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One last time

Ravi and I spent the usual  20 minutes rounding everyone up for dinner. This was the most demeaning job in the world, not because everyone was doing different things – Rama walking around in circles with the phone plastered to his ear, Iyer on his bed with his laptop on his stomach, rising and falling rhythmically, Anand walking in and out of his (bath)room wearing only a towel, Spike either sleeping in the most awkward position with a book sprawled beside him or fighting with Vc for a game of FIFA, Vc either washing clothes or fighting with Spike for a game of FIFA and Sp conspicuously locked in his room – but because everyone had the same answer, Call the others da, I’m ready. We decided to brave the humiliation and round everyone up. After all, this would probably be the last time we’d be having dinner together for years and certainly the last time in the mess hall. It was going to be one last time.

The 10-minute walk to the mess hall was the most emotionally laden one I’ve ever taken. We were all mindful of the significance of the meal. We were unusually quiet and somber and even Vc, as if to show his solidarity, stopped trying to step on Iyer’s sandals after Iyer snapped, his voice more masculine than it had ever been in 4 years. Sp complained about how his upcoming exam was the most difficult paper and Anand agreed. There was a collective gasp. Spike murmured something that sounded like Miss you guys. Vc wiped his eyes hastily and said something that sounded like Brothers. I thought I heard Iyer say Brethren. Ravi did not laugh. Rama stopped messaging. It was too much to take. I heard a string of violins playing far away and I thought I saw Karan Johar smiling at us proudly. I looked again, it was just Sai waving at us. The melodrama was killing us. No one said anything, but we knew we were all thinking about the same thing – mess food. Say what we may, we knew the mess hall was a lot more special than we’d ever admit. It was the one time of the day all of us sat around at a table, fighting and arguing, agreeing only when it came to complaining about the food. It had been a good 4 years and the mess hall had been as important a part of hostel life as any other. A montage of scenes ran in front of our eyes.

It started with a silent, grainy, black and white film. We saw ourselves – 4 years younger, hale and healthy, with more hair on our head than on our faces, noses twitching and a look on our faces that only newly incarcerated convicts wear. For some reason we were all happy. We stood in line, plates and spoons even, moving from counter to counter, examining rotis for burnt spots and daal for insects. We sat silently, ate quietly, laughed at each others jokes politely. Sp took out a bottle of thokku, Spike eyed it greedily, Vc burst out crying at the end of the table. Anand looked at me and I knew he was trying hard not to laugh. I smiled, torn between having to console an old friend and appear macho in front of a new one. As a mark of understanding, Ravi gave a roti to Vc. He cried harder. Anand burst out laughing. Rama joined in. The grains cleared up and a bit of color appeared.

The rest of the movie was easier to follow, they were just random scenes. In one, I carried a jug of water of a table of seniors and then for four more. In another, we lost a bottle of avakai uurga to a bunch of seniors in football jerseys and from the look on our faces, we guessed it was our last. We were joined by others in some videos and in others not all of us were present, but for the most parts, we were laughing and fighting, spitting and running, stealing bananas (and coming up with dirty banana jokes) and hiding each others cell phones. Around the time we started losing hair on our head and substituting it on our face, the video had sound and was a lot clearer than some porno documentaries we’d taken from the LAN. In these, we were no longer standing in line, we had no plates and certainly no spoons, we were taking thokku from healthier kids, asking them to fetch water for us and Iyer was the only one examining rotis and daal.

We saw all this in our mind, as if tied together in a common dream. And here we were, walking towards the mess hall for our last dinner together. It was a lot more emotional than I imagined it would be, more emotional than my last day in class and surprisingly more than the last Club. How many more years would it be before all of us sit together and eat again? Well, we could at least make that possible. Would it ever be possible to eat at the mess hall again? As we inched closer to the hall, with the same images, videos and questions running through all our minds, a humid blast hit us. We were brought back to the present, a rather harsh present, by a metallic clatter. Someone had dropped a plate and we saw something red and viscous struggling to flow off the plate. We looked around the place that had seemed so nostalgic in our mind – it was chaotic. It was hot as hell and the curtains hung still, belying the rather cool evening outside. With conversations in every Indian language imaginable (one overpowering the others), it was like we were dropped right in the middle of Ranganathan Street during Pongal and indeed, if it weren’t for the sweaty, smelly guys in shorts and baniyans, I would have thought so! But we knew – I cannot tell you how, but we did – that it wasn’t these things that bothered us. It was the smell. Oh Dear Lord the smell! In our rooms in Florida, New York, D.C. and Madras, we smell it even now. The putrid smell of old dough. Of saadam and the drainage, of saadam in the drainage! Of fungus-infested bread and tomatoes, of bananas and hot water. Oh the smell!

The silent, black and white, grainy image returned to our minds, grainier and shakier than ever. We looked carefully. Healthier we were, hair we had, but we realized why we had the look on our faces. This was why. This was why our noses twitched. And we weren’t happy. We were sadistic. We were laughing at each others misery. And in the present and in our heads, the emotion returned – Would it ever be possible to eat at the mess hall again? We looked at each other and we answered Ah! Fuck it! Let’s go to paati kadai.

As we stepped out into the cool, evening air we all heard a voice again, not in our heads, but very close to us – No da. I don’t eat egg. Let’s go to Classic.

And then the fight started.

One last time.

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