Canteen baby.

“O be*****od, LB de diya?! Ball to leg side ke baahar thi! Umpire apna aadmi hai!” exclaimed a guy as Graham Thorpe got out to a controversial LBW decision off the bowling of Srinath on a May afternoon in 1999. A delivery that changed the course of the match and the fortune of a team that was clinging on to a thread of hope more tenuous with each ball bowled. Turns out we won the game and qualified after all. And oh, did I mention the umpire was from Pakistan.

Typically, such a sequence of events in a cricket crazy country coupled with impressionable, excited young folks would take a long time to wear off. Not here. I mean, sure there was a collective roar enough to wake up families in Udhna Magdalla nearby, but after that, all it took was “O Baby, chai pila de yaar…” for life to move on.

That was my college canteen.

And Baby. He was the first individual I had met in college. There was no discernible entrance gate to our college. My father and I had literally wandered into the woods at the then outskirts of Surat near Dumas beach marsh. As we walked for about a kilometer, we came across this dilapidated wreck of a building. We climbed a short flight of stairs and my father asked him in his Tamil accented Hindi  “Yeh Sardar Vallabhbhai College kahan par hai?”. Only after asking did we notice his entire 6’2” frame of rugged, hirsute glory. Our inquiry was met with a Malayali accented response “Aap already andar aa gaya hai…”

And thus began a journey whose beginning was in many ways symbolic of how life often takes you into uncharted territories and how you manage to find your way through things and emerge victorious…

His Khaki colored pant and pink shirt with thin, vertical red stripes. Maybe some flimsy golden threads that had started protruding out, suggesting the shirt had seen the wooden bat and the Rin bar many times. I don’t remember seeing him in anything else. I don’t think he had five to ten pairs of the same clothes. Strange. The top button of the shirt was always open. The black thread he wore on his neck camouflaged itself and became indistinguishable with his chest hair. Thick mustache. Curly afro hairstyle. He looked like a road romeo straight out of 70s, sans the bell bottoms, but he was a gentle giant. He was the gatekeeper for our refuge into a world where we escaped reality, drudgery…and often, life.

You felt relieved when he yelled “Do Mysooooooooor…” for he had gotten your order right. He never got it wrong. Infallible. Bradman had an average of 99.94. Not this guy. He was better. At least over the 4 years of my stay and over a decade worth of stories I had heard during those four years.

The canteen had pista green walls. It was always filled with scribbles…groups of friends, crushes, social commentary, expletives, even anonymous confessions! Promises of staying together…even after college…for life…never kept though. But the inscribed letters would be there forever, buried underneath coats of paints like fossils created by the sands of time. The wooden tables and seats were covered with sky blue mica. I don’t know how old they were but they were there. Always. They had cracks, had witnessed brawls, stomped upon under some pretext or another by hundreds of folks, whittled and riddled by innumerable compasses but they were there. Intact. Strong enough to bear the whims, wrath and happiness of 300-400 students. Every day. Year after year. Being an engineering college, these tables and seats were probably the least appreciated engineering marvels in terms of sheer durability. Oh and they were extremely dependable. They could keep a secret or two. The number of lewd, condescending, scandalizing remarks these heard would be more than the drops of sambar, chutney or crumbs of samosas and bread spilled on them.

And that toilet. Men’s, of course. Coming to think of it, there was no facility for women. I think it’s a good thing in the end for I had seen enough Corex bottles there to know what really happened inside. It was more like a sanctuary where young minds dissolved escaped their deepest fears and frustrations by immersing in a red viscid ocean, albeit only for a short while.

The journey to the canteen was a collage of vignettes. Guys sitting outside like a murder watching the ladies make their way. If a gentleman had the privilege of accompanying them, someone would surely yell “arre kabhi hume bhi apne saath le liya karo…”. Of course, it wasn’t clear if the comment was addressed to the guy or the girl. The reaction of girls would range from absolute embarrassment to an evil smile basking in all the attention. Some would adjust their dupattas as if that would protect them from the visual and verbal jabs. Some would seethe in anger and walk faster. The few spirited ones would flash an evil smile for a second and twist that curl of hair on their foreheads only to tease the guys further. I could swear that at least a dozen guys put their hands on their chest and feigned fainting. But no girl ever talked back. They all kept walking towards the canteen. Escape.

