Campus Nostalgia, With Extra Cheese

Table for Three

Campus Nostalgia, With Extra Cheese

Illustration: Riya Rathod

It started out surreal, then got just plain weird. Getting in was a big deal – then there was the prospect of finally experiencing hostel life. Welcome to WIMWI (Well-known Institute of Management in Western India) aka IIM Ahmedabad aka “Management” to an auto driver in the city.

In the first few days, you could tell the rookies from the jaded IIT-ians and other hostel veterans. While we neatly arranged our new buckets, detergent sachets, underwear, and books (in that order), they spilled open the contents of their bags and sauntered off for their first chai and smoke. Then came the orientation, and without warning, the treadmill was cranked up and all order was lost.

As I stumbled around in that fog of war in the first couple of months – dazed, scared, sleep-deprived, wanting to drug test some of the unfairly smart people around me – there was a cold dose of reality twice a day. The mess lunch and dinner. Or “Sethu’s avial” as my fellow food-loving friend affectionately named it after our assistant warden, Mr Sethumadhavan. After a few helpings of the unintentionally al dente rice, the runny dal, and the clumpy avial, my taste buds were screaming, “I don’t give a shit if I flunk out… I am NOT eating this!”

I exaggerate. The food was actually pretty good and wholesome (the breakfast was particularly good). But there is something about mass-produced mess food that hurts the palate of a coddled boy used to home cooking all his life. Yet, like most things that don’t kill you, I’m a better man for having eaten it, at least with some regularity in the first year.

By the time second year rolled in, and the prospects of a job and a salary got a little bit closer, the eating out went up substantially (thanks Dad, for not scrimping on the allowance). Those meals were consistently good, though I am sure age, nostalgia, great company, and inane banter that accompanied them, are distorting my memories slightly.

For young men and women meant to be experiencing life in its infinite variety, we had surprisingly finite and fixed likes, down to the cola to be consumed with the meal. At the top of that list of favourites was the tandoori hara murg with cheese naan and the extra-fizzy Thums Up at Mirch Masala. Thums Up was a scientifically proven superior accompaniment, a friend had sagely noted, because the extra gas helped you burp out rich Indian food better and thus consume more. You can’t argue with science like that. We ensured we left our table manners and weighing scale at the door, because there was no dignified or low-calorie way to eat at this classic north Indian restaurant.

But Topaz was special because of a particular innovation called khoya kaju, made with little else, apart from those two ingredients.

The other place we visited as often as our allowance and schedules would permit, was Tomato’s. Now this place had the classic American diner look, which seems to mean red seats, black-and-white chessboard tiles, walls crammed with every fashion of US memorabilia like “witty” plaques. Elvis and Marilyn smouldered over raucous families, young couples, and a bunch of eternally famished students in wrinkled clothes with no table manners. We always started with nachos with extra cheese: a dripping, gooey extravaganza to begin with, so clearly the way to improve it was to ask for extra cheese. The point was to just eat spoonfuls of melted cheddar at the end, spoons battling for the last vestige in the bowl – very classy. Back in campus recently for our reunion, we made the obligatory trip to Tomato’s. I must admit, some of the dishes didn’t taste as brilliant as they did 15 years ago, but by god, the extra cheese was as good as ever.

Over my two years in Ahmedabad, we spent a substantial amount of time and money at Topaz, at the chaar raasta next to campus, to escape the tyranny of lunch on any given day. Topaz served wholesome north Indian vegetarian fare. The paneer was spongy yet firm, the potatoes well-spiced, and the tandoori rotis hot – a solid, non-spectacular performance every time.

But Topaz was special because of a particular innovation called khoya kaju, made with little else, apart from those two ingredients. Not on any diet plan, and not sure which right-thinking person put it in as an entrée, since it was actually sweet. But there was something wonderfully spontaneous and simple about walking to the mess, and having seen what’s on offer, have one of us – by rotation – ask, “Topaz chalega?”

Finally, in keeping with the progression of a meal, the last stop is Dairy Den, an ice-cream parlour that was a favourite, especially when someone was treating us for landing a job or seniors with actual salaries came back to campus. Dairy Den offered some excellent ice cream sundaes – banana splits, pista-badaam concoctions, and dollops of sundry flavours bejewelled with wafers and sprinkles. They topped off excellent meals and even better conversations with some of the best bunch of degenerates I have ever hung out with.

I am leaving out the best meals I’ve had during my two years on campus, because they are not replicable for anyone but me. I am leaving out the samosa todke (a smashed samosa ladled with sweet and spicy chutney) at Rambhai, which we ate to recover from a particularly nasty quiz, omelette sandwiches, and a series of sweet, milky coffees at ungodly hours with your best friend while discussing your lack of a love life.

Those omelette sandwiches and samosas might not have been great by culinary standards. But they are some of the best meals I’ve had – because you remember them as much for how you experience them. And in my memory, those meals stay perfect.