It is a Tuesday night. Food in the mess is terrible – the same quotidian vegetarian stuff. Like every Tuesday I have to go out and find somewhere else to eat. Someplace nice, something new. It’s always like this on Tuesdays; the food is nondescript. It’s startling that food could become boring. But it eventually does. For instance, there used to be a time, in school, when on Tuesdays, yet again, you didn’t have an alternative. You had to eat whatever was served at dinner. It was an irrevocable fate that awaited everyone. Everyone had to eat it, no one could even bunk dinner. There, we had a location problem. Our campus was in a isolated area, was cordoned off by enormous fences, intimidating barbed wire that banished even the slightest thought of egress. You fell in line whether you wanted to or not. Everything worked around the clock. It was perfect. Nothing could induce you to try and change the irreversible. Not even the menu, which appeared and reappeared with strict regularity. It was pedantically repeated week after week, month after month, year after year, and nothing could be done about it. Of course, occasionally, people attempted to take the mess-manager to task, and bring about some drastic changes; but really, in the grand scheme of things that transpired at dinner, lunch and breakfast, everything was unalterable.
It was almost comforting in a way. The fact that no matter what you felt, you would eat the same thing over and over again. You would be subject to the same culinary dicta. You would have to look down on your plate and find the same things. Other things tossed about obstreperously, fights ensued, people fell apart, expulsions and suspensions were handed down, but nothing would stop the food from being the same. Teachers left school, new ones replaced them. Students beat other students at competitions, some triumphant, some morose, they would all eat the same thing. On some days, I felt pinned against the wall, my imagination frustrated by the unimaginative ways of those who decided our routines. But I let it pass, and the feeling subsided. It became less and less problematic. Everything routine gradually became a source of comfort. A source of silent approval. You could be whatever you wanted, the circumstances around food never changed.
But here, in North Campus, innumerable things offer respite from the regularity of Tuesday dinner. VKRV, for instance, is full of people. It overflows with lots of students avoiding dinner in their own hostels, trying better combinations of food to combat their boredom. They all escape the vegetarian dinner in college to come here and ask for some tried and tested alternatives. The most popular, unarguably, is Maggi and egg. Maybe with some aloo parathas in addition. And some coffee/cigarette or coke later on. The people who run the kitchen know their formulas so well. They vacillate between the two tables, slowly, ponderously. They look at you and ask you for what you want. You respond disinterestedly. You know the options. They might even remind you, if you don’t come often enough. The prices never change, except maybe in a few years. But such changes are brought on by the vicissitudes of a gorged-out economy, vitiating the lives of people elsewhere. Here, in response to the exigencies of inflation, they might occasionally change the price of aloo parathas and scrambled eggs. There are days when the place is full of loud conversations, dialogues intersecting each other midway in the air, garrulous people overcharged with talk. The people who work in the kitchen are silent even in the midst of this. They are always terse, even when engaged by the more loquacious among their customers. Theirs is an inherited silence, passed on from one generation of workers to the next, every year.
Kamla Nagar is so different. It is crowded and pushy, people inveterately step on your toes. They brusquely brush against you when you walk on the pavement. There is so little space on the pavement. Cars that are parked along the curb stolidly await their owners’ return. No one knows how long they stay there - stationary, contemptuous of pedestrians that try and squirm past them. You walk past the cars and file into the lane of Chinese restaurants. Pick any one for they are all the same. And this regularity does not bother you, because they all serve the same things, and they all do it quite well. You never think about the prices, they’re more or less all the same too. Those who come in from college look stealthily around, spotting others they may know. It’s interesting to note other people who think alike and seek similar avenues of escape, at least on Tuesday.
The roads are narrow and cars criss-cross each other, bludgeoning anything in their way. Dogs scuttle past, scampering across roads while others stand disbelieving on their side of the road, refusing to test the dangers that barricade them from the other side. People who walk along the road feel the energy of these cars; the abrasiveness, the vindictiveness with which they jettison past the melee of stranded, slow objects that obtrusively limit their potential speed. The contempt with which they deride slower things. They were made to repudiate them. They were made to be better, faster, sleeker and to overwhelm the slow and stationary with awe and fear.
The Chinese is Kamala is filling, and well priced - comparatively. As you walk back to college, slightly tired and bemused, dodging cars and dogs and people sprawled in various states of sleep on the road, bloated and satiated with non-mess food, you look forward to another Tuesday, hoping you will do something new, something different from this one. Likewise, every Tuesday will carry you back to previous Tuesdays, protesting every thought of the regular, the boring. The routine of change fills you weekly with something else not to do.