As far as guys go, typically, the first visit to the canteen was the result of seniors summoning you for ragging an introductory session or fun and frolic. For THEM. Activities included delivering missives sent by seniors to girls, barging into a conversation between a boy and a girl with a “bhaisaab time kya hua hai” only to be met with a flurry of expletives hurled at you by the guy (typical response would be “teri g*nd maarne ka time ho gaya hai, bhaag be*****od). This, in turn, you would secretly mutter under your breath to the senior who asked you to do it in the first place. Escorting senior girls to their hostel (there was only one girls hostel…as opposed to SIX for guys) as their bodyguards. Ironic, since we were more scared than the girls who were probably befuddled by the awkwardness of it, but acquiescing anyway, knowing that if they denied our request, our cheeks would be somewhat swollen on the following day…

If a couple dared to venture into the canteen, and that was extremely courageous then by the way, they had to brace themselves for…let’s say unexpected Freudian slips. This, in spite of assuring friends of a treat later at the canteen for allowing the “date” to happen without any interruptions. Someone would suddenly bellow “Arre hamari taraf bhi dekh le saale….kal raat hamare saath hi rehearsal kar raha thha…” . The canteen was a place capable of making guys turn more pink.

The canteen was also the venue for hosting “formals and traditionals” day. The boys would come in suits, veshti, dhotikurta while the girls would look resplendent in saris and “anglo-Indian dress”, also known as skirts and blouses. The winners would form the golden couple. The prize was get a cold drink and a dish worth Rs. 10. Most sought after “gift voucher” in college every year.

This was one place where there was the “regional” in Regional Engineering College never existed. Everybody had one religion. Food. You heard folks from the whole country pronouncing dosa and samosas in several ways. All of them were correct. You had to pay money and take tokens from Shekhar. They were color coded according to their monetary denominations. 6 bucks for a pair of samosas, vadas or an idli and a vada, or an omelet, half fry or full fry. 8 bucks for a masala dosa, half fry gravy or full fry gravy. 10 bucks for the Mysore masala dosa. THAT was the ultimate sign of opulence. If you had that every day, you were probably the scion of a multimillion dollar empire. p0sh, as they call it today.  And then you had to approach Baby to yell your order. The swarm of hands with new hands coming out of nowhere looked like Medusa’s head when viewed from the side. Baby would not have minded being Perseus for a day but he had to make a living. He’d relay all the orders to the cooks. One was particularly revered for his ability to churn out the perfectly fried eggs with an efficiency and accuracy that would put Xerox to shame. Sadly, he was also the butt of jokes based on the color of his skin. Baby personally took the plates from the cooks and put it on the granite slab. The agonizing wait for the dishes that was only compounded by the aroma was over.

While many delicacies were savored with immense ferocity, one has to reserve choice words for one half-fry gravy. Half fry gravy. Oh you evil beauty! Glaring at us “pure vegetarians” with your solitary yellow eye, peeking at us from the fire underneath that the gravy was, luring us, toying with our senses with your wonderful aroma. When someone grabbed you in a plate, you even jiggled at us, as if inviting “us” to join the party and shake a leg with you. You did manage to captivate some of us and eventually succumb to your spell. “Corrupting” us forever, rendering unable to confess this horrendous sin to our parents. Only until…oh wait, they STILL don’t know that we devour you! Damn you! But I’d rather die with this little secret interred somewhere deep in my mind.

It’s funny how most of us never remembered our final rendezvous with you Baby. You were there when our lives took a different turn. Infosys, Wipro, Satyam, Patni, AmDocs, ApTech, Asian Paints,, GRE, CAT, GMAT, GATE or well…dejected and contemplating the point of life and whether it is worth living since one didn’t fall into any of these cubicles…another round of Corex, perhaps…

Folks would fill slam books, making sure to exchange each other’s’ Lycos/Hotmail/Indiatimes/Rediffmail IDs and kept in touch initially, only to drift apart with time. Of course, nobody bothered to ask Baby about his info or inquire as to how to keep in touch with him. The man who had seen it all. Year after year. People flowing in, reveling in his treats, powered by the nourishment purveyed by him, leaving with a smile…or at least a ray of hope to take on the world…but not thank him the way he should be for standing there and being the one of the few people on the campus who were truly there when we needed comfort…hostelites didn’t have the luxury of burying themselves into their parents’ chests and sob their way out of miseries, you know?

But I don’t think Baby judged us…he knew we loved him to bits. Umpire apna aadmi hai…