Food for Thought

They say a queue can say a lot about what the queue is all about. Lines for Kerosene from a government distributor can stretch for miles in India. Conversely, if expecting to be served in turn at a shop, or anticipating to board an unreserved bus in an orderly fashion, you could be excused for thinking that the British passion for queuing was not a concept that remained behind when they departed these shores. One of the most enduring images, for me, of the post-apartheid South Africa was the length of the queue of people, snaking it seemed to the horizon, waiting to cast their vote in the country’s first-ever free elections.

Yet the line that stretches before me here is not nearly as eloquent as that. However this one too depicts a fundamental of human nature, as this line disappears into the staff mess at Gangchen Kyishong, or Gangkyi, the secretariat of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala. Even here, in these simple streets of Gangkyi, the queue tells its own story. Whispers abound that you can tell by the line what is cooking within the hallowed building – the rumours propounding that the occasionally served momos lead to the longest lines.

The first time I went to staff mess, I was pleasantly surprised when an Indian lady working there asked me, “Sewei gowey?” (“Want some chilli?” in Tibetan). Though our staff mess may not match other bureaucratic eateries it still forms a critically important part of Gangkyi’s Tibetan bureaucracy. This is where the officials of the Tibetan administration are fed. This is where the gossip is shared, albeit quickly!

They say a family that eats together, stays together. In a way we are an eccentric extended family, yet the longest joke making rounds in Gangkyi is that in the staff mess it’s a race to see who finishes first. Sometimes it reminds me of the roadside dhabas in McLeod Ganj, or the famous Bhakto restaurant on the twin-streets of Mcleod Ganj. People would rather not be seen eating there though they will swear by the taste of the food.

Here at the Staff mess, if you come 15 minutes after the lunch gong sounds you might be forgiven for bemusedly thinking that you are the first to arrive. For this is the speed with which the bureaucrats attack the food served. From what I have heard only the staff mess at Men-Tsee Khang (the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute) just next to Gangkyi might be able to match our speed and finesse. So I guess the probability of a romantic boy-meets-girl scenario, as you might expect to happen at a communal kitchen, is extremely rare! The challenges of making your way across to a seat next to your focus of interest before they have downed their meal and departed, let alone fitting in an interesting or leading conversation between gulped mouthfuls, must best even the most skilled attempts by Cupid’s Arrow.

For many of the singles in the Tibetan bureaucracy, and the singles-by-default, the staff mess provides the easiest and the quickest source of daily sustenance. For staff, lunch will cost only ten rupees — a paltry sum in today’s economy. The Mess also caters to scholars and foreign students attached to the nearby Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, and to anyone else who happens to be there at meal times, though they have to pay a little more than the Tibetan staff. So, often there can be quite an eclectic mix queuing and eating at the mess, and every day the scene changes. At times the ebb and flow of people through the low doors of the mess is a true potpourri of accents and languages, though the constant base of the tide is those working Tibetan men and women who, for one reason or the other, do not cook on their own. For them, for a brief time each day, the Gangkyi staff mess becomes their home.

This segment of the exile culture comes firmly under the overlordship of Machen Gendun: ’the honourable head cook’. During Losar staff mess becomes the centre of activities for the Tibetan bureaucracy. Losar here is celebrated with the traditional taste and gaiety, and days of celebrations. Machen Gendun once proudly displayed to me the traditional dergha – the sumptuous spread of khabse, deep fried cookies, and said that it matches the best in the exile world. I think that many agree with him, for during the Losar feasting there are many who come to spend what is traditionally a time to be with family and friends, with their temporary substitute family at Gangkyi. Hence what started out as a simple queue in the quest to fill the stomach, has evolved for many into an ersatz substitute for a family that may be far distant.

While you read this, I have to head for the staff mess for I just heard the gong go. Time to meet my ’family’ or am I just proving the saying: that no army can march on an empty stomach? I’ll let you know later, though today may take a little longer than the norm, as not rumours but the smells wafting through the open window behind me are warning me that the queue today will be a long one.

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