The Canteen Cutcheris

The Music Season is at its peak even as the Man from Madras Musings is putting finger to keyboard (by which he means the keyboard of his computer and not the musical variety). At every Sabha, even as MMM pounds away on the keys like a percussion artiste trying his best to impress everyone at a concert, someone is even now singing. And more importantly, at many Sabhas, there are chefs supreme producing their best fare at the canteens.

MMM is aware of some Sabhas that do not offer culinary delights but he prefers not to have any contact with them. For come December, MMM and good lady (also known as She Who Must Be Obeyed), shut kitchen and dining room and prefer to eat out and also entertain at these canteens.

Now those of you who have never been to such places should not imagine that what they have to offer is cordon bleu or something out of some guide to fine dining. And as for imbibing any libations, forget it, the best you can hope for is coffee, and that of the finest variety. As for the other, and most inferior, namely tea, it is not to be had at these places. You are probably better off having it at one of those way side joints where the concoction is perpetually on the boil and is often filtered through the same rag that is used to wipe the table and if you object to that, then probably an old sock.

But to get back to the canteen, this is where you get South Indian vegetarian food at its best. That is food of which you do not know what the ingredients were or are, how they were sourced (inorganic, organic or genetically modified) and how they were prepared (cholestrol-free oil and some saturated fat), but which tastes good to the palate and that is all that matters. Almost everything here is deep-fried but as all that is good in life is either sinful or fattening, there is very little you can do about it. And as for the prices, rock bottom would not be a sufficiently indicative expression. MMM is not exaggerating when he says that five people breakfasting at a canteen would probably be paying as much as one person in an upmarket restaurant for food that was probably re-heated and served from the previous day.

And that brings MMM to another aspect of the canteen. Food here is ever-fresh for such is the daily turnout of patrons (no matter that the Sabha may be near-empty inside) that there is no question of any leftovers. What more can you ask for?

Plenty really. Some better hygiene for one. Most of these places have no provision for disposal of food waste. And so as the Season progresses, MMM finds that all the refuse is collected in plastic bags and kept to one side. This is in the cleanliness-minded Sabhas. The garbage trucks come in once every few days and clear it all up. But the sight of the bags piling up is not an appetising one. In the lesser places, waste is simply tipped into the closest drain, which soon clogs up. You then have the familiar sight of the drain-cleaning machine in action, of which MMM has written in graphic detail several months ago. The end result is a small mound of sewage, which has been removed from the drain. This smells to the high heavens, where if you recollect Shakespeare, music is also present.

The cloth with which the waiters wipe the tables after patrons have left (and South Indian food is messy) may have begun life spotless white (and MMM has his doubts) but as time wears on it transforms itself to a brown and then a grey, rather like a skin-whitening cream working in the reverse. It also acquires an odour of its own which becomes all permeating. You can smell it on the dishes, the steel tumblers and also on the table surfaces. But perhaps that too is part of the joy of eating in canteens.

The ‘hand wash’ as MMM believes the expression is, is another area that leaves much to be desired. Given our habits, most patrons believe this to be a place where they can clean every possible orifice in the body that is above the waist (thankfully), with a lot of accompanying noise. And the drain spots at these places could be a lot better to put it mildly. At one place, MMM was surprised to find a largish vessel being filled with water from one of the taps in the ‘hand wash’. MMM asked with some trepidation as to whether this was the drinking water that was served. “Oh no,” came the answer. “We use it to make ice!” MMM fled. Close to the ‘hand wash’ is also the space where the vessels are washed. This becomes a kind of inland lake, a Sargasso sea, in which, flotsam and jetsam are clearly visible.

That said, there is no record of anyone falling ill after eating in a Sabha canteen. There must be a musical god in charge of small things.

The Name Game

This never-ending sport of the Government is on in full swing once again, or so the Man from Madras Musings learns from his moles that are close to the action. There is talk in the air of renaming roads and areas. Presumably, with health-care having taken care of the more visible memorials of the previous regime, focus has shifted to the intangibles.

In this context MMM wonders as to what purpose all this serves. He would also like to point out that existing street names are badly mangled and would not a better service be done if these are restored to their former glory so to speak? The other day someone asked MMM who MK of MK Amman Koil Street was. Striking clear of any political undertones, MMM had to clarify that MK stood for Mundagakanni, a Goddess for whom a fairly old temple stands on the same thoroughfare. She, said MMM, was clearly above politics. Similarly, try asking any auto or taxi to take you to Rajah Annamalai Puram. You draw a blank. It is only when you say RA Puram that they realise what you are talking about. Similarly there is a signboard that states CV Rama Road. If such personalities are being forgotten, what price any fresh name changes.

New Hopes

Time is fast running out for 2011 and the Man from Madras Musings is jolly glad that he is seeing the last of it. For all that MMM waxes eloquent on nostalgia, he is quite glad to see time marching on. At heart he is an optimist and every 1st January, he puts on rose-tinted spectacles and looks with new hopes. And heaven knows we need a number of new hopes for the coming (or by the time you read it, the current) year. And so, keep smiling everyone. It may not change anything, but it keeps you going and above all, improves your face value.