Monday, November 30, 2009

A Quantum Step

Quark was the first respite students got from the monotony of the mess. For twenty years prior, studentkind had walked into the same mess hall for every meal, tucked into the same rice-dal-chappati routine, drank off the same cooler, and belched in identical flavors. Rasam was on tap twice a day; sambar maybe even three. You had your Model T. And, yes, it was black.

Quark changed all that, thanks to three intrepid pioneers: Sheikh, Suku and Tony. From our wing in Narmada, they conceived and planned the first ever concept for a student cafeteria on campus. Late at night they conspired, argued, and cursed until Sheikh talked the talk, Suku mocked it, and Tony walked it.

I have no idea why they called it Quark. It’s possible that Higgs Boson was taken.

The menu was decided. Quark would launch with cheese toast, pizza and milkshakes. Cold coffees would come later. A counter was set up in the open quadrangle between Saras and Godav.  Cinder blocks, scattered about like eruption ejecta, would serve as seats. There was a market. There was a product. There was an A+ founding team.

One place the founding team sadly fell short was in spotting talent. For the position of the first manager of Quark, they put in place the peerless Vanavamalai. If you knew him, and you’re not already wearing a smile on your face as you read this, please check with your doctor on your Botox job.

Vanavamalai was a piece of work. He had never been in the food business before. Or in any other business. Or in any other anything. Simple things excruciated him. A small chore was a root canal. His rampant errors fed his nervous tension which in turn fed even more errors, in endless recursion. I can flat out tell you that Mahatma Gandhi was better cut out for sumo wrestling.

A typical Quark evening started off around 7:30. A few stragglers who had missed dinner at the mess might get things going, and the pace would slowly pick up. By about ten, the place would be bustling with students who turned up to pass time, smoke a cigarette, bum one, avoid work, gossip, and pass more time. Vanavamalai was unwittingly thrust into the middle of it all.

Two sarklet millsake! (that is, chocolate milkshake, for non-Pondicherry French speakers)
Two guys from Saras arise and start to walk over, chappals flapping in the dust. A frantic amendment follows.
No! No! No! One banana, one sarklet.
Two Jamunites perk up and make a beeline. Two more who actually ordered cold coffees pick up their shoulder bags and head over – just in case. All six converge at the counter, just as Gangadhar sets down two banana milkshakes.

Gangadhar was Vanavamalai’s reluctant deputy and backoffice manager. He cleaned the dishes, worked the blender and made the toasts, while Vanavamalai tussled with customers at the line of scrimmage.

Chaos erupts as the parties begin to wrangle.
“Vanavamalai, I asked for two chocolate milkshakes.”
“No saar, you order colcofy.”
“What cold coffee! I ordered choco…”
“OK saar, ok saar. It will make. Please wait.”
 Turning to the other two:
“You ask colcofy? Here, you take colcofy.”
“But Vanavamalai, I asked for one banana and one chocolate. Also you are putting two banana!”
At this point, Vanavamalai looks down and notices the two banana milkshakes he must work with. His tactics change.
 “Sorry saar, but you take banana today. Tomorrow we adjust...”

… and it would go on and on in a unending comedy of errors. Tempers would flare, orders would get backed up, toasts would burn, and bread would run out before the small matter of the milkshakes got resolved. Vanavamalai made Uncle Podger look like W Edwards Deming.

Two seize toast, one pissa!
The high reedy voice sends the throng around the counter into a dither. Should I claim it? Should I not? Will I ever get my cheese toast? Suddenly a hand appears from over a shoulder and seizes one of the toasts. Other eager hands thrust forth to claim the remaining plates, like disaster victims clutching out at food aid. Vanavamalai watches helplessly. Gangadhar snickers at the back. The cheese toasts vanish and a flurry of reorders are screamed out in frustration...

Well after midnight, a brow-beaten Vanavamalai would emerge at our wing to bring in the day’s take and to account for the numbers. I could hear the whole thing from a few rooms away and even catch the sincerity in his nervous chatter. Each night, Sheikh would vacillate between berating the poor fellow, and counseling him. I would hear phrases like, “Vanavamalai, you are a good fellow. But you need to relax a bit.”  On occasion, Sheikh would come over and ask me to engage him in Tamil.

"Can you give this guy some advice?" he would implore me.

Yey-nna Malai! I would start, with exaggerated accent... which always managed to coax a wee smile out of him.


  1. And to add the inexplicable things at Quark - (presumably the name caused Heisenberg's uncertainty principles to apply).

    Those glass jars in which the biscuits were kept and which even Ramanujam would have had a tough time keeping count of as guys dipped their hands into jars " Oru Butter Biscuit, Oru coconut biscuit"...

    If you had noticed the Jars were labelled Butter 'B ' biscuit, Coconut 'C' biscuit and Gingely 'T' biscuit - never figured that one out..

  2. Macha - The most memorable Vanamalai refrain was "Saar, it will make omelette..." Anyways, this motivated me enough to go buy some eggs (well, egg whites really -- times have changed !) and cook up an omelette :)

  3. Brings back memories, indeed... Based on ordering pizza at quark I had a very mistaken impression of what a pizza was, until a few years later! :)

    I also remembering regularly skipping dinner on one weekday until I discovered Quark - for reasons that I do not remember any more, I hated the menu on that day.

  4. Curly,

    Unless I'm losing my memory, you have something incorrect here - Quark was started a few years before the Sheikh thing above. I think it was about 1981. So your story must be about a reincarnation. Wonder what the story is about the "in-between" period: why it died etc.