Things, in general, are divided into 2 categories. There are things I can do, and there are things I cannot do. Alternatively, you could also choose to divide them into things I like to do, things I do not like to do, and things I don’t much care for either way (i.e. you force/bribe/provoke/interest me, and I might do them).
This, however, was a thing that belonged to the negative side of both the categorizations. It was a thing I could not do, and it was a thing I didn’t like doing. But it was something that I needed to do. So to say, it needed being done. It wouldn’t do to not do it. I had to do it. It was imperative, vital and necessary. Even mandatory. And compulsory.
Like bitter medicine.
Which also describes the food.
See, here’s the thing. I’ve been at Manipal for 4 months. And I’ve been eating all my meals at the resident hostel mess. There are several good-quality private messes scattered here and there and everywhere, but till the 1st semester your resident mess is supposed to be quite adequate.
We’d been sticking to the mess like good boys. But one day, out we ventured. And after that nothing was the same anymore. When after a gap of 3 months, you finally again have rotis which bear actual resemblance to what a standard roti is supposed to look like, and dals which actually taste like something, its tough to not go back. We went again and again.
I’d think, how does our mess really run? The food is bad. Nothing looks like anything familiar. The taste of good food is supposed to come substantially from its aroma. The food there doesn’t smell of anything. The roti is nothing like one. Its big, rubbery and if you hold it up, flour comes down like as if its suddenly snowing. The service is negligible. Nobody is serving you, and no one caters to any personal food requests. Hmm…
So I concluded it runs on fear. It runs on a person’s primary concern for his own safety and self-respect. On that what can also be described as every human’s first instinct to want to keep his dignity and pride. It works simply on that one unfair premise - that a fresher does not want to be caught outside in initial ragging months in the midst of a gang of feeding seniors, however good the food.
And here’s the thing. We hadn’t left our purana mess membership. And we were being charged doubly now – the money we paid across the counter at the private messes, and the fixed bill at our mess. And I couldn’t do the necessary thing.
Everyone else did it soon enough. It was obvious and practical. It made no sense to continue this way. But I’m a tad emotional about such things. Days went by and I couldn’t do it. Then finally, I took Pratik along with me to push me from behind lest my legs give way before the journey be complete.
Basically, here’s the thing. We had to leave the mess, but we’d keep our breakfast option because it made sense to have that meal close by in the rush-rush morning time. As simple as that. And I couldn’t do it. As I walked down with Pratik, my mind went back to the day we took membership of this mess. I had come with my father. The mess-guy had calmly explained the process of mess fees and the facilities offered by the mess. He had smiled at me, and assured us of good quality healthy food. His eyes radiated kinship, trust and a fatherly affection in this new land I had come to. I had eaten there for 3 months, and been member for four. So many times I had smilingly asked him to make more khichdi, because it was a lot like Kolkata. So many times he had smilingly said it was not possible to make it more than once a week. So many times I had walked past him and given him a smile. I remembered all the weekly juices and chocolate shakes I had had, and all the special (i.e. edible) dishes they gave every other day for lunch. All these memories came flooding into my mind.
Mess-guy was an old man – short, pudgy, with large thick glasses that magnified his eyes. For some reason, mess-guy always seemed to be a brooding and emotional person to me, about to burst into tears any second now. And that’s why I couldn’t do it. How would I face him, I asked myself? How would I say I wanted to leave his mess and eat elsewhere? That I couldn’t eat the things they gave us under the guise of food? That, basically, his mess sucked and I’d had enough of it?
I imagined his face at that instant. The magnified eyes welling up with magnified tears. The slow but sure throbbing at his temples before his genial face contorted violently in a burst of deep emotion. Would it be like that? Or would he just face me silently, his silent eyes looking up at me with unspoken questions flung at my integrity and loyalty. He had received several cancellations before, and had probably learned to accept these repeated blows. Now I would be giving him one.
I reached his desk. I gulped and almost took half a step back, when Pratik gave me a final push forward.
Sir…I want to leave your mess and eat elsewhere from now on. I cant eat this..I mean..err…I just want to leave the mess. *pause* Oh, but I want to retain my breakfast membership.
*a seemingly long and pregnant pause as mess-guy looked up and realized someone was saying something*
Ok. What’s your registration number? Hmm..Alright. Done.
A bit anti-climactic I know. But it was nevertheless a very nerve-wracking period of my life. This ordeal ended, my life seems less knotted, if you know what I mean. I eat elsewhere in peace, without the constant feeling that a pair of very large eyes are staring at me accusingly from above.
Afterword: The group of ours has now been reduced to a nomadic life, roaming hither and thither for food at the different messes on a pay-and-eat basis. We belong to no one. A bit like lone rangers, we like to think of it as. It’s cool.