The cafeteria chronicles

College canteens are more than eateries and therein lies some of the best and memorable moments of student life.


Dr Hiba Tohid May 11, 2011



“Ek chat…do chai…do samosey…” comes a call from one corner.


“Chotu! do chai…” comes an order from another.

“Order jaldi lao chotu…lecture miss ho jaye ga!” cry out a group of students sitting at a table right in the middle.

Filled with noise, activity and the aroma of freshly made patties and samosas, this is the home of the ‘chat pati chaat’; the bunkers’ haven, the friends’ hang out…the sweet epicentre of college life!

Enter the cafeteria!

Chota at large…

Hopping from one table to another, ‘Chota’ or more endearingly ‘Chotu’ is a ubiquitous presence in the cafeteria. The faces around him may keep changing with every new batch and every graduation, but Chota stays.

Switching from cleaning the tables to reproducing the menu in a long, breathless monologue…he takes a deep breath and starts off: Veggie samosa, chicken samosa, chicken biryani (you try to keep up)….chana chaat, aaloo chaat (the speech picks up speed)…anaar juice, apple juice, banana shake, mango shake, chai he ends with a sigh as your mind races to catch up.

Whatever bits and pieces you can retain out of the recited menu becomes your order. Although queuing in line at the counter could be an option but having your food delivered Chotu style is just pure old school cafeteria tradition.

Chotu also comes in handy when our young college hero’s eyes meet with his dream girls’ sitting across the cafeteria with her friends. Too shy to express his love, he puts his feelings into a note that Chotu has to deliver. With any luck Chotu will bring one back too.

He is the cafeteria’s pink panther…from ‘who’s dating who’ to ‘who bought a grade and who sold it’…he knows it all. From food to notes to information he passes it all around under the café roof. The Chota is actually a pretty big man on campus

The time out squad

Just as the lecture ends and the professor leaves the classroom, all the ‘fantastic fours’ and the ‘famous fives’ head out to the cafeteria. Sometimes purely for ‘pait pooja’, or just to take a break over a packet of chips and juice.

Stretching out on the uncomfortable chairs, the cafeteria becomes a perfect hang out to catch up with other batches or, for the more indulgent types, to just engage in plain, shallow gossip.

The cafeteria itself provides a lot of meat (not just the one wrapped in samosas and patties…) for the latter.  “That girl…she looks like she’s from our batch. Oh my God! Look she’s sitting with that guy….he’s our senior. I knew there was something going on between these two.”

Ah! the joy of ‘chat pati’ gossip over a plate full of ‘chat pati’ chaat is only available right here. Cafeteria zindabad!

Having their time out is also a group that is a cross between the geek and the back-bencher. This sub specie has a penchant for learning and reading but without the greed for the grade. Rising from the gene pool of the ‘70s idealists they philosophise and romanticise over a ‘cuppa’ with no worries about attendance records.

You might want to jazz it up a bit with a TV or a recreation enclave next door but nothing beats the public radio that is the noisy café itself.

Bhai log…

This gang is not too difficult to spot. The canteen is their den and they make sure they make their presence felt.

Reminiscent of a legacy dating back to the electrifying decades of student politics between the 50s and 70s, these groups may not even be a fraction as inspired or compelling as their predecessors. Therefore, their presence is mostly symbolic with the members of this club enjoying some patronage; having monthly accounts with chotu in the canteen being one of them.

Since studying is for sissies, the big boys come to college only to attend the cafeteria where the table becomes the place to plan the next brawl or scheme the next protest; all over cups upon cups of tea.

Ironically,  the cafeteria also becomes the time out zone for the clashing groups, who after breaking bottles on each other’s heads come to take a breather and cool down under the same roof.

Even in cafeterias in private colleges (where politics is less of a factor), where there’s a will there’s a bhai! Usually from senior batches, even these bhais are not to be messed around with. It’s always a good idea to stay in their good books (a treat at the cafeteria would be a start) to gain access to free backstage passes for the concert next week or have a fellow suitor threatened off your girl unless of course it’s one of the bhais himself… Oops!

The love birds…

Yes! You have guessed it right! They are the lonesome twosome sitting in a not so conspicuous corner far away from the madding crowd in the middle.

Even Chotu knows not to hop around much unless called. Crooning in a corner all the din in the cafeteria dissolves into the cheesy Titanic soundtrack for these victims of cupid. Amidst the gossip girls and the hawk eyes they drink from the same glass and eat from the same plate. Not too much business for chotu’s boss though.

All by myself…

The cafeteria is not all about din and clamour. There are those who find just the right amount of silence they need to work within a cafeteria.

From completing a practical journal to finishing an assignment or preparing a presentation or just hanging out all by oneself; the random loner does find space for himself in this busy house of noise. But the truth is no one can be alone in a café for long. You may step in alone but you soon become a part of the whole razzmatazz.

That is what cafeteria culture is all about. It’s the heart and soul of college life, which is incomplete if you didn’t write on the cafeteria table or steal a bite from a friend’s aloo chaat or screamed your order out when the table next door played their very own ‘cafeteria idol’.

Not to forget the times when you were made to wait outside because the cafeteria was full and your gang ended up pulling chairs from other tables. No biggie if you were still short because then two would share one chair and the group would happily munch away.

Here’s to the college café; the most endearing chapter of a college life…Bon appetite!

Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2011.

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