2020 in review: The year that was

Serving through lockdown: 2020’s unsung food heroes

Prabhakar Pawar, steward, Mumbai

Har kisi ko apni jaan pyari hoti hai (Everyone considers their own life precious),” says Prabhakar Pawar over the phone from Mumbai. This statement explains why the 28-year-old steward at The Table, a plush fine dining restaurant in Mumbai’s Colaba area, was a little apprehensive about his workplace’s long-awaited reopening on a Sunday in October, after a string of lockdowns since March.

As someone whose job description includes setting tables, seating guests, taking orders, serving food and topping wine glasses in one of the city’s more popular venues teeming with hobnobbing crowds, potential death was never an occupational hazard for Prabhakar. Until COVID-19 broke out, making it a hazard for everyone.

Serving through lockdown: 2020’s unsung food heroes

Now, the threat remains but his duties continue, albeit with a few differences. Prabhakar explains, “The restaurant came up with digital menus with QR codes, so we don’t have to hand out menus to people and take them back. We take orders and talk to guests from a distance, but things like clearing the table and filling up glasses have to be done up close. For that, we sanitise right before and after. Sanitisers are kept everywhere for us.” So are masks and gloves, he says, adding, “Keeping a mask on for the entire shift was difficult at first, but it’s the best thing to do for own sake and for our families. We are all used to it now.” A typical shift at the restaurant lasts between eight and nine hours.

It helps that footfall is being kept deliberately low: “We don’t allow more than 30 people at a time,” says Prabhakar, “And most of those who come in are regulars. They, too, were scared at first, but they kept returning after seeing how well we take care of them.”

B Prabhuraj, food delivery executive, Chennai

Near-empty streets. Road blocks announcing ‘Containment zones’ in bright lettering. Contactless delivery. In his two years with food delivery platform Swiggy, B Prabhuraj had not experienced anything like he did during the initial months of the pandemic.

The 25-year-old delivery partner lives in Mogappair West with his parents. “I usually deliver food within the region,” he says. When he started venturing out once the initial lockdown lifted, Prabhuraj was taken aback at how the city he loved and grew up in, had changed.

B Prabhuraj

B Prabhuraj   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

“Everyone remained indoors fearing the virus,” he says, “I realised how I could help people by taking hot food to their doorsteps.” Prabhuraj once navigated by-lanes and a took a five-kilometre detour instead of a straight, shorter route to ensure the customer got her food on time. “The road I was to take was blocked since there was a containment zone nearby,” he explains.

He gradually got accustomed to the new ways of working. “In ‘Contactless Delivery’, I would place the package at the door and send its WhatsApp image to the customer,” he says. “They would collect it after I leave.” Masks and gloves entered the picture and Prabhuraj does admit that a fear crept it about the safety of his parents — his father, especially, since he was diabetic. “Which is why after my shift, I would head straight for a bath and enter home only after that,” he explains.

Prabhuraj is glad for some changes the pandemic brought about. “In the past, we delivery boys have faced several disrespectful customers,” he says. “But these days, most of them treat us well; they understand how difficult our jobs can be.” And despite him refusing, Prabhuraj recalls being offered tips to the tune of ₹100. More than anything, it is this new-found empathy in people that he cherishes. “I will be always grateful for that,” says Prabhuraj.

Arjun Jenna, kitchen assistant, Gachibowli

Arjun Jenna went to his hometown Cuttack, in Odisha, two days before the total lockdown was announced. He had originally planned to be back at work within a week. When the lockdown was announced, Arjun didn’t know what to do. He was worried about his job: tandoor kitchen assistant at Sheraton Gachibowli. A single call to the executive chef, however, allayed his fears.

Arjun says, “I was assured of my job and the chef made me calm down, pointing out that it was not my decision to stay back home [but a Government-mandated requirement, that no one could be blamed for]. Our human resources team also called, and said the only thing that mattered at the moment was safety. They discussed safety precautions for everyone at home and also suggested that I do my part by asking my friends and relatives to maintain safety precautions.”

Serving through lockdown: 2020’s unsung food heroes

Arjun says he tried his best to be back in Hyderabad when people were taking chances and travelling by road. Finally, in August he and some of the other men from his village hired a car and travelled back to Hyderabad. “I did the quarantine and the tests, and after I went through all the safety standards mentioned by the hotel I came back to work.”

At work, things are different and more than a little more difficult. “Working with a mask in the tandoor kitchen is extremely tough. I take short breaks to let the heat out. Ingredients that come to the kitchen go through various checks, we work with our gloves on which is again a new practice but I am not complaining. We are also trying and keeping it less crowded. So we have to work extra. It is tiring but meant for our safety,” he says, adding, “I am thankful my family isn’t here with me. Each time I step out to go to work, I could be exposed to the virus.”

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 5:16:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/serving-through-lockdown-2020s-unsung-food-heroes/article33415950.ece

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