Alone. Breakfast. 0715 hours. College common mess.
I had walked in bearing my running shoes and a not-so-well-after-running body; I settled down in my usual spot. I have been noticing this loner having breakfast at the exact same spot for the last two years of my college life. Not that I’ve been a regular breakfast guy. But whenever I’ve ventured out to have breakfast, I’d seen him. Now, neglecting the odds of his eating habits exactly mirroring mine, I concluded that he was consistent.
The fact that caught my attention was not that he sat and ate alone. Nope. He wasn’t alone. At least when he finished eating. He would always be joined by his friends who would flock to his table, quickly lapping up their glasses of milk or half boiled eggs (luxuries of college life) before running away to their respective classes. He seemed to be a very social person— easy smiles and a ridiculous girly laugh. He was always talking to people, while leisurely having food. The pace, or the lack thereof was remarkable to be honest. On an average he took around fifty minutes to munch down his meal. If this was food fit for a king, I would not have batted an eye lid. But I’m talking about the paltry ration from an average college mess.
I find slow eaters annoying. They frustrate me. It is probably due to the fact that I have a lot of nervous energy. I am always jumping around, talking to people— textbook extrovert. Food for me is just fuel, as impersonal as the petrol I pay for sadly and pour into the ass of my car. So the time spent eating is all about filling up your engine. Faster you get out of the petrol pump, the faster you can start driving, and for me life was all about driving, full on. Naturally, I’d usually come in moments before his friends would join him, and then watch him make conversation with them, see them off and wait for another set of people. He must be charming at the very least, because on numerous occasions I’d seen him play host to a lot of people, animatedly tell his stories— gesturing and expressing himself like an actor— having a morsel tucked away in the corner of his mouth all the while. Few even waited for him to finish his meal, but he never altered his pace.
Today, I decided to take him by the horns. I must find the secret behind this demonic obsession with slow eating. Did he have rational reason behind this strange habit? Was he one of those fanatics who believed they had to chew their food thirty six times? Did he think that all his food would get digested by his saliva, if he tried slower? Or he could have a dysfunctional jaw. Had to be one of these.
“Hi, I’m Shiv. Mind if I join you?”
“Of course I don’t. How are you? I’m Arpit.” He greeted me with a model’s smile. I couldn’t help but notice that I somehow felt happy to see him receive me with such enthusiasm.
“I’m good. I’m going to cut to the chase. I just came over to ask you about your eating pace. Hope I’m not offending you”
“Hahahaha!” He broke into that ridiculous laughter, where he just opened his food-filled mouth and just rocked his head. It sounded fake, but looked genuine. I couldn’t believe I was judging every movement of his like some exotic animal whose behaviour was of scientific interest to me.
“I get that a lot. Never mind, I don’t get offended. In fact, I have forgotten the last time I got angry. Must have been long back. We should have met earlier. You would have known”. He winked, and started breaking a boiled egg. He couldn’t break it in a single cut, and was pulling out the crust in bits, like I did when I was four. To add it to it all, he was having six. Quite the party.
“So basically, when I was young and smart, my Amma never let me watch TV. However there was an exception to the rule, I could watch TV while having food, she was trying to save all my time for productive activities. Poor Amma! Haha.” The same girly laugh. I coughed to let him know that I hadn't found it funny so far.
“Haan. Toh. On Sundays we had Shaktimaan on TV from 12 to 1 exact. So naturally, my lunch hours stretched to one hour. Same with breakfast and dinner. I would find some programme or another to watch, and slow down my eating accordingly. After a few years, it moved on and became a habit”
“That is a good story”, I smiled and we went on to talk about something else.
I see him every day now. Before lunch, after lunch, before dinner, after dinner— he was this constant presence in the mess, with that beaming smile. I would shout across the hall, “After all this time?”, he would assume a mock serious expression and reply, “Always”, and giggle like a girl.
Photography By: Charul Passey