NEW DELHI — While the grill man stirred the glowing coals and the bread man rolled balls of dough, Akram Khan, the waiter, watched the traffic rumble down the pocked road.
Soon, crowds would start arriving at this sidewalk kebab stand, families in expensive cars and partygoers fizzy with drink.
Most wolf down their food, sweating over the spicy chutney while they gossip about politics, cricket and the missing monsoon. But linger on this cracked slab of pavement and you'll witness the frustrations, hopes, contradictions and pleasures of life in modern India writ small.
Aap Ki Khatir, or At Your Service, is an improvisation, like so much else in India. It's made up of little more than well-seasoned meat, a grill and a plastic set of a table and chairs.
It's not zoned, licensed or subject to any health codes, so the owners pay a monthly bribe to a local police officer, a government official, and an electrical engineer who keeps the stolen power running. Countless businesses have similar arrangements, including all the kebab stand's neighbors.
'Sufi shrine' foils cops
Money can get you far in India. But religion can get you further.
Several years ago, as Akram tells it, the city planned to clear the ramshackle block that's home to the kebab stand, a shuttered beauty parlor and an auto repair shop. Overnight, the community built a small Sufi shrine on the pavement and convinced the authorities that it had always been there. Disturbing it would anger the neighborhood, they said. The government backed down.
Point to the fresh garlands and candles now strewn across the fake shrine, and Akram shrugs.
"This is India," he said. "If you put a rock on the ground, people will worship it."
Another maxim: If you have an open space, someone will fill it. As evidence, he pointed to a rival kebab stand, recently arrived and just steps away.
It was opened by a former customer of Akram who copied the formula. The name Aap Ki Khatir became Sab Ki Khatir -- At Everyone's Service. Both establishments boast creamy chicken malai tikka, as decadent as an ice cream sundae, and kakori rolls made of butter-soft mutton. Though the cooks and owners are all Muslim, they don't serve beef out of respect for their Hindu customers.
The mechanic's towers of tires form the border between the grills, a line the rival waiters dare not cross.
"He is a friend-enemy," Akram says of the former customer, a neighborhood figure he has known for years. "We no longer talk. But this is what happens in business."