Mission Delhi – Pooran Chandra Melkani, Paharganj
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Lamps are off. Tables are empty. Old posters on the wall are showing photos of Buddha and Benares, palak paneer and vegetable burger, etc. A white glow is emanating from a soft drinks refrigerator in the corner.
This was a popular eatery in Delhi’s backpackers-friendly hotel district of Paharganj, mostly teeming with foreign tourists. It’s been closed since the coronavirus-triggered lockdown in late March last year.
A yellowing flyer on the cash counter says: “Due to Covid-19 emergency, this restaurant will temporarily interrupt the buffet breakfast. Also, salads and untoasted breads will be unavailable. This is a precaution taken for your own safety. Inconvenience is regretted.”
Now, a man appears in this silent dark. Pooran Chandra Melkani has worked in this place for 20 years as a waiter, his salary supporting his family of mother, wife and four daughters in his mountain village of Almora, Uttarakhand.
“I went back home,” he says, explaining that most of the eatery’s employees have been out of work since the start of the pandemic. He returned to the capital a few days back to settle dues with the employer. “I got the money I was owed, so I’m feeling relieved.” In his mid-40s, Mr Melkani exhausted all his savings during the long stay in the village. “It’s impossible to find a good job in Uttarakhand… my bank balance is almost zero.” He says he had no choice but to get back to Delhi and look for work.
It was a tough decision, because Mr Melkani’s daughters—Vandana, Babita, Monika and the eldest Jyoti, who is in the all-important 12th standard—were dependent on his mobile for their online classes. Since their school is closed, too, due to the pandemic. “I hope they can make arrangement with the neighbour’s mobile,” he says, looking lost.
For now, Mr Melkani has got a job in a Paharganj hotel as a waiter in the room-service. “But there are hardly any guests.” He is giving himself time until April. “I’m hoping that by then the coronavirus will be gone, and the foreigners will start getting their tourist visas and show up again… if this happens, my old restaurant will reopen and life will be back to normal.”
What if the pandemic continues and the foreigners don’t return?
In that case, Mr Melkani who has spent half his life in Delhi will “go back to the village for good, get a cow and start a dairy.”
[This is the 390th portrait of Mission Delhi project]