Monday, September 05, 2005

A Treatise On Mess Food

For those who have had the fortune to eat mess food, it is an unforgettable experience. And moreover if you belong to a place where mess workers are government employees and not contract laborers, the experience is moreover linked with nightmares that you will try to forget as soon as you step in the world outside. But for us who still live in the hostels, eating lunch or dinner is the last thing that can be looked forward to.

In IIT Kharagpur, most of us feel the situation is as worse as it can get. With the mess workers being government employees, backed by CPI(M), there is hardly anything that we students can do to improve the situation. As the mess workers are neither willing nor bound to cook well, the situation goes from worse to worst. But unfortunately this topic has been so thoroughly talked upon, I feel that you will have no inclination to read any further without any incentive. So I hope to enrich this with my assortment of PJs.

When debating on whether Dual Degrees (B.Tech+M.Tech in 5 years) are better or the traditional B.Tech(4 years), I am usually confident of my success. We save 1 year of studying time by stressing a bit more for a couple of years. And on top of that, we get to sit in for interviews of companies that are here to take B.Tech as well as for those here for M.Tech. Without losing much modesty, I can claim that in M.Tech batch, those coming through JEE (the Dual Degrees) fare a lot better that those from GATE. This leaves us with an extra edge over our M.Tech friends. And even while comparing to the B.Tech batch with which we will be competing, the fact that there are very few people in my junior batch ahead of me as compared to my own batch leaves me with a sense of satisfaction that I took Dual Degree (as though I had any choice). But this brings us back to the topic that we were supposed to be discussing. While I try and convince my batchmates of the advantages of being a Dual Degree, there is always a guy who smiles and says:

"We won't have to eat mess food for one extra year (in KGP)."

This leaves my arguments shattered. I have to skillfully change the topic as I hate to admit that this truth hurts.

But interestingly, the mess food inspires in us creative language talents. During the dinner, the wingmates take turns to compare the food with different types of shits. And if someone says that the mess workers can do a PhD in making shit out of mess food, someone quips that they actually guide researchers in doing doctorate in Shit-making. The source of this observation is also an interesting tale.

It is said that initially an unemployed person enters the R.P. Hall as a cobbler. Then he goes on to be a cycle stand worker, followed by mess helper, then mess worker and finally a cook. As you can see there is no qualification required by a person to be a cook in R.P. Hall. We have seen the rise of people who worked as cycle stand worker into becoming cooks here. And to see the person who had just been cleaning grease off the bicycles to make rotis for you is a horror tale that you can never forget. Things had been easy for me, though. In the first semester itself, the doctor at the local hospital diagnosed my frequent stomachache to be caused my uncooked rotis. So she suggested me not to eat rotis in mess. And from that day onwards, I have lived on rice. For those whose stomach are fit enough to eat the rotis so uncooked that flapping two such rotis would create so much suspended-particulate-matter to block vision and enough to make another roti out of it, the only respite is in remembering the days in M.S. Hall where we got coloured! rotis even two days after holi.

The problem of hopeless mess food can be divided into two parts, one the procurement and other the processing (it would be derogatory to call the process 'cooking'). Unfortunately for us, there is suffering from both sides.

The problem of procurement can be felt be consuming food that are usually not cooked when they are served. These include breads, onions, etc. With breads whose ends show signs of fungus ever so often and which is as rubbery as rubber itself, it doesn't require an expert to conclude that the bread that is served is at least 4 days old. The only theory that can explain it is that once after two days the unsold bread arrives back in the bakeries, they are sent to R.P. Hall and served the next day. The situation is worse for things like onions. The onions served during the lunch are extremely dry and have patches of black colour on them indicating clearly that they are from a stock several months old and/or maybe the stock left unsold as no sane minded person would buy them. The cottage cheese bought for the special dinners is also rubbery as it is not made from cow milk, but soy-milk, which is cheaper. And the same story continues for other such products.

