Whenever I hear a fellow-Indian tut-tut the plight of vegetarians in a foreign country, I ask if he equally sympathizes with migrant non-vegetarians alienated in parts of their own country. I can vouch, as one who had survived in the land of religiously vegetarian green aliens, that non-vegetarians are no less unfortunate. To us fresh migrant students from Kerala in the 80s, these domestic aliens were as good as metal-tongued Martians with double antennae perfectly capable of catching fishy breaths and directing electric shocks at meat-laced farts. Our attitude was typical of kids who until then had never stepped out of Kerala, one of the few Indian states where beef is not blasphemy. We had not yet found jobs, built homes, and made money in the same alien states that we so hated at the time. We were yet to unlearn our omnivorous cravings for fish and meats natural to our coastal home state.
Those were the 80s when engineering colleges did not proliferate like wild mushrooms as they do now. And all the rejects of national-level entrance tests took a train to alien lands like the village where our college stood. We lodged in the adjacent college hostel, which happened to be in a village near a forest. To make things worse, the college attracted students from other alien states of the country. Food was not the only issue. No matter how empty our pockets, we Keralites take pride in wearing those pockets on a clean shirt and keeping our residence just as clean. But the other migrants followed a different standard, which was most visible in the common baths and toilet seats of our esteemed engineering college. There we saw the confirmation of our prejudices, and we stuck with our own folk all the more.
Fellow Keralites who did not have the nose to take this and were rich enough moved to the nearest town that had better bar hotels and accommodations offering meat and cleaner bathrooms.
At Rs 500 a month of pocket money, I was among those who couldn’t afford to relocate. When the memory of a roast chicken tugged at the sweet spot between the tongue and the palate, we made our way through rough terrains to an Andhrite joint called Daddy’s Mess. The journey was not entirely tedious. We would descend a hill to ascend another, stopping at the valleys to dip our feet in the shallow streams, smoke a cigarette or two. Still the long walk wasn’t always worthwhile as the Daddy of the Mess was not so cool. He would adjust the water content and the number of chicken pieces in the curry according to the type of customer, which for a migrant and a student didn’t amount to much.
The first year went in this lean and mean way. We compensated the big hole Daddy made in our pocket by spraying liberal doses of choice abuses in chaste Malayalam over his one or half piece of chicken fished out from heavily diluted gravy. Come vacations we headed to Kerala to replenish our starved bodies by over-eating and return at twice the waist size. When back, the unhealthy state of the hostel pissed us off afresh and we pinned our hopes to a small private hostel that was taking shape brick by brick opposite ours.
The upcoming hostel was to have eight rooms. Each room could hold two students. It dawned on us that the rest of the 60 in the college hostel might also have their hopes pinned on the bricks alongside ours. Our idea was to have the hostel all to ourselves, a group of ten Keralites, and keep the toilet-spoiling filthy types away from the spoils.
This is where we developed our early negotiation skills. We gradually cosied up to the builders and owners and inquired about their plans and schemes. We advised them of the dangers of letting the rooms to strangers and bargained on the booking amount. By then, we had learned the local language and so had an advantage over the clueless others in the college hostel. We convinced them of our decency and offered help to get more decent tenants for the rest of the rooms over time.
The deal that the landowner came up with was this: book all the rooms at one go with a fair lump sum (there was no concept of monthly rent) or go for a room by room deal at a higher charge. This put us in a spot. We were 10, ready to pay the advance for five rooms. How do we get six more equally committed tenants? This meant approaching the more well-bred of the aliens. We decided to trust the Tamilians, people from the neighboring state who were of similar culture and some of whom were at back-slapping terms with us.
They were interested but would wait till the hostel was up to see if they really wanted to move in. This worried us. We wanted their interest to develop into passion. We were the ones who had promised the booking advance to the landowner after all. That was when we had the brainwave, of hiring a cook and starting a mess in the new hostel.
