In Memory of P.G.W. Canteen

I have been thinking of writing a post dedicated to P.G.W Canteen that was an integral component of my everyday life as a student in Delhi University from 2000-2007. Yesterday, a friend called me and she fondly exchanged notes over how she has managed to crack the recipe of Chini Parantha (Parantha layered with sugar) that she and I used to have in P.G.W Canteen. P.G.W Canteen is the abbreviated version of Post Graduate Women’s Hostel Canteen. The Canteen once known for paranthas, tea and was the lifeline for many female students in that vicinity if they wanted a packet of biscuits, Maggie or even Sanitary Napkin has died a slow death.

The slow death of this canteen calls for a closer self reflection of the ways in which spaces in Delhi University have been subject to surveillance and how rationing of food in girls’ hostels is part of the University Culture. Rationing of food in the name of wastage has always troubled me.  My first tryst with a Chicken meal in a P.G. Accommodation in North Delhi was somewhat like this. Two pieces of Chicken stared at my face from a bowl that could have been used to serve vegetables and a bigger serving bowl brimming with gravy… It was not only aesthetically unappealing but also reflects how public eating cultures assume “women” to be small eaters. This pattern continues in the university hostel rationing cultures where there is a cap regarding the number of slices of bread one could take, to a person dedicated for serving Milk to ensure “equitable” (?) distribution and a choice between fruit and egg? I wonder if our male colleagues in Hostels for men are subject to such rationing in their mess halls. Some hostels do not allow women residents to carry food to their rooms and special permission is to be sought if one intends to do so.

Such surveillance run deep and the food rationing practices is one of them. So, for people who felt hungry and want to skip meals in their respective hostels ( Meghdoot Hostel, Miranda Hostel, DUWA hostel) and female students and teachers dropped by in P.G.W Canteen for their daily bites which could have been breakfast, lunch or an early dinner. Since it was within a girls’ hostel premises where there are timings of entry and exit for visitors and residents; female students were supposed to leave by 8pm. Yet, we did not complain because of lack of “canteen” facilities in our respective hostels as P.G.W Canteen was our saviour.

P.G.W Canteen was a legend and institution and for reasons best known to the authorities it closed down. The owner of the canteen whom we fondly called Dipu Bhaiya shared a love-hate relationship with the students. The Canteen best known for parathas with various stuffings (potato, cauliflower, onion, radish, potato-onion,) served with a spicy pickles of cabbage and onions was a hit among students from North Campus. The Chchole Batura of P.G. Canteen was also a favourite and if the people at the kitchen were in a good mood they would also give a helping of the Chchole with paratha. The parathas priced between Rs 5-10 were cheap and affordable. The vegetable toast and their special tea was the evening snack most of us gorged on. For some of the students, their bread roll was appealing as well. Most importantly, if you did not want to trek down to Kamala Nagar or Kingsway Camp you could walk down to P.G.W in your shorts, and pack food for dinner.

When I was in college we also got food packed for our 24 hour journey train ride. The food never went bad. Everyone of us had their own favourite pick. And anybody who frequented the place would remember the famous Maggie they served. A friend told me that she has managed to recreate “P.G.W Maggie” and it’s a favourite with her family. Most importantly, it was a place where a student could indulge in comfort food within Rs 20.

Many such memories haunt me every time one sees the closed shutters of the P.G.W Canteen. Such closed shutters dot a University space that seems alien to people like us who stepped in this university a decade ago. With the familiar spaces gone, what remains are such anecdotes…


Revisiting food censorship in campus – I

Larke aur ande allowed nahin hain

( Men and eggs are not allowed)

We came across this comment many years back when we were frantically looking for houses in North Campus, Delhi. I am sure many of you may have encountered comments like these when you have gone house-hunting in Delhi. At the same time, we have found landlords/landladies who have been non-interfering about our food habits. For instance, I remember with fondness how my landlady used to religiously send me a dish of lotus stem on Tuesdays as I hated the tiffin food item of puri and chchole. Nevertheless, food practices are personal and the recent incident in Osmania University shows increasing intolerance and lack of respect towards people’s choices.

Yes, I am talking here about the “sacredness” of the ‘Cow’ and the way in which the ‘sacredness’ has been appropriated to ensure food censorship in recent acts of vandalism by ABVP in Osmania Campus. Food censorship based on religion, gender and caste has been the subject of criticism in public space for a long time but the increasing intolerance or lack of space for food that is considered “different” needs to be interrogated closely.

 I remember with fondness my first initiation into beef eating which dates back to college days and it was mainly to enjoy a red meat other than mutton. My cousin who refrains from eating beef had remarked,“ I was trying to make a point. My food habits had become secular”.  My cousin jokingly had exchanged notes with my mother( a practising Hindu) that I had started consuming beef. She had thought I would get into trouble. My mother made an interesting comment, “If you can’t eat, or wear something you can be tolerant towards people’s choices. It’s a matter of choice”.   

