When an acceptance mail comes from the ‘Ivy League of India’, your mind races to the world of possibilities ahead of you. You imagine moving into your first college room, decking the walls with posters of a band from a phase you’ll grow out of by the time college ends. You imagine icebreakers with a new roommate, who will either end up being the godmother to your children, or the reason you spend a week sleeping in another room. Sitting awe-struck in a lecture hall, staring at a Professor whose classes you will start skipping because there isn't an attendance policy. Spending your nights in the library learning about things that you have dreamt about all your life for an assignment worth 15% of a course’s total grade. Picturesque pink sunsets that will take your breath away even on the worst days (even your worn-out third-year self cannot scoff at the magnificence of the sunsets). Maybe you imagine your first college party, which you find out happens not at the end of the week, but on Thursday of all days.
You imagine a life of learning, of thrill, of the last light of adolescence, of becoming your own person. You dream of finally growing up. What you fail to imagine as a part of growing up, however, is the task — and it is a task — of feeding yourself at least one meal each day.
Nobody tells you this, nobody thinks of this before coming here, but being smack dab in the middle of rural Sonipat does not do wonders for your appetite. If your mother had been concerned about the state of your food intake after your first high school breakup, get ready for her to be appalled when she hears about how you eat on campus.
At Ashoka, food serves as the first taste of the perils of being an adult. Congratulations on turning 18! You can now drink, vote, and get a driver’s license! No more rules! Also, side note: you can now look forward to a lifetime of having to decide what to eat thrice a day.
Here, at least, the mess makes the decisions for you. Breakfast is good, lunch is tolerable, and dinner can be gulped down. TKS can even be appetizing. That is, until you cannot wake up for breakfast more than once a week. Which is fine, because you’ll just have lunch after class. Except, when you walk into the mess at 1:30 PM, you begin to wonder if it's safe to have that many people in a space that small. Half a second later you stop wondering because now you can no longer distinguish your thoughts from the cacophony of the mess noises. Along with your thoughts, you also lose your appetite.
You forget about snack time till someone sends a mail about it being too short and you agree emphatically. Maybe if snacks lasted till 6:30, you could shake off the midday lethargy and walk to the mess. You’re too tired to write a mail in solidarity, though. Malnutrition will do that to you. Dinnertime rolls around and you finally get the first meal of the day. Although, over time, you realize that dinner is not the mess’ speciality. You are half convinced that they are making up new names for the same daal. The novelty of TKS has long worn off. How many times can you eat the same thing without getting sick of it?
You count your luck, though. No bugs in the food today.
When you get tired of the mess, which is faster than the average student’s bank account would like, you turn to Subway, THC, the Dhaba, Rasaananda, Roti Boti, the Chaat place. Except the food is neither warm nor fresh. It feels like you are wilting away. Your bank balance and your subsequent relationship with your parents sure is.
Nothing tastes good. At first, you chalk it up to the newfound smoking habit that you are gradually owning up to. But then you begin reminiscing about what food tastes like at home and you want to cry over the orange sludge on your plate. It's definitely the smoking habit. You do not miss home.
Food is a disaster, and so are you. Eating is a task, and it is heavy.
Fortunately, it's a weight that you don’t have to carry alone.
Food saves your friendships. On days with nothing but endless work, you walk with a friend to the mess and scarf down lunch in 15 minutes in complete silence, with the warm comfort of knowing that after, you will walk to your classes together. During dinner, the mess, a labyrinth of people when you are alone, seems to have a special corner just for you and your friends to catch up at. Your friend fills you in on the new gossip and you gasp loud enough for people to stare. But it does not matter because your friend is beaming at you over a pizza that does not taste as stale anymore.
You go on a date with a senior and he introduces you to the niche item on the Dosai menu, and now every time you pass Dosai, you think of the night he kissed you to your favourite song from the band you have grown out of.
Your friend brings you a Subway for dinner. They are tired, haggard. Wednesdays are the worst for them. They hand you the sandwich, kiss you on the forehead, and read you a poem. They tell you later that they really wanted to go to sleep that night, but could not bear the thought of you going to sleep hungry. You do not tell them that it was not the food that helped you sleep that night, it was their company. When things get complicated with the friendship, you forget to tell them that you are forever grateful for that moment you shared.
Even then, food brings you tragedies that you would never have fathomed before. One of the first moments you realize how miserable you are in your relationship is in the 10th-floor pantry, while making dinner for the two of you. You ask your now ex-boyfriend to keep you company in the pantry, and they say that they don’t feel like joining you for something you can do alone. In those 30 minutes in the dingy space over the induction oven, all the loneliness you feel in the relationship bears down on you as you hover over a pot of instant noodles all alone, with nobody to wash the dishes with you. They would later say that the noodles were too spicy.
You make sure to never make anything for them ever again. You learn how to make sweet French toast from your friends on campus, the night before you get your first tattoos together. You stay up the whole night figuring out how not to burn the butter, feeding each other bits of egg and bread straight from the pan. You think to yourself, you have found a family in the kitchen. Exactly a year from then, you are no longer talking. It's also been a year since you have made French toast.
Coffee, on the other hand, has entered your diet in capacities that alarm your general physician. You can’t help it though. Your friends love your version of cafe mocha, a concoction that you perfected while writing a final that was already overdue by four days. Many cups of that sweet goo later, you still don’t know why people love coffee so much. What you do know, however, is that you don’t mind drinking it as long as you are doing it in the orange warmth of the lights in your friends’ rooms. You will come to realize that's all you need.
You make ramen with your best friend while the two of you discuss the ferocity of your ambitions. It was one of the few times you saw each other that semester. While eating, you share an anecdote of your mother calling the egg in the ramen the equivalent of cheese in the pasta. You do not tell them that everything you have learnt about cooking has been from your mother. The next time you made something together, you held hands, giggling about how bad the two of you were at cracking eggs. That day, you learn something about cooking that your mother did not teach you.
When you are doing it with someone who loves you, there is joy in making even the wateriest of noodles. When you are doing it with someone who you love, food becomes a task you learn to love.