A cow-shed with an attached room at the back of the hostel could easily be converted into a kitchen with a food court. So even before the walls were up, we were selling the idea to all the decent Tamillians we knew. No sooner the news of a cook and a mess broke out, there was a rush to fill up the rooms. Where we were hard put to place six people, 30 applicants were vying for the slots.
Our calculations presented a simple solution. For 16 hostellers, the salary of the cook, raw material and rent of the kitchen came to be expensive. If we opened the kitchen to 19 outsiders after the chosen 16 had had their meals, the costs dropped and the kitchen would be used up to its full capacity of 25 customers. Thus we offered mess memberships to 19 outsiders of our choice after the six hostellers were taken.
For one whole year, the going was great. The cook Papan chettan from Kerala was an excellent catch. His meat delicacies were lip-smacking. The days he cooked beef for Keralites, the Tamillians and Andhrites had to make do with egg curry.
Running the mess taught us best management tactics. Accounting and purchasing - this involved discovering the cheapest suppliers of fish, vegetables, meat and poultry products. They could be found at mandis with their stalls open for an infinite time or until stocks lasted. We would arrive around midnight with our sacks when they would only be too happy to part with the last of their goods at whatever price we quoted. Cash collection was another art. At every meeting, debtors were politely reminded, without hurting sentiments, of their pending payments and the reminders gently repeated until they could take it no more and borrowed from others to pay us.
At the end of that year when vacations started, Papan chettan had earned quite a sum that was best spent at his home in Kerala. Some of us went along with him. I and a few others stayed back, owing to the cost of travel.
Vacations at the hostel without the cook in his kitchen was a gastronomic fall from the pinnacle of spicy, succulent flavors to the pit of bland, watery vegetarianism.
This food crisis was worse than before the Papan chettan era.
Some of the boys got wind of my modest culinary skills. I did cook a bit of chicken but had not yet ventured beyond the one-to-two plate ration.
The appeals from 15 young meat-starved men, however, egged me to be more self-confident. Owing to the exodus to respective home states, the number of mess regulars had dropped from 25 to 15.
With encouragement from my roommate Shaji, I agreed to cook Nadan Chicken Masala for 15 hot-blooded men with an endless pit of a stomach. Funds were collected. Chickens were brought and marinated. But the fear of the dish running out of the enormous collective appetite built up through days of anticipation and weeks of meat-deficiency lingered.
I preferred my chicken to be on a slightly chillier side. Taking cue from that, Shaji advised that I administer extra chilly on the chickens to filter the Tamillians and Andhrites from taking more than what their taste buds were used to. We, of course, being from the same land as the Nadan Chicken Masala wouldn’t mind more of the spice at all, he assured.
And so for the first time in my life, I cooked for 15 and lit the cold mess back into life.
Much before the chicken pieces had turned tender and moist or its skin crackly crisp, the aroma of fat hitting spicy masala had blown out of the mess, across the road, and into the compounds of the college hostel.
Drooling guys rushed in to occupy the premium seats and were told to patiently wait for the chicken to turn brown from blond.
Finally, the chicken was served with local bread.
The dish at first round was polished off in no time. The second round brought no marked change. By the third round, however, there was a slow-down. Soon I heard chairs being pushed back and running taps.
Triumphant, I peeked out of the kitchen and got a surprise. Those still braving the chicken were not our Keralite brethren but the ‘aliens’.
On spotting me, they showered exclamations of romba super on me. One or two conceded between spice-induced sniffs and tears that the chilly was konjam jasti but all in all parwah ille. They continued the race to the finishing round and ran through the last chicken legs with aplomb.
Later pondering over the science behind this phenomenon, I and Shaji concluded that while the chilly threshold was at the same level for all, it was the novelty factor that did us in. We Keralites familiar to the taste had not treated the dish as an once-in-a-lifetime experience worth torching the digestive tract from tongue to bowels. But the aliens had. We were defeated by their stead-forth what-the-hell-I’m-gonna-eat-it-anyway attitude.
P.S: Later in our lives, we missed the alien land so much that we agreed those engineering days spent in rural Maharashtra were the happiest in our lives. We visited it several times with gifts and money for the locals who had helped make our stay memorable.