Illustration by Pradnya J
There is a widespread belief among hostel inmates that you would not feel homesick if your hostel served good food. This belief is likely true as most of us enjoyed the food served at Hostel 11 mess, and not many complained of homesickness.
I joined Hostel 11 after enrolling in a PhD program in January 2009. When I entered the hostel mess for the first time, I was surprised to see that we were served the main breakfast item poha/idli/upma, etc. along with namkeen sev, cornflakes, bread, butter, eggs, sprouts, milk, and bananas, every single day.
We had the privilege of walking into the mess kitchen and toasting bread. We would also queue up near the live counters for a freshly cooked omelette, tawa sabzi, or fresh chapattis. Unlike some other hostels, where inmates got machine-made chapattis, we would get hand-rolled and cooked ones, just like we get at home.
The mess workers, or didis as we called them, would work in teams of 10-12 to prepare four meals everyday. Didis prepared a range of dishes from every cuisine. We relished aloo parathas, uttappa, frankie, samosas, and chicken biryani. I would often invite my non-hostel friends for a biryani treat on Fridays.
For most Indian festivals, didis pampered us with special meals such as Onam Sadhya on Onam or special Bengali food during Durga Pooja. On one such festival, Ganesh Chaturthi, didis were busy preparing Modaks– sweets prepared using grated coconut and rice flour. The preparation involved grating coconuts and cooking, kneading hot, steamed rice flour, and steaming the stuffed modaks for nearly 400 hostel inmates. This was no easy task. But didis did an excellent job.
The next day, our mess menu mentioned coconut barfi. But since a large number of coconuts were used in making Modaks, the barfi was canceled for that day. A particular hostel inmate was so annoyed at this cancellation that she started yelling at our didis for not making the barfi. They patiently tried explaining to her why making a coconut sweet was impossible the next day. But she went mad at them. I felt like asking this enraged inmate if she had ever tried breaking and grating coconut. Grating one coconut feels like doing a 10 minute (or longer) workout.
The incident saddened us. Didis would arrive early in the morning when most of us were asleep and prepare delightful dishes, especially during festivals. They would eat after all the inmates had eaten. They would be away from their families for longer hours so that we felt at home. But how many of us cared?