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Wednesday September 29, 2021

Letters from a Student Fresh off The Boat

I left Kolkata in 2004 at the age of 22. As is the folly of youth, I considered myself to be an experienced adult waiting to take on a new world with my honed skillset! Mind you by skillset I meant my Bachelor’s degree from a renowned institution, my so called street smarts gained in the 3 years of undergrad and the smattering of English that I could converse in, now that I had a bit more confidence in myself.  18 years later, as I look back I have to laugh at my naiveté . How I was about to be proven wrong!

I left a protected, privileged and I guess by today’s lingo, ‘helicoptered’ environment to be unleashed on an unsuspecting group of what turned out to be mostly kids from Maharashtra (for some reason the US university I ended up in used to have hordes of kids from Maharashtra come and join). If I really start looking at diversity in the group, there was quite a bit: Marathis, Gujaratis, Punjabis, Konkanis, Andhraites, with a handful of Tamilians, Keralites, Kannadigas and Bengalis thrown in.

When we felt really ambitious, we planned bar b que outings

There were some interesting mixes as well –  Marathis who had grown up entirely in Bangalore and spoke Kannada, Gujaratis who had grown up in Chennai and spoke Tamil, Malayalis who were raised in Pune and spoke English at home and Marathi with friends. With this diversity came comparative conflicts on which community was better at what in life but the great leveler was always food, if you were a good cook you would be acknowledged for that regardless of what other views you held about life. This was also one of my most useful skillsets as I later discovered. If you know how to spice your food who cares about what your degree or background is!

Staying in what can only be called a ‘chawl’ in the middle of podunk America we used to have huge community feasts. Who would cook for the day would be determined by who had the best ‘hand’ at something, and if you were so ‘blessed’ you would be tasked with a dish for the entire apartment building. Dinners were usually communal affairs and the first thing to be done was to decide that morning on Yahoo Messenger (yes, I know I am old!), who was cooking what for that day and for how many people.

Spices and more spices

Being the Bengali I somehow always ended up with the “bhaat” or rice dish. Since most students were vegetarian, it would usually be a rice dish made with the mixed frozen veggie packets one would buy in cart loads from the 24 hour Walmart supercenter. Yes, don’t go all political on me about Walmart being a horrific employer exploiting its employees. We went by the acronym P.I.G.S (Poor Indian Graduate Students); underpaid and dependent on huge loans that our parents had taken out, Walmart shopping was de rigueur.

Raita the great spice leveler

I have no idea why, but once the rice dish was decided the vegetarian side dish always used to be more mixed veggies either cooked maybe in a tomato gravy or perhaps an oily eggplant dish or even worse bhindi!! I still wake up sweaty and anxious from the thought of that mucilaginous mess we would have to down! Needless to say, they were oft chosen as they were easy to cook, found in big bags in the frozen section of the grocery store and didn’t burn a hole in our pocket!

Menu decided, it was time to acquire the utensils. Ask any student going abroad about things they were asked to bring as essentials and a pressure cooker would stand king among the list. This was the case amongst us as well. However, in this case it was the size that mattered. When you are about to cook for an apartment building filled with 21 to 25 year old guys, you want one big batch and hopefully in and out as quickly as possible! Ahem, I meant in and out of the kitchen mind you! Yes I know, another bedroom pun, forgive me for being a little distracted with the effects of social distancing!

Being the Bengali I somehow always ended up with the “bhaat” or rice dish. Since most students were vegetarian, it would usually be a rice dish made with the mixed frozen veggie packets one would buy in cart loads from the 24 hour Walmart supercenter.

Coming back to the point, getting done in the kitchen as quickly as possible without having to do multiple rounds of cooking or washing up was the rule of the day! So the search would begin for the biggest pots: where they were in the building, who was hoarding it since the last time and of course to make sure none of the old moldy contents came back to you with the pot! Students can be quite laissez-faire about such stuff but I am not going to go into the story of unwashed utensils today; let’s keep it for another day.

Being a Bengali kid where the subtlety of spices and especially of chilies in a dish was paramount, I received feedback the first few times that ‘good attempt but you need to increase the amount of spices in your dish’. So lo and behold I started to cook what was then in my head the North Indian style. Heaping amounts of jeera, dhaniya and chili powder went into everything. The chili powder was essential as I had to satisfy Kolhapuri palettes of fiery hotness. So, dishes actually supposed to look turmeric yellow would always turn out to be brick red. And I loved catering to the crowd’s wishes, so the more yoghurt I could make them eat to dull down the burn of the chili, the better the praises would be. Just thinking about such spice levels gives me acid reflux these days! But hey I was honing my real world skillsets: adaptability and responding to feedback, isn’t that stuff you have to pay a few grand to learn in B-schools?

The fiery hot chicken curry was a weekend staple

For the discerning non-vegetarian palettes we had our weekends, when chicken thighs would be bought en masse. Once we made sure that the vegetarian roomies have enough food for the weekend, marination began. Here again I discovered another hitherto undiscovered skillset – the ability to touch raw chicken or meat, skinning it, de-boning it and marinating it with my hands. I actually quite enjoyed the process but was considered a bit of a ghoul for doing so. The non-vegetarians in the group while happy to gnaw on a piece of curried chicken leg couldn’t bear to touch an uncooked one.

Once this part was done, everyone was called in to the kitchen and cooking became a bit of a communal affair. Everyone took a break from studies and gather around to help. There would be a lot of cookies and soda bottles making their rounds (one needed to be sugared up while cooking), as pirated F.R.I.E.N.D.S episodes played on the laptop, newly minted couples giggled with each other in the corner while peeling cucumber and a whole lot of gossip did the rounds as we peeled, chopped, mashed and diced red onions, garlic, ginger and tomatoes.

Cooking done, it was time to eat

Finally the curry and raita would be ready by around 3-4pm in the afternoon and people would gather around eat bowlfuls and settle into a heap in the living room watching the latest Hindi or English torrent download that someone had ‘obtained’, drifting blissfully into a ‘bhaat ghoom’. Final skillset acquired, if you can’t kill ‘em with kindness then put them to sleep with good food, they are bound to wake-up grateful.

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