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Fluffy Rice Cakes

I saw it everyday for two years of my life. It just sat there on the other side of the window between the kitchen and the dining hall, leaning against the pane. It was always clean as a whistle but unmistakably ancient.

The dull grey surface of the aluminium betrayed what must be a career of at least a decade or more. Sometimes, when we had had a particularly tenacious batch of toast for breakfast in complete and blatant violation of the Geneva convention, I would stand on the other side of the window peering in.

Hoping.

And by hoping I mean salivating.

The large aluminium disc had exactly thirty inverted dome shaped depressions. And, in theory, each of those cups could hold a nice scoop of idli batter that would, in my vivid daydreams while ogling through the window, gently rise up into fluffy idlis on a slow fire.

In my dream I would run my fingers over each luscious well-steamed curve prolonging the moment of supreme joy when I broke off a bite-sized piece. I then dipped the piece in a steaming cup of sambhar first, followed by a quick roll in a thick smear of chutney before, shudder!, embracing it with my mouth and letting it melt on my eager tongue.

Ah merry youth! I was a young, overweight man with a vivid imagination and few friends.

But that idli fascination of mine always remained a fond daydream. For in my two years at that particular boarding school not a single idli ever found its way out of the hostel kitchen onto our tables.

It was as if the cook just left that idli making dish out there in the window to torture me. While he churned out his assembly line of dosas and toast and ‘cyanide porridge’.

Not one delicious morsel of idli, or in the language of a five-star hotel in Chennai, “well steamed rice cake of fermented dough served with spicy and tangy coconut chutney and steaming, thick hot pureed lentil dipping soup, a South Indian staple served fresh at a price that is extremely good value if you were buying a plasma TV”, ever found its way into my ever-welcome mouth.

I took it badly you know. It was terrible.

I was in a boarding school full of 13 and 14 year old guys.

As all of you will know that is a tender innocent age when one is fascinated by such fine examples of literature as Tintin and Alistair Maclean. These are not only great books full of adventure and intrigue but also useful for hiding pictures of open-minded ladies with nimble joints that each outgoing batch left for the juniors.

I was a voracious reader in boarding school too. Until I saw that cursed idli making dish.

After that all my attempts at reading failed miserably. I would be reading that Perry Mason classic. There is a murder! A twist in the story! I turn the page only to find out that instead of the butler it is actually Samantha Fox who is standing in the rain wearing a very thin t-shirt.

Yet my mind was down the stairs, around the corner, past the double doors and outside the window. Gasping for air.

What capped it all off was that the food in the refectory would probably have set off those radiation meters one sees in the movie.

Meter: Tic tic tic tic tic TIC TIC TIC TIC TICTICTICTICTIC
Sidekick: What the !@#
Hero: Oh good god! It is crisp fried exquisite south Indian flatbread filled with delicately diced and spicy curried potatoes infused with shelled green peas and topped with…

You get the point. The grub was hideous.

On alternate weekends they would serve us duck curry. (And by duck they meant “Hypothetically, with a little imagination, it could be duck. Sort of.”

There used to be some twenty tables worth of hungry children with one bowl of rich duck curry per table. And exactly ONE fleshy piece of well-endowed duck somewhere out there.

It was like Lord of the Rings with little mallu children instead of Orcs.

So sometimes I was sent back to the kitchen for second helpings of gravy. I often caught a glimpse of my nemesis. Sitting there gleaming.

Sigh.

Two years later I moved to another school. The first night back at home from boarding school I sat in front of the TV nestling an automatically re-filled bowl of idlis in my lap. I think I was watching a cricket match. I really didn’t care and don’t remember. I kept eating and my grandmother kept refilling it lovingly with idlis.
(Note: When grandparents say “I will make as much as you can eat son!” they really don’t mean it. After a dozen or so they start getting quite pained with you and stop asking “Any more son?” Instead they slyly try the “Do you want your grandma with severe chronic arthritis and a terrible back to cook you anymore painstakingly made idlis?”

The answer is always “Only if you genuinely love me grandma…”)

I ate eighteen or so in one sitting before, overwhelmed at what I had done, I got up to stretch a bit, get the circulation going, and then sat down to gobble up another fourteen. After a point I didn’t care that I had run out of sambhar and chutney.

I was like a Microsoft product that had just been installed on a new computer with abundant RAM. It was a massacre.

Several years later I heard that they had shut down the boarding school and converted it into a regular day school. The old dining hall, in a cruel twist of fate, had been turned into a chemical laboratory. The kitchen and all the equipment had been auctioned off. Presumably most of the food was retained.

I wonder where that idli dish is. Wherever it is I hope it happy and is never used.

If I can’t have it no one can.

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