(Originally part of a Matador Assignment)
In Hindi, Dhaba is a word that is used to describe any eatery that is not fancy enough to be called a restaurant. For many owners, it is a derogatory word for a place that they have worked so hard to establish.
The Darbar is not one of those places. Here, the word “dhaba” may just make the owner smile and hand you an extra roti. You enter through the small greenish wooden door into this room that has rusted windows with no panes, seats that make cranking noises when you sit on them or move a muscle, and some wonderful smell coming out of the kitchen area, which is basically a section of the room separated by a dirty old curtain amateurishly hung from the ceiling.
On the walls, you will see the words “No Alcohol Allowed” written in red block letters, yet most of the time, the room is jam packed with people having the divine tandoori chicken with a lot of country liquor. It serves as a reminder that every rule, here in Uttar Pradesh, can be twisted, and broken if you know the right people.
We enter the room and my friend whispers a quick “Namaste” to the owner of The Darbar, Saleem. He is the man you need to know to break the no alcohol rule. Saleem gives us a nod and a smile, his signature move to an evening greeting. My friend Ricky is, unlike me, a local and he knew the people that we need to know.
Sitting in our usual booth was Bonney, with a glass of drink and a half eaten plate of chicken in front of him. I notice the leg piece is gone. Being his favourite piece, it was probably the first one to go.
“What the hell happened today?” Bonney asked us as we took the seats in front of him.
“ Don’t ask.. it was disgusting.” Ricky replied as he poured us some of the super strong whiskey that city boys like me have a tough time with.
“What was the motive?” Bonney asked again probably looking for a proper reply this time.
“It is always about the property.” Bonney said shaking his head.
We were talking about a murder that took place just outside my workplace that day. Yes, a murder!
“Head shots, weren’t they?” I asked Ricky, who seemed to know all the insider information about the event. He has connections.
Ricky emptied down his glass in one go and looked at me and then at Bonney, who too was listening intently. He moved forward, the seat cranked due to the shift of weight, and whispered “The first one was on his chest and he fell down. The second one was shot from point blank range, right on his head. His brain was splattered all over the road until the police cleaned up the mess.”
You could feel the sadness emitting out of Bonney not out of pity for the victim, but on missing out on all the action. He had spent the day 100 Kms away in Delhi, attending the retirement party of his uncle. As much as he hates to admit it, the fact was he led a nice normal life. But he liked the masala, almost as much as I hated working here in Uttar Pradesh.
We ordered another plate of Tandoori Chicken. The waiter, an eight year old kid, shouted out the order to the kitchen staff.
“Has the murderer been caught yet?” I asked.
“He pays the police to be free.” Ricky said before he took town another peg. “He will not be caught as long as he does not come back here in the near future.”
Having lived here all his life, he seemed almost jaded about something that was as gruesome as murder.
I was about to ask another question when we heard a glass breaking and some loud curse words. It was coming from the corner table.
Two drunks acting tough in The Darbar…again.
I had seen these short bursts of drunken anger before and I knew what was coming next.
Saleem made his way towards the table and got hold of one guy by the collar. Before he could say anything, his right cheek took a thunderous slap.
A slap so loud that it quietened the whole room.
Before he could recover from the shock, his left cheek took another. Saleem almost threw him out of the room.
The second drunk had taken the cue and was already on his way out of the room. I saw Saleem snatching away his wallet, taking out a couple of extra 1000 rupee notes before throwing it back in his face.
You do not mess with Saleem on his turf.
As the conversations and the drinking resumed, I took big gulp out of my glass and told myself….
“In a few months you will be out of here. Till then, just keep breathing.”