An Indian Walks into a Nigerian Bar…

It is a life of rigid separation from the society around them for Delhi’s large population of African migrants, writes Open‘s Divya Guha. To be an African in India means ignoring the frequent racist taunts of the locals; it means a longing for the taste of food from the homeland. And it means difficulties finding a barber who can deal with your kinky hair.

It is Saturday night and we are headed to Michelle’s, which I will call not a dive but an African kitchen. It is located across the road from expensive real estate in South Delhi, in a busy ghetto. The rents here are low and the transport links excellent. This attracts a large number of down-at-heel tenants, among whom is a large, very visible, minority of West Africans who keep resolutely to themselves. In the locality’s dreary, unpaved, narrow streets, they strut about fashionably- men kitted out in clothes two sizes too big and women, often, in two sizes too small.

Many Indians in this neighbourhood are a scourge-they jeer at Black men and women in the streets more unkindly than at long-suffering native women. The Africans rarely ever turn around to fight, even when they are called cannibals, which is the most common and cruel taunt directed at them. The targets’swagger remains unhindered and they seem equipped for these insults. Most members of the African community here speak some Hindi, surprisingly unaccented and confidently-their way of being smooth with the xenophobic oafs they must put up with. If they must engage, they do so with humour. If whilst walking with them, you stand up to fight off leering racists, they feel embarrassed and show gratitude by buying you a drink or several-and I haven’t met a stingy African yet.

This rich mix lives alongside poor, young migrant labourers who occupy the area’s most squalid pockets, which are scattered, but everywhere. Many buildings here are illegal-a situation managed by colluding landlords, local entrepreneurs and government officials. Buildings are always being demolished, making the area look like a war zone. A newly-broken down building gets as much attention as a dead rodent in this neighbourhood, full of open drains. And when it rains, the standard of living, poor by most yardsticks, falls a bit further.

Michelle’s is not a pretend speakeasy of the kind popular in, say, New York-a poncey hangout with 1920s interiors and a concealed facade. This is the real thing. If you are looking for it, there is nothing above ground to give it away.

Determined patrons must weave their way through a large, metal gate, a patch of slum housing with communal bathrooms, sludge, slurry and flies. They must walk past open ventilators, which reveal harshly-lit basement workshops where men sew at machines at all times of the day and night. The kitchen is just a short walk past a vast dumping ground. And the final sensory assault before arrival is the pong of perspiration past a sweatshop-called that for a reason-with which Michelle’s shares its basement corridor.

Inside, the decor is artfully sparse and inexpensive; there is no air conditioning. But the place is not unfashionable. Hidden in the shadows of one of the city’s busiest, most banal shopping districts, this basement hideout has an allure almost like that of an opium den. Drinking goes on unabated, except for the occasional knock on the door from the friendly local constabulary. In an age when practically nothing is forbidden, the idea that Michelle’s may not have all the right legal permissions adds an undeniable excitement to its authentic African fare.

Michelle is quite a woman. On a muggy monsoon night, the forty-something entrepreneurial mother of two looks relaxed sitting at the kitchen table, sipping on a neat double of 100 Pipers whisky, which she pours discreetly out of her ‘sister’ Edith’s tumbler. Edith is a country ‘sistah’, not related by blood but by race.

Michelle is concerned, like Edith’s other well-wishers, that she is about to become very inebriated. But Edith is showing no signs of flagging or restraint. She looks quite happy to party and is welcoming of a tobacco- and filter-less spliff being passed around. Edith’s hair is in a bob of tight curls, but this changes from week to week. Her skin is a shiny coffee brown. She is dressed daringly in a see-through ivory top, a turquoise bra, leopard print leggings, and a lot of chunky golden jewellery. She looks ‘on’, not drunk, speaking animatedly in Cameroonian patois with Michelle.

The francophones natter non-stop. But it is not hard to tell when they stop discussing their lives and start discussing you. Very often, these discussions veer to the love lives of the people they entertain. Michelle is full of girly advice most evenings, agog at how girls of such and such age can be unmarried. She tops up her tumbler again with whisky, this time from a near-empty bottle, looks deep into my eyes, and blatantly promotes her favourite patron as a potential husband, asking, “Don’t you dream of having an African baby?” I regard this with cultural distance, though I am slightly weirded out by her directness.

