In which Ludwig is reminded of food and music by an unlikely book that SpaceBar showed him
We used to live in a first floor hostel room that, through a brace of ashoka trees and over a rusty phalanx of forgotten bicycles, looked down at an eatery judiciously named Quark. Judicious because Quark is the kind of name that carefully attenuated to be simultaneously cool and geeky enough to appeal to a wide cross-section of the student populace.
The fare at Quark was mixed. Variations on the "oily gobs of semolina with shreds of vegetables and meat" theme were passed off as products of Szechuan and Manchuria. Vanilla ice-cream was cheerfully and sometimes inevitably (given Madras temperatures and power cuts) melted, optimistically christened "milk shake" and peddled for a princely Rs. 10. The menu was written on a whiteboard, and some of us went there just to find out what spelling they'd used today ("Kobe Manjuriyan - Rs. 15").
The piece de resistance of the cordon bleu experience, as it were, was the delicious kheema porotta. The porottas were of the excellent Mallu variety, and for the connoisseurs amongst our readers, enough said. The kheema was fine grained, spicy, in generous quantities (enough to warrant an extra porotta) and quite sexy. In hindsight, one fervently hopes that the meat came off some traditional ungulate, or at least an herbivorous quadruped. Who is to say?
When the thing was cooked, one of the waiters would put on his best American accent and announce loudly, "Khhheemmmaa porrotttaa, exxxtrraaa porrrotttaaa!!!". And as his shriek died in the prosopis plants that infested the place, you could swagger up to the counter, and everyone would know you were spending big money tonight.
Quark had a "fountain Pepsi" machine. Remember those things? It is reasonable to suspect that a number of people patronized Quark because they were mesmerized by this hissing-panting consul-general of liberalization and globalization in the midst of our customary squalor. If the Starship Enterprise had landed in the hostel quadrangle and Captain Kirk had invited us to play at the battle bridge we couldn't have been happier. For 5 seconds while the plastic cup filled up and the beaded bubbles started winking at the brim, we were on an American campus.
Dining was al fresco. This is another way of saying the management couldn't be bothered with putting up any kind of roof over our heads or providing any furniture. Which was just as well. The future has come to pass, and a recent visit threw the "advantages" of progress into Stark Relief. Shudder. Instead we had trees, and a bunch of cubical and cylindrical concrete blocks, sturdy specimens that had survived the rigours of destructive testing in the structures lab, now living out their retirement respectably as stools and tables.
The management were also proud purveyors of the sketchiest selection of Hindi and Tamil "chartbusters" of the mid-nineties. They'd rigged up an elementary stereo and loudspeaker system that pelted us with scratchy (yet loud!) versions of such classics is main maal gaadi hoon tu dhakka lagaa, subah ko leti hai, shaam ko leti hai, and sarkai liyo khatiyaa, jaadaa laage.
But those were also the days when Kaadhalan and Rangeela were young, and Gulabi and Bombay were around the corner. And how was one to concentrate on the intricacies of the serendipity element or fathom the thought process behind Terzaghi's theses, when coffee, cigarettes and conversation punctuated by urvasi, urvasi or beat in my heart beckoned?
Perhaps Quark was a metaphor for a campus and a country in transition. The hep name, the unorthodox fare, and the English-speaking wait staff were all harbingers of the fifteen kazillion such eateries that dot metro India today. The Hawaii chappals, crap music, ersatz sundaes and the makeshift seating harkened back to something altogether less complicated.