Hostel Hunger Games

Ican eat for India. And it sometimes seems to my bemused friends and family that I am actually capable of eating India. I wish I could take the credit for these impressive credentials, but my world-class greed is only half nature. The rest has been carefully nurtured and honed and polished in the hostels of the institutions of higher learning where I spent my late teens and early adulthood.

Anyone who has been to any hostel anywhere knows that it takes food from a supporting role and puts it front and centre. It takes hunger and thoughts and fantasies and day dreams about food and magnifies them until it becomes pretty much the sum total of you. The descent into being a food-obsessed crazy is not always visible to you as you navigate your way through hostel life. In between making sure that you do the complex math required to balance six sets of underwear over 60 days until you can get home and either have them washed or have your parents buy new ones, your food DNA changes imperceptibly but surely.

That’s how it comes to be that you – a smart, sorted, complex organism capable of doing long division in your head – are reduced to a largish salivary gland lying in an unmade bed at 3 am eating toothpaste and thinking obsessively about a kathi roll.

For many months, maybe even years of my hostel life, I was obsessed with midnight rolls. Something about the utter foodlessness of the hostel room in the dead of night used to trigger in my pea-sized brain, this longing to bite into a kathi egg roll with double mutton, crunchy onions, and green chutney, wrapped up like a giant present in a roll of greasy old newspaper. In my hostel food fantasy, the hot-off-the-tava roll was always accompanied by a bottle of ice-cold Depaul’s Cold Coffee – Depaul’s being a hole-in-the-wall in Delhi whose humble coffee in a small glass bottle still kicks the ass of any Starbucks Frappuccino. Of course, I might as well have had dreams of wings and world peace, given that they were realistically more accessible through the locked grilled rooms of a hostel dorm in the dead of night than the food I craved.

And that’s the point of hostel hunger – it’s the flipside of hostel food. Hostel food is mostly unavailable, limited when available, and of dubious quality. So naturally hostel hunger is unlimited, unregulatable, and of world-class standards. Anyone who has been to a boarding school will know that railway stations and airports are places where mothers stuff last minute helpings of food into your mouth before handing you over to the school party. And school breakfasts are the place and time that daily miracles occurred.

Essentially, hostels transform food. As anyone who has ever been to hostel knows, it also transforms relationships with food.

My husband remembers that at his all-boys school, the one stick of butter and the teaspoon of jam given to everyone was strictly controlled, and thus had to be made to last for as many slices of bread as were needed to satisfy raging adolescent hunger. So up to 15 slices were simply waved in the general direction of the butter and jam and the flavour deemed satisfactorily transferred before being happily consumed.

“Buying” extra butter and jam from your hostel buddies required some currency, which typically took the form of besan laddus, barfis, and the atta biscuits handed out with tea. Exchange rates were strictly fixed. 1 stick of butter = 2 teaspoons of jam = 1/2 barfi = 1/2 laddu = 1 atta biscuit. Higher denominations of this edible currency (which were completely safe from demonetisation… just saying) were used to buy and sell homework assignments, senior duties and other hosteller KRAs. Also, kids who played sport for the school were given an extra bowl of sprouted chana. When good sprouted chana dies, it dreams of being allowed to go to boarding school heaven, because nowhere else in the world is it coveted with such naked lust and longing.

Essentially, hostels transform food. As anyone who has ever been to hostel knows, it also transforms relationships with food. All of us ex-hostellers have come to accept that food will always play an outsize role in our lives. (The operative word here clearly being outsize.) So whether it is helpless love of food we should have outgrown but absolutely cannot (for example, cream rolls – the entire cream-roll industry in India survives on our patronage); or the ability to eat anything with anything (condensed milk with tuna being a flavour pairing that no one outside a hostel room would have had the opportunity or desire to try), hostel food will forever shape our culinary choices.

Secondly, food will always mean more than just satisfaction of greed and hunger – it will always be shorthand for an emotion or feeling beyond the physical. For me, Bikaneri bhujiya with cheese cubes and chilli garlic sauce, or a slice of pound cake will always bring back warm, fuzzy memories of my mother sending tuck. For a friend, crumb-fried mutton chops and trifle pudding means excitement that holidays and home are around the corner, because that’s what they ate at their school Christmas feast. (If you know her, move out of the way quickly because it is also accompanied by an extremely off-key rendition of “Silent Night”.) For my husband, chilli chicken with hakka noodles served exactly as it is in Honey Dew restaurant near Ajmer Railway station will always taste better than any Michelin-starred meal because that’s what he ritually consumed every mid-term outing from the ages of 9-17.

Eventually, it doesn’t matter how successful and sophisticated you are, how unlimited and varied your food choices, or how discerning your palate may have become in the years since. If you belong to the tribe of ex-hostellers, there is one essential truth you will have made your peace with. That when you get down to the heart of it all, when you strip away every layer of finish and polish and manners and consideration, all we are is essentially large drool glands leaping and bounding to stuff our faces with as much food as it is possible to ingest without exploding.

As a card-carrying member of this tribe, I can proudly say that at “the heart of it all”, there is no dishonour in being that. There are far, far, FAR worse things you can be.