‘Have you been to the Canteen yet?!!’, asked S, my co-worker. It was my first day at work in my current company.
Something in her tone suggested that it was more than a question. Her eyes had turned large and round, and her eyebrows were about to vanish into her hairline.
‘Is it good?’, I asked tentatively.
In reply, she insisted I accompany her for lunch. As we entered the lift, I wondered what to expect. In my previous offices, the food ranged from burp-worthy to revolting to UFO-garnished (Unidentified Furry Objects!) So despite S’s vanishing eyebrows, I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
We stepped into an incredible cacophony of clattering spoons, clanking trays and raucous lunch room chatter.
At the food counter, attendants in spiffy aprons and caps were efficiently ladling the contents of enormous vessels onto steel trays. I was so mesmerised by the spread, I just nodded to all their queries.
Rice? (nod), Roti? (nod), Dal? (nod), Vegetable in gravy? (nod), Gravy in vegetable? (nod), Boiled egg? (nod), Gravy for boiled egg? (nod)
And I was just halfway down the line!
Attendant No. 2 took over…
Sambar? (nod), Vegetable (dry)? (nod), Buttermilk (nod), Papad (nod), Pickle (nod), Dessert (nod), Banana (shook head from side to side)
Anyone would think I was preparing for winter!
‘How much?’, I asked
Attendant No. 2 surveyed the hill on my plate and said, ‘Two rupees’. And then almost immediately. ‘No banana… that’s. Rs. 1.50.’
I’d only heard stories of subsidised canteens. This was the first time I was eating in one! I couldn’t wait to gloat to all my ex-colleagues who were still reeling from canteen bills.
But at the end of one week, three things became clear:
a. My innards, convalescing from a virulent ailment, couldn’t stomach this oil and spice rich fodder.
b. I’d have to re-start my old dabba
c. There’d never be anything like a free lunch!
A month ago, I was surprised to find a new addition to the menu.
SALAD OF THE DAY
Sprouts with lettuce
About time, I whooped to myself, as I helped myself to the salad.
A few days ago, another counter and another sign came up: LESS OILY AND LESS SPICY FOOD.
Someone was doing their bestest to woo me, I thought delightedly. I sailed across to the counter.
Sunny yellow dal (nod)
Green vegetables, not doused in flaming red gravy (nod nod)
Fat, fluffy puris (pause)
Were these the oil-free cousins of the usual variety, I wondered. But no, a closer examination revealed big, gleaming beads of oil.
The girl in front of me pounced on this aberration. ‘Why are you serving these oily puris here? Isn’t this an oil-free counter?’
The attendant had perfected his reply. ‘If you don’t take them, they’re not oily!’
I struggled with that logic a bit before I sat down to my old dabba.