College was, for me, to paraphrase Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times. And if I were asked to identify the one food item that most defined my time in college, and which encapsulated perfectly the vagaries of my student life experience, I would say it was cake.
In college, I lived on a student budget (read ‘perpetually low on funds’). Birthdays excepting, there weren’t usually many occasions to celebrate anything with cake. So when cake did come into the picture, it turned any ordinary event into a memorable one. And when it was free cake, for a college student on a measly budget, it was like hitting the ultimate jackpot of life. Author Sloane Crosby’s somewhat petulant line — “I was told there’d be cake” — could well be a metaphor for our expectations from life back then. Looking back at my three years in college through the prism of this cake metaphor, I am grateful to report that I am able to say in reply to Ms. Crosby, “There was always cake. And it made me happy.”
It all began on the day of college admissions. I was an outstation student, so my mother and I were in Delhi just for a day to take care of admission-related formalities. For dinner on the return journey home, I expressed a desire for K.F.C., not having an outlet in my city (the mighty hegemonic power of American corporations hadn’t yet penetrated the small-town barriers protecting my star-struck simplicity from the outside world). My mother obliged and gave me money to buy us both a couple of burgers, and said that she would wait for me in the taxi. Armed with money thus, I went in and placed my order, and was asked to take a seat for a couple of minutes while my order was being prepared.
When cake did come into the picture, it turned any ordinary event into a memorable one.
Ten minutes passed, and there was no sign of any food. Shyly, I went up to the counter and politely reminded them, lest they had clean forgotten about my patient existence at the unobtrusive table in the corner, that I was waiting for my order and would they please hurry up. I was told again to wait a while longer, this time a little sternly. So chastised, I return to my spot obediently, rather beginning to wish I was an imposing matriarchal figure who could tell off the inefficient men behind the counter for their tardiness, rather than the awkward teenager whose order could be delayed with impunity, without fear of reprimand or retribution. Lost in thought, I was awoken from my reverie by a waiter who placed, of all things, a slice of chocolate cake in front of me. “But I didn’t ask for cake,” I told him irritably. It took me a while to understand that the cake was complimentary, offered by the staff for keeping me waiting so long for my order. In a flash, all thoughts of injustice and irritability vanished from my head. Happily, I attacked the cake and it was only a matter of minutes before my mother came up to investigate what was taking me so long. She found me lounging at a corner table by myself, my cake-smeared face looking quite pleased, and the burgers nowhere in sight. “You’re sitting here eating cake!” she yelled in surprise. I tried my best to explain to her that it was free cake, as though that somehow quite made up for almost missing the train we were supposed to be catching in an hour. She gave a withering glance in my direction as she collected our take-away from the counter. At that moment however, I couldn’t have cared less. I let her drag me by one hand towards the taxi waiting to whisk us away to the railway station, while I contentedly finished the remnants of the gorgeous cake in my other hand, made ever so special for me because it was free.
Little did I realise then that it was the start of what would become a recurring theme for the rest of my time in college.
A year passed and I soon settled down into a routine in college and in the hostel. Living for the first time away from my family and adjusting to my new life was not exactly, well, a cakewalk, but it didn’t take me long to learn to revel in my newfound independence and liberation from parental tyranny. And I quickly made friends who took to heart the dictum “Good friends don’t let you do stupid things… alone.”
It so happened that I was walking down the street of a local market one fine day in my second year of college with just one such friend. While we were walking, a car passed us and from the window of the front seat flew out a gift-wrapped parcel on to the street. The car never slowed down to retrieve the parcel. As Srujana (my friend) and I cautiously made our way to the package, we deliberated about a thousand questions together. The first thought to come to our minds was that it contained a bomb. Considering that we were in a crowded market in the middle of the capital city, it was a reasonable worry. We had both noticed that the window of the car was only rolled down halfway, which made it appear not so much like the parcel had fallen out accidentally, but that someone had thrown it out of the window. Besides, if it had been an accident, they would’ve come back to reclaim it. There was no way the driver didn’t see it fall out. All in all, it was best to give the parcel a wide berth, we reasoned.
