Photo essay

Photos of Naanwais, the Afghan bakers who are recreating the taste of home in Delhi

The capital is home to a sizeable Afghan migrant population, some of whom have brought with them their traditional art of bread-making.

Pukhtoon Sediqi, 24, works at the Afghan Bakery in South Delhi’s Bhogal. Owned by his relative, it is one of the many bakeries that serve fresh bread made by naanwais, the traditional bread makers, to the growing Afghan diaspora in the nation capital. Sedeqi had served in the Afghan national army for three years before moving to India. “At least there is no war here and one can work,” said Sediqi, in a mix of Hindi and Urdu. “Back home, my family was attacked by [the] Taliban because I joined [the] army.”

Sediqi lives with his parents, six siblings, wife and four children in Jungpura. “Delhi is good but who wants to leave home. Yeh majboori hai (it’s a compulsion).” He arrived in Delhi a few months ago, part of the steady trickle of migrants from Afghanistan who started leaving the country in the late 1970s after the Soviet invasion. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says around 14,000 Afghans live in Delhi, as of July.

Fleeing the war, they have tried to recreate their life from back home, including through food. Since the late 1990s, naanwais have been baking and selling a variety of traditional Afghan breads such as naan Afghani, roghani and lavasa in Delhi, adding yet another chapter to the city’s diverse culinary landscape.

Pukhtoon Sediqi left Afghanistan after his family was targeted by the Taliban.
Pukhtoon Sediqi left Afghanistan after his family was targeted by the Taliban.
“There is war everywhere in our country, which has resulted in a lack of jobs,” said Jalaludin Islami, a 31-year-old baker from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province. Islami now runs a bakery in Lajpat Nagar.
“There is war everywhere in our country, which has resulted in a lack of jobs,” said Jalaludin Islami, a 31-year-old baker from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province. Islami now runs a bakery in Lajpat Nagar.
Syed Bashir, 42, has been living in Bhogal for the past six years, selling Afghan breads. He initially worked at friend’s bakery, but soon after started his own. Before migrating to Delhi, Bashir owned a bakery in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city. “Business is good here,” said Bashir. “I had to shut my shop in Kabul because of the war. I don’t know if I will ever go back, but for now I am focussed on my business here.” He lives with his wife and four children, who are studying in a local school.
Syed Bashir, 42, has been living in Bhogal for the past six years, selling Afghan breads. He initially worked at friend’s bakery, but soon after started his own. Before migrating to Delhi, Bashir owned a bakery in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city. “Business is good here,” said Bashir. “I had to shut my shop in Kabul because of the war. I don’t know if I will ever go back, but for now I am focussed on my business here.” He lives with his wife and four children, who are studying in a local school.

The number of Afghan bakeries has risen over the years – from one in 1997, Lajpat Nagar today has five Afghan bread shops. They are also found in other South Delhi neighbourhoods such Khirki, where a large number of Afghans live and run small businesses.

Most of these bakeries open around daybreak and continue till late into the night, serving freshly-made breads. Naan is a staple food in Afghanistan, eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, it is rarely made at home as the process is time-consuming: it requires a large tandoor and a lot of fuel. Instead, the naans have been traditionally bought from the local bakeries.

An Afghan boy waits for customers at a bakery in Bhogal.
An Afghan boy waits for customers at a bakery in Bhogal.

The naanwai starts his day around 5 am, preparing the dough, which is usually made of maida or atta. Yeast is added to help it rise. The dough is then divided into balls. The average weight of a dough ball used to make an Afghani naan – a dense bread traditionally eaten with a vegetable and meat stew – is around 250 grams. On the other hand, the dough balls used to make lavasa – a flatbread usually had with tea – are lighter and flakier.

Once the dough balls are weighed, they are wrapped in folds of soft cloth before being stretched and flattened. The entire process is done by hand. In the case of roghani, a little oil is applied on each bread before baking, resulting in a buttery naan, usually eaten at teatime.

A wooden stamp or a hair comb is used to mark a pattern on the surface of the bread. This is done to aid the baking process, as the breads are quite thick, as well as for decorative purposes. A few poppy or sesame seeds are sprinkled on the naans before they are placed in the tandoor. The entire process takes about two to three hours from start to finish.

The Delhi naanwais make the naans in batches of 30 and anywhere between 600 and 1,200 naans are made in a day. Usually two to three people – often men – work simultaneously to make the breads. Each naan costs between Rs 10 and Rs 20 and the Afghani naan is the most popular. Some bakers have also started making sambosa (an Afghani non-vegetarian version of the samosa) and cakes.

The dough balls are carefully weighed.
The dough balls are carefully weighed.
They are flattened before being wrapped in folds of soft cloth.
They are flattened before being wrapped in folds of soft cloth.
A traditional Afghani stamp is used to dot the surface.
A traditional Afghani stamp is used to dot the surface.
These holes help in the baking process.
These holes help in the baking process.
Naanwais at work in Bhogal.
Naanwais at work in Bhogal.
Most of these bakeries open at dawn to serve freshly-made breads and continue till late into the night.
Most of these bakeries open at dawn to serve freshly-made breads and continue till late into the night.

In Afghanistan, the bakeries traditionally use wood-fired tandoors. However, in Delhi, most Afghan bakeries use gas-fitted tandoors as procuring wood is a costly and tedious process in the city. Unlike the gas-fitted tandoors, which can be accommodated in small spaces, the wood-fired tandoors need large shops with wide chimneys to get rid of the smoke. “Gas tandoors impart a different taste to the bread [not as smoky as the bread from wood-fired tandoors] but getting a slice of your culture in Delhi is a big deal and no-one complains about the taste here,” said a bakery worker, who didn’t wish to be named.

The Afghani naans are significantly different from their local counterparts, found in dhabas and restaurants across Delhi, both in terms of size and shape. While most of these breads are consumed by Afghans, Kashmiris and people from Middle Eastern countries with a similar culture of bread-making, some locals have also developed a taste for them.

“I like this roti,” said Ganesh, a salesman who lives in Bhogal. “I buy it regularly because it’s fresh and cheap. I eat it with sabzi or dahi.”

Ganesh is a regular customer.
Ganesh is a regular customer.

All photos by Aabid Shafi.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.