Sei Somoy…those days or those times! Yes, those were the days. Most of us who have gone beyond “those days” live in a mental capsule where time has become frozen memory. We re-live, cherish, reminisce, and remember…those days… in our gatherings in a plush living room in north America over a glass of wine or scotch. Gone are the carefree days, as we grapple with the realities of moving on, fulfilling our aspirations, living the dream, and yet we want those days, sei somoi, back. We all live in the present, but we carry a part of our past selves with us, which define our identity and history and help us understand who we are today.
Recently, I connected over WhatsApp with an old classmate of mine from Jadavpur University, lost for almost a quarter of a century. Beyond a few exchanges of information about ourselves, our families and our work, we immediately reverted back to our old identities as buddies, as if we were chatting inside the classroom or in the hallway. And then there was remembering our friends and what we used to do…where we used to hang out…
My friend: তুই কিন্তু একদম একই রকম আছিস।
Me: তুই ও। তোর গলাটা একদম পাল্টায়নি।
Friend: আচ্ছা মিলনদার ক্যান্টিনের সেই ঢপের কথা মনে আছে?
Me: Yes. Of course.
A flood of JU memories swept through my mind, taking me back to my graduate school days.
Milandar Canteen. Dhoper Chop…this inimitable, legendary item on the menu still came out of the same kitchen in 2012 when I went back to visit campus and met up with friends at none other than Milandar Canteen. Where we meet was not even a question. The answer would be instant, simple, doubtless. I think this is the biggest legacy that Milanda will leave for our university. And amidst the gamut of food items on the menu now, it is the Dhoper Chop that has remained a must-have after all these years.
As my friend and I talked, in a flare my mind wandered back to Milandar Canteen, the quintessential identity of Jadavpur University campus. Shuddering, yet everlasting memories. A dingy hole in the wall, something beyond my young mind’s imagination or experience (I was nurtured in a protective environment), the sultry air inside thick with smoke, high pitched voices of the young and the restless, tingling teacups, calling out of orders, and of course the cutlets and chops being relished notwithstanding that they were fried in unhealthy oil on a greasy wok or being handled with bare fingers…Milandar Canteen would be the converging place of all debates, discussions and dates, from politics to people, academics to movies, from the most sensible to the utter nonsense…and get etched in the memories of all who attended Jadavpur University and those who came to visit it. The hierarchy between scholars and students disappeared, even if for a few moments of mingling over grubby teacups. It was where the ‘phakibaj” or the class drop-outs would hide from being caught by their professors. In the pre-internet or fancy text messaging days Milandar Canteen was the ultimate place to hang out on campus, to build long lasting human relationships, face to face, heart to heart.
Milanda also became a legend for the creation of his Dhoper Chop. Chop is a Bengali specialty snack. Vegetable chop, Macher (fish) chop, mutton chop…alright…but Dhoper Chop? In colloquial Bengali youth language, dhop is a word that encompasses falsehood: lie, incorrect, unreal, fake. Anything to that effect. And yet there is an element of harmless and zestful simplicity in which that lie is perceived or received. How could a chop be any one of these? Milanda has explained to us that once asked by students to create “something” of a chop of his choice, he simply put potatoes, vegetables and/or meat, wrapped in bread and deep fried…and viola! A chop was born. Most ordinary, and yet, extraordinary! It was the “something”-ness of the chop that made it unique and unforgettable.
Milandar Canteen was a complete package. A package of good times in an unremarkable place where we built memories. Where dreams were dreamt. Where aspirations were born. Ideas were cultivated. Where love blossomed. And above all, where hunger was met, and the palate satiated.
I have lived in the western world for two decades now, perhaps even a tad bit longer. I have met and mingled with several Jadavpur-ians in north America coming from different disciplines, different graduating years, perhaps even different generations. Milandar Canteen has come up over and over again as the focal memory of college days. Even those who did not attend school at the University knew about it and its infamous Dhoper Chop. Recently, a random search on the internet took me to a listing of suggested food joints in Kolkata along with a listing of their specialities. And guess what! There is the Dhoper Chop from Milandar Canteen. And it is on Tripadvisor! Milanda, who has greyed his hair catering Dhoper Chop among other items on his menu to hungry students on low budget for over forty years, is probably unaware of his worldwide publicity. The affection with which he catered to students in turn generated a fondness for him that led them to keep his legacy alive.
Much has changed on campus over the years. There are beautiful patches of gardens with signs to keep them clean, buildings are neatly painted, asphalt on the paths smoothly laid, litter is well controlled; a massive fibreglass group sculpture adorns the front yard of the Central Library, the old rickety bridge connecting the Arts Faculty with the Science and Engineering has been repaired and made pretty (I have been told movies are shot on this bridge), an old decrepit building beside one of the arts building has now been converted into a bookstore; the algae-ridden jheel looked much cleaner, perhaps a tad bit romance-inducing for young lovebirds. Even Milandar Canteen was a cleaner, refreshed place, grown in space and time, just like Milanda himself. The teeming students clustered in friendly cacophony as usual, some agitatedly talking on their cell phones or texting messages. The energy and positive changes of the place were heartwarming no doubt, indicating that the University has moved on with the times despite some familiar facets still standing as they did then. They evoked a jarring nostalgia at the same time, and a chilling fear of the passing of time at what seemed to be an unexpected rapid pace.
I took off from the university premise yet again, in appreciation, in denial, and in apprehension of the ageing progression that was to greet me yet again in my next visit down the years, when Milanda will have added on a few more strands of grey hair, and a few more wrinkles on his face as he smiles in affection for his ever flowing clientele.
Illustration: By Debojyoti Mahapatra