Instead, we went and picked it up.
Gingerly I peeled off the gift wrap. It was expertly packed, with liberal use of Sellotape, so it took me a while to get it undone. As the contents began to reveal themselves, we exclaimed in what was a mixture of surprise and relief: “Oh my God, it’s a sponge cake!”
“Why would anyone throw out a cake from a car?”
“I’m so glad it’s not a bomb. Do you know how stupid we were to pick it up?”
“What if it’s poisoned?”
And thus began a fresh round of deliberations. We couldn’t think of any rational explanation for why anyone would throw a perfectly good cake out of a car window. What were the odds that we’d be walking down the street and someone would throw a fresh — and dare I say delicious — cake at us from a car window for no reason whatsoever? We finally decided it was some creep’s sadistic idea of a joke to poison unsuspecting strangers. It would be best to throw the cake in a municipal garbage bin and walk away.
Instead, we put the cake in my bag and made our way back to college.
Having convinced ourselves that the cake was poisoned, we resolved on our way back to test it on one of the many cats trawling the college campus, before helping ourselves to some. By the time we reached college, though, we decided that it would be a waste of cake to feed it to a cat and even if we died, at least we would die happy, eating cake. So we ate it all by ourselves and became hysterical with laughter. At this point we concluded that the cake wasn’t poisoned after all, but merely drugged, and laughed some more. Soon enough, it turned out that there was really nothing wrong with the cake (and nothing wrong with us), though our brush with the reality of our times had left us oddly excited and yet sober at the same time. It had been highly risky behaviour on our part, and we couldn’t quite believe how things had turned out, but we thanked our stars all the same.
* * *
In our final year of college, Srujana and I were out for lunch at a restaurant that was usually a hangout spot for college students, but on this day it was filled with older couples and families. Srujana ordered a couple of sandwiches, and almost immediately we whipped out our respective cellphones. From then on we were as good as dead to each other. Occasionally, we’d look up to read aloud to the other the odd funny tweet; other than that, a person walking by could have been forgiven for believing we were complete strangers sharing a table due to space constraints. It’s not that we had forgotten the art of meaningful conversation, it’s just that we preferred it this way. It was our idea of sharing a comfortable silence. Thus preoccupied, we didn’t notice the time pass but did notice that almost all the tables around us were emptying slowly, even those that belonged to people who had walked into the restaurant after us. Needless to say, we started to get impatient.
“What’s taking them so long? It’s only a couple of sandwiches. All they have to do is slap cheese and ham on some bread and give it to me. Is that so hard? Should I yell at them?” asked Srujana.
“Yeah, just because we’re badly dressed college students, that doesn’t mean they can treat us so shoddily,” I said.
So Srujana let her displeasure be known. We felt very smug and adult-like at telling off the staff so expertly, with such ease and nonchalance. We wore suitable expressions of both resignation and annoyance on our faces. A flurry of apologies followed from our waitress; accompanied by fake smiles and unconvincing excuses. We rolled our eyes. They couldn’t fool us. Besides, it was a matter of principles after all; our order was not so complicated, it should’ve been a piece of cake, in fact, to serve us on time and we would not stand for —
“Here you go. I hope this makes up for keeping you waiting so long for your order, and our apologies for the same.”
Oh, God. They had inadvertently discovered our Achilles heel. It was literally that infernal piece of cake again.
Srujana and I could not help the demented smiles that suddenly appeared on our faces, in spite of ourselves. In an instant we were putty in the hands of the waitress. We quickly transformed into shadows of our self-righteous, haughty selves; stuttering and sputtering incoherent yet profuse thank-yous. In fact, we were almost on the verge of apologising to her for making such a fuss about bringing us our food well over an hour after we had ordered it. We picked up a spoon each and dove in, principles be damned.
“We just sold ourselves, principles and all, for this measly cake,” said Srujana, licking her spoon.
“Yes. But free cake,” I pointed out, licking my own spoon.
We looked at each other, and once again collapsed into a hysterical giggling fit.