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Inviting Writing: Cafeteria Eating, Kolkata-style

If I had to advertise this facility, I would have touted it as "lunching amid nature and wildlife"

Fish curry, image courtesy of Flickr user prasad.om

For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about cafeteria culture: the sights, smells, rituals and survival tactics of shared mealtime. This week’s entry takes us a long way from American middle schools. Somali Roy, a freelance writer living in Singapore who last wrote for Food & Think about her mother-in-law’s kitchen, takes us to lunch in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta).

A Wildlife Cafeteria

By Somali Roy

As I squint to proofread the fine lines of advertising copy on my computer screen, a message box pops up: “Lunch?” I look through the glass wall at Jatish, who gives me the perfunctory nod and ambles towards the cafeteria with his stainless steel lunchbox. I scoot off to catch up.

On our way, we grab Seema, our third lunch-mate, and settle down at our standard spot. When the lunch boxes open and the captive smells of mixed spices and herbs waft through the air, bellies grumble and roar here and there. People waiting to buy lunch shift their gaze sheepishly.

The food in our lunch boxes differentiated us, in a way nothing else did. Jatish, being Gujrati, mostly brought thepla, a spicy, whole wheat flatbread accompanied by some chutney. Seema, a Punjabi, had split peas or kidney beans in red curry sauce with paratha. And I, a Bengali plus a sloth, did not bring any regional specialties to the table except some drab looking sandwiches. When Anoop Nair, a strict vegetarian Brahmin from Kerala, cared to join us, we formed a mini India around the table.

This was the routine for the two years I worked in a newly built four-story multiplex in Kolkata. Designed by one of the most prominent architects of the country, this swanky building with its transparent glass façade, English speaking service staff, plush movie theaters and other modern trappings, was surely bulldozing a good number of old and rusty single-screens but was seen as a welcome change by the city’s young, educated, bourgeois crowd that represented the modern and developing Kolkata, a crowded metropolis in east India.

All was good except that the building lacked a cafeteria for its employees. While moviegoers happily stuffed their faces with popcorn, soft drinks and other goodies, we employees had to fend for ourselves. Much to my dislike, I began carrying lunch to office, which was packed by our maid, who was not exactly known for her cooking skills.  I joined the petition for a cafeteria soon after examining my lunch box one day: a burned sandwich that had gone soggy from mushy fruits on the side.

Our plea was sanctioned, but until the cafeteria was built in line with the design and decor of the rest of the building, a makeshift arrangement took shape on the terrace. Four poles were lodged at the four corners, and a musty, threadbare cloth was mounted as a cover. A much-needed coffee machine appeared, a dozen white plastic chairs and tables hop-scotched across the floor and a temporary cooking area was set up at the far end with necessary accoutrements.

As most employees were local, the lunch menu was typically Bengali, with little or no variation to the permanent rice, lentils and spicy fish curry, much to the disappointment of others. Though a purebred Bengali, I too denounced the menu—rice makes me soporific, especially in the afternoons, and fish isn’t a favorite. Looking at the bright side, I am glad I escaped being mocked as “Fishy Bong,” as the fish-eating Bengalis were dubbed.

If I had to advertise this facility, I would have touted it as “lunching amid nature and wildlife.” Crows, sparrows and cats that pecked at leftovers or begged for food often greeted us with their cawing and purring. When the cloth ceiling leaked at places during monsoons, we huddled together around dry spots. On scorching summer afternoons we gobbled everything in seconds and rushed into air-conditioning, and dust storms made us take shelter behind a semi-constructed brick wall.

Yet we came, every single day, climbing two flights of stairs, crossing over half a dozen pipes and passing by loud and trembling generators to have our lunch, talk about our day, complain about the system, lament over the workload, gossip about the latest love affairs. This transient, tent-like cafeteria was tacky, morbid, far from the real deal but we went there because it added color to our plain vanilla workdays.

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