When a guy in Desperate Housewives claims that no-one can screw up Macaroni and cheese (before eating the hopelessly cooked Macaroni made by Susan Meyer), he seemed to have missed the fact that in a far corner of the world stands the mess workers of IIT Kharagpur. Let alone the dexterity in cooking, even the place where things are cooked are as unhygienic as the sewer line out of hell. Seeing the pieces of food that fell down on the floor being taken up and served to us, seeing that a mess worker using the same knife to cut vegetables from which he has just scraped the sweat out of his skin, are all common observations. And the most frustrating part is that we can't do anything about it. At least as long as there is a communist government ruling in West Bengal.

Now I remember another tit-bit that emerged from the talks between my wingmates.

I once noted that even if we bring the suffering hungry people of Somalia to R.P. Hall, they would plead to go back than eat this (so called) food. But then I remember that these people are suffering and to bring them into such cheap conversation is very improper. But then I also realize that we too are suffering and the same thing goes for us too. So such a comparison is improper for both sides. I was about to delete this paragraph as I concluded it to be improper, but then realized that as a whole it showed well what kind of emotions we typically feel during having our food. Many people take it as part of the grooming that goes on to make IITians.

If you can eat this food, you will never have any problem with eating habits at any point in life.

When I see people praying before eating food, I know that they are praying from the bottom of their hearts imploring God to give them the strength to let this pass. Leaving food on the plate is not something I relish, but many times they manage to make it so bad that my initial estimate of how much I can suffer goes waste. It is said that leaving food in the plate is considered an insult to food. But I believe that it is applicable only when the thing in question fulfills the criteria as being labeled as 'food'. I feel that cooking something so badly is even more insult to the food.

Another incident that comes to my mind while eating in the mess is an experience with Ankur (my brother). While we were in M.S. Hall, one day during lunch a guy comes over and sits opposite to us. After looking at the container on the table, he asked: "Yeh daal hai kya? (Is this a cereal?)". To this Ankur replied: "Banane se pehle thi. (It was, before it was cooked)".

Its just by stories and anecdotes like this are we going about in our life, facing lunch and dinner one at a time.

"Just one next time....just one more day...."

And living here I start thinking about the qualities that I will seek in my wife. Cooking skills will definitely be high among my priorities.


Shivaji said...

Nice post.. I passed out from IITD in 2000..and the food there was equally worse as it sounds in your post...
And we didn't even have the CPI(M)..
All said and done, the mess food talk gave us students the opportunity to enage in humorous and enjoyable discussions.

AB said...

That's a shame that the food service is so bad at your dorm. I guess wishing for improvement would be futile. Induring the hardship should make graduation seem that much sweeter. Hang in there. AB :)

Mridula said...

Ambuj, for me the good thing is that bad mess food is a thing of past! Seems like every IIT mess food is like that.

sapphire said...

sigh we move from mess food to equally torture some canteen food at work place...

doubtinggaurav said...


Stop cribbing and eat yor food.
RP hall has better mess than good ol' Lallu.

Anonymous said...

RP Hall food was bad. But in 1987, the opening up of various outlets in the campus by Russi Mody broke the backbone of the mess worker's union. I would have thought things would have improved since then.

But some things never change. While I know RP Hall food was bad (am ex-Rpian), but at least Gafur's canteen used to save the day (I developed my taste for sweet french toast at midnight in KGP, food at XLRI mess was a few degrees below RP Mess. And to top it there was no Gafur to save the meal. The only option were the meals on wheels in Bistupur.

Ganpat said...

Ohh what a same, I also facing the same situation here in MNIT(NIT Jaipur).
Here also we have same kind of illiterate mess cooks and workers, who even don,t know the alphabets of cooking.
I passed with B.Arch. but the mess food ruined us, I got sick and sick and sick...
The only the solution of this problem will be after the people who appointed these mess workers, must be given food from these messes itself.
what a hell in these premier institutes.