmiris are known for.”

Most of Hassan’s customers are from Kashmir actually. No matter wherever they stay, be it Trans-Yamuna, Nizamuddin, Okhla, or Malviya Nagar, they all come to eat here.

“I have seen people coming from Sopore and Anantnag especially for my restaurant,” Hassan continued.

“They say ‘even if Karim give us food for free, yet we shall come to Hassan Sahab’s place.’ It not just makes me feel alive, but also compels me to give them a good discount.”

But carrying ‘Kashmiri Identity’ in Delhi comes at its own costs, especially on the eve of Independence Day or Republic Day, when Kashmiris are asked to leave the hotels they are staying in.

“Not just this,” Hassan added, “hotel owners are also strictly advised to not give space to Kashmiris. Why are my fellow people subjected to such harsh treatment?”

Recently, he said, one of his ex-workers was arrested for trespassing into the parliament.

“As soon as I heard about his arrest, I rushed to the police station and got that kid out because I knew he was new to Delhi and wasn’t familiar with the area. He wasn’t a trespasser, yet he was harassed. So being a Kashmiri does bring problems sometimes.”

But compared to his brethren, Hassan feels some sort of safety in Delhi now.

“Here, the authorities may question you regarding your ethnicity, but it isn’t much difficult now,” he said.

“However, there was a time between 1990s and early 2000s, when things were tough for Kashmiris in Delhi. I remember one Delhi Police ACP, Rajbir Singh. He was notorious for arresting and torturing Kashmiris.”

Amid these capital concerns, Hassan often craves for his roots. His family in Delhi gets ecstatic when they’ve to leave for Kashmir every year in the summers.

“They all love and crave for Kashmir,” Hassan said. “My daughter and grandchildren enjoy more in Kashmir than here. They eagerly wait for summers all year and when it comes, they get super excited. I love seeing them happy.”

Today, even after spending 35 years of his life in Delhi, Hassan still feels he doesn’t belong anywhere in the world but his homeland.

“I miss the period I could’ve lived there in the valley. I’ve informed my family that, the moment I die, take my body to Kashmir, and bury me there only. I earned a lot here, I got a name, fame, and everything, but today I believe it wasn’t worth leaving my homeland behind for this life. I always miss my home, my Kashmir,” Hassan said with tears in his eyes.

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