Archives and Aloo Parathas :
The Punjabi Deli

Jagdeep Raina
→ MFA PTG, 2016

On Journey
The train’s brief deception jolted its riders. The bulge of humanshanging out of the doorway distended perilously, like a soap bubbleat its limit.
    —Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance

    It’s the F train that takes me there. I get on whenever I desire, be it at 4 PM, midnight, or 3 in the morning. Sitting down, standing up, I ride the subway deep into Manhattan’s downtown. At 2nd Avenue the train comes to a screeching halt, the doors slide open, and I wander into the damp, sticky underground tunnels. Rats scurry around, eyes glistening and mouths perked open, swallowing whatever discarded food they can. The stairs appear, and I take them two at a time, racing to the top, and suddenly I’m outside. Sometimes the air is scorching hot, sometimes the sky spits rain at me, and sometimes the wind is mercilessly icy. No matter the time or weather, I exit right toward 114 E. 1st Street, where the leafy green awning on the wornout tenement building beckons me closer. PUNJABI GROCERY & DELI 24/7 100% VEGETARIAN, it calls. Faster and faster I run until I am at the threshold. Opening the door, I am immersed in the strong, familiar waft of curries, hot chai, and Punjabi snacks. The brown-skinned faces, their eyes twinkling, kindly welcome me in. I know I am home.

On Arrival and Settlement
Every achievement requires sacrifice.
    —Jenny Holzer, “Truisms”

Kulwinder Singh at the Punjabi Deli, 1995

    Kulwinder Singh was born in a newly independent post-Partition India. Long gone were the days of Sikh kingdoms and the land of five rivers, replaced by British colonialism and its aftermath. Kulwinder’s family was poor and couldn’t afford to keep him at home, so he was sent to his uncle’s hut in the village of Jagraonin Punjab, where he worked to put food on the table. At the age of 15 he found work on cargo ships on the southern coast of India. In the late 1970s, one of those ships took him to New York City. Kulwinder found himself sleeping under a bridge for a few days while looking for a job. He became a cook, making $60 per week. He rented a room with five other men and took on a series of labor-intensive jobs, developing family-like relationships with his co-workers. Soon, the nickname Jani, “known by everyone,” attached itself to Kulwinder’s skin. The years flew by, and Kulwinder Jani began to drive a cab in the city, where he eventually saved enough money to buy his first property in Queens. He brought his younger brothers and parents to New York, wanting them, too, to taste their dreams and the opportunity for a better life.

    Jani discovered 114 E. 1st Street in the early 1990s. The ground floor was a grocery shop, run by local residents of the East Village. Out front, fourteen cab drivers could fit on the wide street at once. They would park there to rest and use the bathroom. It was a haven. The potential of the location began to grow on Jani; he saw it could serve as a place of community not only for the cab drivers and neighborhood residents but for the Punjabi diasporain New York City. That potential inspired Jani to work tirelessly to save his money, and in 1993 he made an offer to take over the existing lease, marking the Punjabi Deli’s birth. 

    This is the story I heard from Jashon Singh—the 24-year-old Wall Street banker and son of Kulwinder Jani—who introduced me to what this place has meant to so many South Asians living in the West. The Punjabi Deli has become an iconic site in the South Asian American community. It is a symbol for hunger—a hunger that extends beyond the consumption of foods into the desire to create a sense of home in a place so unsettlingly foreign. And Kulwinder’ story echoes so many others that line the ears and hearts of first-generation children of immigrants—of a single person’s will to accomplish a dream.

On a Space for Everyone
The fancier the place the poorer the food.
    —Har Dev Singh, Folk Tales and Proverbs of Punjabi People

    Every time I go to the Punjabi Deli, it is crammed full of bustling New Yorkers. The colorfully lit space, filled with the aroma of food and sounds of conversation and music, is a quintessential, cosmopolitan New York space. A man with a turban and beard ispressed up against a twenty-something, white trust-fund baby who is beside a taxi driver, who is beside the drunk guy from outside, who is beside an old woman who lives in the apartment across the street. Hierarchies vanish here, replaced by cuisine, culture, and community.

The Deli holds a special place in individual histories. Jashon’s most vivid memories of the Deli revolve around music; his love of music began here. In the 1990s, the era of the Walkman, the Delisold cassettes of music ranging from Indian classical performers such as Ustad Zakir Hussain and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Punjabi folk singers like Malkit Singh and Kudeep Manak. Today, rows of CDs accompany the food on the shelves. My own memories of this place include sitting on the steps next door at 2 AM with my friends, raging about topics I no longer remember, and arriving fresh off the morning Peter Pan bus, desperate for a breakfast of chai and pakoras. My brother, the Canadian comedian Jus Reign, remembers the feeling of visiting the site for the first time, searching for a home-cooked meal and something authentic. A photograph marks his
visit; he stands proudly in front of the Deli in a long white T-shirt,
charcoal jeans, black sunglasses, and a leather jacket. The photograph has over twenty thousand likes on Instagram.

On Beginnings and Endings
Real estate speculation, the outsourcing of industrial production,
and the financial and tech-sector monopolies have, in various com-binations, produced swaths of ruin and neglect, gleaming centers of
culture, and gentrified post-industrial hangouts for screen workersand creative types.
—Martha Rosler, Culture Class

The East Houston Reconstruction Project (which has blocked cab-driver parking) and gentrification on the Lower East Side (which has led to sharply increased rent) have taken a toll on the Punjabi Deli, as documented in the New York Times, the documentary Cabbies and Chai Unite Lower East Siders, and #SAVEPUNJABIDELI social media activism. Today South Asians from across the world flock to the Deli to pose out front, elevating the space to a tourist destination on par with the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, and Central Park, but with none of their perma-nence. A day will come when the Deli will disappear, like so many mom and pop shops in New York that have been bought out by developers and become chain stores and overpriced boutiques and restaurants. The consequences of these disappearances are vile, for they mercilessly strip a city of history, culture, and community.

As an artist who studies archival material to uncover andrevive Punjabi diasporic history, I have been deeply drawn to the Deli, examined the countless photographs taken at the space, and conducted a steady stream of oral history interviews. My workforces me to be sincere about the present—about presence—in the face of disappearance, to pay tribute to those who have sustainedand nurtured this place, from the Punjabi women cooking heaps offood daily in the kitchen in Queens to the tired workers who gather here from dawn till dusk to the first generation children of immigrants like myself who seek to understand the importance of such a site, honoring it in the ways they can: a photo, a story, a film, asound bite, a text.

To acknowledge the physical disappearance of this site is also to acknowledge the possibility of its resurrection in such records. But there is no avoiding the hole that the Deli’s likely closure will leave for the community and for the Punjabi diaspora. No archive lasts forever.

Jagdeep Raina is in the Painting MFA program, class of 2016.