“3 Mixed Grill Sizzlers”
“And 2 Full Butter Chickens plus 6 Butter Naans”
“Ok Sir, I will have the butter chicken and naans packed by the time you eat your sizzlers and are ready to leave”
“errrrrr…..the butter chickens and naans are ALSO to ear HERE”
(flummoxed, bamboozled waiter, bewildered, settles down and leaves to execute this modest order for 3 grade 9 students)
This scene plays out rather casually at the famed Hotel President in Dehra Dun, as two of my mates and I, place our ‘usual’ lunch-order while on one of our formative ‘private’ outings from boarding school (the kind where you’re allowed out of the campus by yourself, unescorted by coddling parents or regimenting masters). And thus begins, not just for me, but for most boarding school students, a life-long relationship. Say hello to our significant other – food!
To a hostel student, food represents the first important relationship in one’s lives. As such, the relationship encompasses, at different stages, the entire emotional scale. When we join school, food represents two things – the baser value is sustenance, and the more heightened metaphor, home. When a senior takes away one’s home-food, or when one runs out of the laddus that grandma has packed and sent, one experiences what can only be described as the 5 stages of grief. There is denial… “how could this happen to me?”… “I can’t believe I was the one who got caught with my ‘home-food’”… This is shortly succeeded by anger, though it is almost always a passive, internal anger, since externalizing it and revolting against the culprit, necessarily a senior-boy, results in further antagonizing. Bargaining, there’s heaps of… It begins, like any negotiation the world over, with the least possible offer… “Ok out of the 10 packets of Top Ramen that I have, how about you take 2”… this ‘outlandish’ (from the senior’s point of view ONLY, of course) request is met with immediate and terse criticism.. There’s little choice but to sweeten the deal… “ok ya… take 5 out of 10 packets.. that’s fair right.. half and half?”… finally though, the senior takes 8 and one is left with 2!! and that’s a ‘good’ scenario! Alas… Depression sets in… One cries remembering home, curses the day one was sent to this dubious gang-land that they allegedly call the country’s best school.. and finally, after months of consistent similar incidents, one accepts one’s fate.. Food, especially home-food (tuck), is never one’s own.. not until one reaches at least grade 10!
The ties to ‘home-food’ though are just a small part of a much larger picture.. a slice of a giant pie, if I must employ a ‘cheesy’ food analogy.. Seriously though, think of it like a single battle in an eternal war! The ‘other’ woman in this greed-drenched illicit liaison – hostel-mess-food, which in our case was served at the CDH, the Central Dining Hall. About now, your brain will be forgiven for conjuring up images of ‘central jail’, rather than a boys’ mess.. The CDH was indeed, like a jail, with food similar to that in a jail.. and though our school was too fancy to call this hallowed-hall a ‘mess’, it was a right old mess.. Let me share the good news first (yes, there was some…little….but some)… Bread, butter, chapatis and such were unlimited.. Its what preserved our bowels, our sanity, and our ‘growth’.. Because the rest of it, the ‘main course’ and the ‘dessert’, was divided into woefully inadequate portions that would fall prey (yes quite literally) to seniors taking them away (even and despite the presence of masters and beras on duty, such was the ingenious resolve and enterprise of even those who were failing their subjects, but could devise the most clandestine schemes to steal food); or be simply inedible… Like mentioned earlier, if the just-described two scenarios did not befall you, and you got your ‘share’, the body hardly even registered its intake because it was just too little! Share it was, but to call it ‘fair’ would be a cardinal exaggeration!
In case you don’t already see a pattern emerging; that I today, not proudly, though resolutely, use all the food-injustices through my childhood as a solid justification for my absolute inability to ‘share’ my food, even a quarter of a century since boarding school – is not limited to me.. It is a scarring time that is almost like a right of passage, that most boarding school kids go through.. of course, having gone through this trauma, we have all survived and lived to tell the tale.. but like most victims of post any ordeal – some come out triumphant, others not so much.. fact is, this is all in good humor.. some of us have got closure by marrying wonderfully gifted cooks; others have gone permanently into the food & beverage business and made empires out of it (Nirulas being a case in point).. either way, mine, and many others’ relationships with food continues to be, like most relationships in life, bittersweet! Seems like, we’re married, till death do us part!