Men dressed in red polo shirts serve three occupied tables at a well-lit, high-ceilinged restaurant, its pale walls done up with striking paintings and red lamps. Opened in May, Tihar Kitchen is yet to launch formally, but the daily footfall of an average 15-20 diners keeps the limited staff quick on the draw.
Apart from the uniform, all three men share an attentive and courteous manner. But another factor unites them: they are inmates of one of the largest prison complexes in the world, Tihar. Currently in semi-open, with a track record of good conduct, the three waiting tables — Sanjeev, Md. Sabir and Asif Mohammad — are convicts. Some like Sanjeev and Asif are nearing the end of their terms.
For years, Tihar has struggled to balance the punitive aspect of a prison sentence with rehabilitation. With recent efforts of vocational training, including weaving, painting, carpentry and computer training among others, offered to its 14,000 plus inmates, the high-security jail has managed to lower recidivism rates.
“Due to the restrictions on the inmates’ mobility, the vocational training imparted to them often can’t be put to immediate practical use. However, with this initiative, they get to put their skills to use and hone them. Since they have an unblemished record, we allow them to face the public. Their past should not haunt them and before they are released, they should be ready to be re-integrated into society,” says Sudhir Yadav, Director General, Tihar.
Tihar Kitchen could be a restaurant anywhere but is situated within the penitentiary, half a kilometre from the prison dormitories — a fact easy to forget while eating there — with an exit facing the main Jail Road. An erstwhile food court, that too positioned itself as a locus of reconciliation between prisoners and the world outside, it has been given a makeover by the owners of China Fare in Khan Market.
“We started training them four months before the restaurant opened. These are practical skills that they can put to use once they are released. In fact, they can continue to work with us if they wish to. When they see people earning Rs 25,000 – 35,000 by working at a restaurant, they know that they at least have the assurance of earning that amount when they leave,” says Amen Lamington, owner of the restaurant.
Tucked between an embossed leather folder, the menu card offers Indian Chinese and North Indian fare. Pindi chana (Rs 280), aloo gobhi (Rs 150), kadhai paneer (Rs 250), tandoori masala chaap (Rs 250), seekh kebab (Rs 240 for chicken and Rs 280 for mutton), rogan josh (Rs 450) stand shoulder-to-shoulder with chicken in hot garlic sauce
(Rs 300), in pepper sauce (Rs 300), manchurian (Rs 300), spring rolls (Rs 200), dim sums (Rs 250), chicken Hong Kong style (Rs 300), hakka noodles (Rs 200), Singapore noodles (Rs 250) and chilly paneer (Rs 250).
“When I first started waiting tables, I used to get very nervous. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to take orders properly or how the paying public would react,” says Asif, who when questioned about confronting public attitudes, answers with a wry smile.
Though they aren’t paid for their services at the restaurant, they get to pocket the tips diners leave behind. But it isn’t for the tuppence, more for “the mahaul (atmosphere) that we work here. It’s much better than the atmosphere inside the jail. The day goes by smoothly,” says Sanjeev, whose release from the jail is slated for the end of the year.
The Tihar Kitchen, that delivers to areas that fall within the radius of five kilometers, has a strict no-alcohol policy. Open from noon to 11 pm, the food at the restaurant, prepared using masalas and oil made by the inmates, is homelike, delicious and well-portioned.
At a table, Sabir sits with his wife and son who are visiting him. His wife jokes that the jail has taught him what she never could — to cook. He rebuttals, “I knew how to make kebabs, korma and biryani but have learned how to cook several vegetarian dishes here. They aren’t made in our house, which is why I didn’t know their recipes.”
While the three seem to enjoy their daily chores and interactions with the civilians at the restaurant, none of them wants to continue to work at one. Both Sanjeev and Sabir worked as drivers before they were convicted and harbour dreams of buying their own vehicles for commercial use once set free. Asif, whose frame is rather telling of his penchant for bodybuilding, has already secured a job through a friend at a local gym in Northwest Delhi. He was to be released past weekend.