Thursday, January 19, 2017
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We don’t need no school

Dropouts from a region in Mewar are becoming cooks to serve the Ambanis, Hindujas and other millionaires15 Jan 2017 | 1:07 AM

Narayan Lal Menaria (32) had dropped out of Class IX in school to pursue his dream in Mumbai.

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Narendra Kaushik

Narayan Lal Menaria (32) had dropped out of Class IX in school to pursue his dream in Mumbai. Resident of Menar, a non-descript, grimy village, nearly 30 km from Udaipur on the Udaipur-Chittorgarh highway in Rajasthan, Narayan’s dream was to become a cook and settle abroad like his elder brother Hukami Lal, who had quit school even earlier than him to operate the kitchen of an Indian diamond merchant in Hong Kong.

Narayan cooked for a Jain family in Mumbai for more than eight years beginning 2001. In 2009, when head of the Jain family asked him if he would like to work in the kitchen of his friend in London, he grabbed the offer. “I took the first available train from Mumbai to Udaipur to collect my passport,” he recollects.

Since then, Narayan has dished out Gujarati, Marwari, Punjabi, Chinese, Mexican, Italian and continental dishes (all vegetarian) for different families of Indian expatriates.

Father of two — a son and a daughter — Narayan today works with Paresh Bhai Virani, an Indian expatriate of Gujarati descent, and earns more than £1300 (Rs1,08,695.95) every month. His family stays with his parents, along with his brother Hukami Lal’s family in Menar.

The success of Narayan Lal finds resonance in the story of many hundred others from Menar and its neighbouring villages, who dropped out of school and have run kitchens of billionaires and celebrities like Ambanis, Hindujas, Lata Mangeskar, Vinod Khanna and Juhi Chawla for long. At least a few hundred of these cooks have served Indian billionaires settled across seven continents.

In England alone, there are more than half a dozen Menaria (this is how people from Menar and its neighbourhood, particularly Brahmins, identify themselves) cooks, who handle the kitchens of Indian expatriates.

Yashwant Menaria (28), for instance, has handled the kitchen of Hinduja brothers — S P Hinduja and G P Hinduja — for close to three years. Yashwant migrated to London after serving Ashok P Hinduja, the third Hinduja brother, and others in Mumbai for more than a decade. He says he was only 14 when he took contract for running a canteen in an Indian multinational near his village. Yashwant, also a school dropout, today claims to be earning Rs 1,20,000 per month apart from free board, lodging and travelling. The stories of Puna Shankar Maneria (49), Bheru Lal Maneria (43) and others in London are identical.

So is the story of Kamlesh Dahot Menaria, a young cook employed with an Indian diamond merchant Girdhar Bhai in Antwerp (Belgium). Kamlesh, who lives in a 300 square metre house in Menar with his wife and three children, says his Seth (employer in colloquial terms) even pays for his shopping. Menaria says he only transfers salary to his account in India when the Belgian Franc is strongest vis-à-vis the Indian rupee.

Poonamchand Aklingdasot (78), an elderly man who cooked for Lata Mangeshkar’s family before joining Dhirubhai Ambani in Mumbai in 1997, earned only Rs 30,000 per month in comparison. But his perks outweighed his pay. “I got a chance to travel to all places she visited for work,” he recollects with a toothy grin.

Aklingdasot baked millet and wheat rotis, steamed khaman dhoklas and pohe and fried dahi samosas and kachoris for the Ambani household for 10 years. Ask him which Ambani liked what to eat and this is what he reveals, “Seth (Dhirubhai) and Kokila behn loved the Gujarati cuisines I dished out for them.” Aklingdasot retired in 2007. Today he takes his cattle out for grazing.

Aklingdasot hardly went to a school after the primary and never attended a course to hone his culinary skills. He picked it up from the books of Tarla Behn (late Tarla Dalal, who was famous for having penned recipes of Gujarati cuisines), his seniors and peers. So did Narayan Lal, Yashwant, Puna Shankar, Bheru Lal, Kamlesh and others. Interestingly, none of them has ever done a cooking course in Menar and its adjoining villages. Yet when it comes to preparation of dishes of various continents, they have done it for several decades. Wife of late Bhairulal Rupjot, a Menaria, who worked in the kitchen of the Ambani household, before Aklingdasot and others, still draws a pension of Rs 4,500 every month from the business empire.

Ironically, the cooking profession, which triggered school dropouts in the region, has, at the same time, led to the building of a Senior Secondary School in Menar. It has also led to the creation of a 100-bedded hospital in the village, besides a community centre. These came about as retirement gifts from Maghanmal Jethanand Pancholia, one of the oldest Indian expatriates in Dubai, for his cook Vijay Lal Dahot (65).

“I knew my Sethji was into philanthropy. When he asked me on my retirement in 1996 to express my final wish, I told him that our village needed a hospital and the village school too was in dire need of rooms. He has spent Rs 1.42 crore on the hospital, school and the community centre,” Dahot reminisces. The school and the hospital, built by Pancholia, are managed by the Overseas Indian Education Trust, of which Dahot is a member.

The cooking profession in the region has picked up more steam since 1987 when Prabhulal R Joshi, a resident of Menar, set up Hina Tours and Travels, a hospitality firm operating in domestic and Nepal circuit, in collaboration with a Gujarati businessman Jitendra N Shah. Today more than 200 persons from the region are employed with the company, many of them as cooks. When back in village for vacations, I do everything but cook, says Rajkumar Menaria, a chef with a travel company. Sunil Menaria, head of North India region in the company, says celebrities come to them to look for good cooks.

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