Mission Delhi – Aslam Khan, Joseph Stein Lane
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Some people, both living and dead, embody within themselves the spirit of a place. Late architect Joseph Stein’s presence is intensely palpable about the corridors of the India International Center (IIC), one of the many New Delhi buildings he designed. In fact, the IIC is identifiable with quite a few characters. Such as scholar Kapila Vatsyayan, who died last year. IIC’s resident matriarch, the staff addressed her fondly as mataji.
Another person inexorably entwined with this members-only institution is Aslam Khan. For years, he was the face of its Main Dining Hall. Often standing behind the host’s desk, this gracious gent greeted the who’s who of Delhi society as they would saunter in with their VVIP comrades.
“IIC is the sum total of my life,” Mr Khan says this afternoon, strolling on the pavement that runs along the IIC. “I spent more than 40 years here,” he says, gesturing towards the building. “I joined as a waiter in May, 1976, and retired as an assistant manager in February, 2016.” Mr Khan received post-retirement extensions but quit during the first coronavirus-triggered lockdown last year in March.
The IIC’s Dining Hall has been known for its courtly long-serving staffers acquainted with the eccentricities of their regular guests. The soft-spoken Mr Khan epitomises that grace. He recalls the time he spent in his “karmabhoomi,” the IIC. “When he once came to the Dining Hall, I asked him, ‘Are you (actor) Aamir Khan?’ After he nodded, I said, ‘I am Aslam Khan. I will show you your seat.” A few months after she lost the election in 1977, Mr Khan served former prime minister Indira Gandhi an apricot-filled meringue which the chef had named in her honour. Mr Khan recalls, “Madam asked me ‘Yeh kya hai? (What is this?)’ I said, ‘This is Gateau Indira. It is just like you—tough from the outside, soft from the inside.’ Madam started laughing.”
Mr Khan has a treasure trove of similar IIC stories. “I know many, many small things of many, many big people.” The other day he received a call from an IIC patron asking him to book a table for three in the Dining Hall. Mr Khan explained he was no longer with the IIC. “I anyway arranged a booking for him by calling my contacts in the Dining Hall.” Now Mr Khan turns into a lane named after Joseph Stein, the IIC architect. He stands by the signage and poses for a portrait.
[This is the 426th portrait of Mission Delhi project]