The recent acts of intolerance towards students who wanted to organise beef festival in Osmania as reported in Telegraph needs some introspection with the way food practices across campuses in India are steeped in majoritarian politics. The recent protests by ABVP on campus is nothing new. If they had a problem with “certain” kind of films, seminars and now it’s “food”. G.S. Radhakrishna in the article,“After Telengana, call for beef fest ingnites campus” draws our attention to how food practices in Osmania University is steeped in caste politics. According to this article, Dalit students were cooking beef as part of an event that coincided with the birth anniversary celebrations of Dalit icons, Jagjivan Ram (April 5) and Jyotibha Phule (April 11) and B.R. Ambedkar (April 14). The Dalit students also wanted beef to be served in campus canteens where the non-vegetarian fare includes, chicken, mutton and eggs.

What is interesting is how the politics of food goes beyond majoritarian choices. Of the 8000 students on the campus 4000 students belong to Other Backward Classes and 1000 are tribals. Upper and Foreign students make about 1000.

Despite such number games, the food politics or censorship rules seem to be steeped in caste hierarchy that too in an institution where there were three separate kitchens ( one for non-vegetarian food which included beef, the other without beef and one for vegetarians) when the institution came into existence ( as told by Prof. Kanchah Illiah in a talk in JNU on 20 March, 2012).  

Let us not fall into the trap of food censorship. Food is  a matter of choice and let’s respect it.

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How do you like your tea?

Last year when I got to know that India has won against Pakistan in the World Cup my cousin and I exchanged a series of messages on what our Buroda must have done. Buroda is the guardian angel of our area. Unlike our TV channels which has designated slots for news and debate shows; Buroda in his tea shop has a series of debates ranging from politics, sports and of course the Para-gossip (para is the Bengali word for neighbourhood). He is a storehouse of information. Buroda is all of 50 years old and my father called him Buro, my uncles buroda (da is the word for elder brother) and my cousins and yours truly call him Buroda.

The universal Buroda is known for his butterly toast and milky tea.  Buroda is a diehard fan of Argentina. He will take the pain to organise and hoist Argentina flags and make sure if a local club has displayed Brazil’s flag; he will spend that extra cash from his profits to buy a bigger Argentina flag. Buroda is a football fanatic, and he sells Tea. His speciality like any other tea shop in Kolkata is Crisp Butter Toast with dozens of sugar. In Bengali bread loaves are known as Paunroti ( at some point there was a believe that people used their legs to knead flour; hence paunroti). There are various shops lined in college street that sells crisp butter toast and tea on marble table tops. Apparently these shops used to be frequented by politico-ideologues of 70’s and 80’s . Coming to Buroda he also sells Ghugni, one of the most favourite snack and breakfast item for hundreds of migrant workers who work in the tanneries, and other industrial units in this industrial part of Kolkata.

Like all industrial corners even Kolkata’s industrial sweatshops are falling prey to real estate developers and I was woken to a heated debate on how Buroda has also been victim of real estate players. Initially Buroda’s shop was housed under a thatched roof and a cemented slab which functioned as table and chair simultaneously. Buroda takes extreme care that his “female” customers like us does not have to enter his shop. He will insist getting our orders home delivered. Everyday Buroda looks at the highrise that stands tall and wonders at the by-gone era of 80s when his shop was thriving on the migrant Bihari workers and other workers who worked in the textile mills. He says those were the days. He never could make enough tea and there was never enough space. When somebody asks Buroda what led to his misfortune. He keeps silent. While I miss sneaking away to Buroda’s shop for my ghugni and paunroti for my breakfast I wonder who will be Buroda’s customers. Buroda himself laments that his customer profile has changed. Initially he was forced to keep Anandabazaar and Bartaman ( two leading Bengali Newspaper daily) now he could do with borrowing one. The customer profile of shops owned by Buroda’s across the city of Kolkata is mixed. People across classes and masses over the crisp toast and tea will lament on the souring inflation, debate on the political crisis that rocks the country. While shops like Buroda’s symbolise the pulse of the city of Kolkata; with the emergence of landscaped neighbourhoods it is a matter of time when Burodas will become a matter of memory.

The only surviving grace is that Burodas never grow old in college canteens. One of the legendary college canteen in Kolkata is owned by Pramod da. Pramod da is equivalent to Baba Loknath to most of the Presidency students. Last time when I visited the college with a friend of mine, a former student of Presidency he treated us to his chowmein and tea. This special treat was in honour of a friend who had secured admission for her Ph.D abroad.

Similarly even after years of staying away from Delhi School of  Economics , whenever one visited the campus  Dipu from J.P. Tea stall greets every alumni with a smile and prepares Tea with fondness. The sense of ownership and the relationship that consumers have with petty producers has been documented in various social science texts.  There is an innumerable peripheral workforce in the food industry that serves us and cares for us despite our age and class. Each college or university has their own  Pramod da s, Milonda s , J.P s and Buroda s and it is time we ponder for a while when they ask us “How do you like your tea?”

© itiriti