My first stint away from home, apart from the vacations spent with relatives or friends, was when I joined IIT Bombay (IIT Mumbai now) for post-graduation. It was the first time in my life I was to stay at a hostel. I soon realized, like most others, that one thing I must forget, and forget fast, is good food. Even though I started accepting whatever they dished at in the name of food, as food, I had started losing weight like never before. And the thought of evening meals, in particular, made me sullen.
In one corner of the Mess hall, however, you could see happy faces — happy faces while eating! In that corner was situated the hostel canteen; a low-profit enterprise where you could buy some packaged food, cold-drinks, milk-shakes, and some food-items brought from outside: burgers, patties (puffs), pastries and stuff. The first month is when one still worries about money (and canteen is an avoidable expense, unlike the mess which is paid for, whether you eat there or not). One has no idea if the stipend will be enough, for instance, and is still hoping to save a few bucks for the difficult times. Most importantly, one still hasn’t learned the golden rule of hostel life: money is just about enough to survive a month, never more, never less.
So one day I shelved my monetary worries, and walked towards the canteen. That was partly, if not completely, prompted by a round of especially lovingly prepared hostel food: only if one were Chinese, that is. Then, one might have relished cockroach soup with lentils, for instance.
I was greeted by a warm (well!) and cynical smile of Andy.
“Kya chaahiye?” (what do you want), he asked, as I surveyed the stuff.
“Patties fresh hai?”, I asked (are the puffs fresh?).
“Ab woh to banaane waale ko hi pata hai”, came back the reply (only the maker can tell you that).
I was taken aback (my Pune stint was still in the future, so there was nothing to prepare me for that), but then the regulars standing there laughed at that, and I knew, instinctively, that Andy was just trying to break the ice.
I was wrong, of course. That was how Andy always spoke. In that place filled with some precocious and/or arrogant guys, Andy survived with his tongue. The verbal oneupmanship was his natural style.
Later, much later, when I was always supplementing dinner with canteen items, especially the milkshakes that were Andy’s specialty (apart from witticisms), I had learned to gracefully lose verbal duels with Andy. You could get back at him in his weak moments, of course, especially when he was irritated with excess work, and not at his lashing best. But even then, Andy was capable of some rearguard action. In time, my collection of Andynomics had grown to a decent number. Sadly, after eight years, I’ve forgotten most of them. Yet the mere thought of Andy still brings on a smile. And some random, outrageous, memory.
Like the night, when the Canteen was open (it was the time for end-semester exams, so the canteen would open late in the night for an hour or so — for late night tea/coffee/snacks), and Andy was sitting at the counter with a weary, “look what all I have to do for you people” sort of expression. The students were in exam mood, so not many would go and horse around with Andy, just buy some stuff and walk off, a mode I sensed he thoroughly detested. After all what’s the point of setting up a shop if you can’t insult a couple of precocious looking students for change? That day, he was lucky. One student asked Andy to make him a coffee so strong that he won’t sleep in the night at all.
Andy’s eyes lit up.
“Should I tell you an excellent trick to stay awake?” he asked, as he started beating the mixture of instant coffee, sugar, and a little hot milk.
“Sure”, the student said, too preoccupied to notice the glint in Andy’s eyes.
“Do you have some salt in the room?”
“Yeah, I guess”
“Okay, add three spoonfuls of salt in a glass of water”
The student was now listening with interest. Andy paused for effect. Couple of other students had drifted in too, sensing some action.
“Take a sharp knife, make a slight cut to the tip of your finger, and then dip it in the glass. Every time you feel drowsy, just put it back in the glass. Bilkul neend nahi aayega (you won’t feel sleepy at all)”
Everyone giggled, and the student went back, acknowledging his defeat in the ongoing war. He was sure to come back with more ammunition, later. Andy was sure to be ready for that.
Sometime in the last term, they dismissed Andy form the Canteen — the mess committee consisting of students, and the hostel management. Andy was selling cigarettes in the canteen, was the official reason given, along with his attitude, and mismanagement of funds. We had no way to verify the last. Soon his replacement, a guy who tried too hard to please everyone with an over-eager smile, took over. Probably he had learnt his lesson looking at Andy’s fate.
In course of time we learned to drink milk-shakes made by the new guy. Somehow, though, they never measured up. The canteen became just another place to buy food items. Andy was moved to the job of mess worker. I kept bumping into him every now and then. The cynical smile, I was glad to see, hadn’t changed. I hope life hasn’t managed to change it even today. I hope our paths will cross again, sometimes, and I can take him out for lunch to some nice place — a token appreciation, which won’t quite measure up. Neither will the milkshakes there measure up. But I can bet that the food will be better than the mess food.