This is not a place where you might come and read a newspaper and enjoy a coffee. African expatriates turn up here for their various fixes-food, brain-dead Ghanaian pop videos, booze, THC.

Well-dressed patrons promenade through the corridor. In the evenings, this passage is full of the smell of deep fried tilapia, the kitchen’s bestselling dish. Other items on the menu include goat meat in a roux, or stewed. Everything comes with plantain, a finely chopped scallion, tomato and chive salad, and no cutlery. A plantain is a large banana; the browner and more bruised it looks, the sweeter it is, the better to deep fry and eat with the red chilli chutney and Hellman’s mayonnaise Michelle serves with it. A basin of water arrives at the table first which means food is on the way. Whoever wishes to eat from Michelle’s generous portions may rinse their fingers and dig in.

The cooking area looks more old than grimy, which does this otherwise clean-ish kitchen an injustice. I imagine the plump Michelle-always in flat slippers, with a snatchpack and a baseball cap-lording it over her employees like an African dominatrix with a penchant for tight lycra, which she wears often.

‘Mamma’-as everyone sweetly calls her, with a higher-pitched emphasis on the first ‘ma’, and the second syllable said a bit softer with a fall: ‘MA-mma’-is a happy, church-going Cameroonian with strong, conservative family values. One could accuse her of being a bit sanctimonious from time to time, but thankfully, Michelle is never a bore. She is a hard-partying entrepreneur who has all the goings- on of her place on a tight leash. She could be relaxed and joking, and suddenly turn around to bark an order at her kitchen staff-Ike, Austin or Kingsley, all strapping Nigerian lads-who promptly cower and do as they are told.

Everyone who comes in greets her with a hug or a handshake and a little chatter. She used to run a similar establishment in Dubai, where she lived before coming to India. She has been here for four years now. She is an old hand at this hospitality business, making mental, not written, notes of all that is eaten and drunk on busy and lean nights; a perfect hostess-warm, welcoming and attentive.

The early experience of going to this bar inspires total contempt for the rash of smiling men who ask for your number. You can be creative about how to dodge unwanted attention: “Can we wait ’til we are better friends?” Be firm and they will back off faster. Be polite and it takes longer with some than others. A chef who says he runs an African restaurant on Devli Road hands me a card. I also have a few barbers’ business cards by the end of the night.

Hair is a big deal, obviously. Even the grandpas are primly coiffured, to say nothing of the younger lot, who take appearance very seriously. Specialised African barbers are clearly essential. Like butchers for Tibetans, as the Dalai Lama says.

Brenda, a beautiful soft-spoken Rwandan who has her hair done every other weekend asks me if my hair is real (yes). She tells me one of the most profitable exports to Africa from this country is Indian hair, which she and her husband buy in bulk, as wigs, from Delhi’s INA Market and export all over the African continent.

A boy walks up. He has a Mercedes Benz keychain dangling next to a Ferrari keychain on his belt. Turns out he drives a Toyota Corolla. I am introduced to his friends-Miracle, KC, Junior, Professor, Bock, Benghazi, Blaze and Badshah. They all make rounds at Michelle’s for business and leisure, or just to put their feet up in a place where they recognise people.

One of the kitchen boys, Austin, is beheading kilos of red chillies with his hands while singing to himself. We strike up a conversation and he asks me why Indians see faults in everything Black: “I walk past people and they cover their noses… Indians are not very civilised sometimes, are they?” He asks me if I am Christian-another question that comes up often-and then says, “Indians burn their dead. I used to live in Uttam Nagar [near a cremation ground]. That stinks.”

‘Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares,’ wrote Ernest Hemingway, ‘if you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.’ And truly, all present here-the reserved or hustling men, the talkative or quiet women, and me, the Indian interloper- are mutually suspicious and curious. The suspicions they have are due to the threats they feel from the widespread racism they experience in the world outside, but over the weeks we become increasingly familiar and fond of each other.

Normally what does the trick are a few key Nigerian words: Fela and Kuti work, as do Biafra and Ojukwu. And though this is thoroughly inadequate, the revellers are pleased that, at least, I know Nigeria from Niger. That’s enough to expect in a country of morons who cover their noses on seeing a passing African.

Divya Guha