At the end of a rainbow

Lucy found her diamond sky

For gut’s sake, please!

on May 7, 2015

They say anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (or stranger, if you will). Hostel mess are the ideal example of this adage. If criminals served hostel mess sentences instead of prisons, reform would have been a real possibility. Indeed, it takes guts of steel to munch on idlis hard enough to use as bricks, accompanied by cat vomit otherwise known as coconut chutney and water mixed with red chilli powder a.k.a sambhar. Soon, one can’t distinguish the difference between mattresses and south-Indian pancakes. The task of sitting through the meal can only be accompanied with the equally miserable but fitting song “What I’ve done…” by Linkin Park. I thought I was done with karmic retribution for many a lifetime, when I spent two years in college hostel mess and survived solely on bananas and sugar. By the time I got back home, I was craving for bitter gourd and dal; lauki sounded like a sumptuous feast, and I was tempted to hide rotis under my pillow for safekeeping. But, like some culinary Jedi, I got “May the taste be with you” revelation and resolved to cook my own food ever since. Of course, I hadn’t realised that my equally strong will to be useless for the market economy as a symbol of defiance would lead to the other tortuous path of PhD; a socially accepted vocation for the rebellious but innocuous individuals. When threatened, they tend to write a thesis and scare people, it usually works. Anyway, along with the PhD came a hostel, and then came the mess. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that bad food becomes much more palatable when handed over with a genuine smile that says, “We know it sucks, but we’ll give you as much as you want!” So, thanks to my immunity developed years before, I was happily gobbling down dishes which may not have a name, mainly due to the caterers who would actively cheer when we finished eating and even ate with us to reassure that it was perfectly good food. However, all good things come to an end; even the imagined ones. So, one fine day, instead of being greeted by the usual blokes, I was given food by a guy who might as well be handing me my final meal. The common pantry in hostel saw a sudden upswing of activities, and while earlier I was the only regular cooking person, now everyone was determined to avoid the thugs masquerading as canteen guys. It is intriguing how we cling to small niceties in life, and the effect it has on us. The food being served by the new caterers was as bad if not worse than the previous one. But what pinched most of us, was their lack of solidarity with our fate. If the previous caterers were prison mates, the new guys act like grouchy prison wards. So, the complaints ranged from the caterers being rude, mean and miserly to downright murderous. The situation hasn’t improved, except some people finding it an interesting topic to blog about. In hindsight, I realise what I miss about home food, is really about home rather than the food. We love familiarity, pattern and the comfort derived from predictability. That, the dal at home is of the thick consistency one happens to like, or the vegetables slightly burnt in that nice homely way, it seems that food is more about intimacy and camaraderie than its actual content. In the words of Michael Pollan, “The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.” It is a culture fast eroding by markets flooded with cheap food, ready-to-eat meals and plethora of restaurants. So, in response, I cook. Not because I need to eat something tasty, but because I want to maintain that subtle connection with nature and tradition. As I re-enact what may have been our civilisation’s turning point, the first time someone conceived of cooking a potato, (I know Bengalis must have come into being with the first sweet cooked) I hope the culture continues and eating is not seen as the end of some industrial process but the celebration of a way of life in harmony with what nature provides. Bon appétit!

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