Peering up through a small window, he took my lunch order.
“One rice and curry packet, please,” I said, handing over Rs.30. I was an 11th-grader in my school, the Overseas School of Colombo (or, as it was called in my time, Overseas Children’s School), and it was break time. Lasting from 10:15 to 10:30am, this was the only time to order lunch. There was a throng of kids pressing against the single window counter: short, eager 5th graders who hadn’t yet discovered the need to be cool and just wanted to get back to playing; shy middle-schoolers who were awkwardly trying to step out of their adolescence shell; and a bigger and cooler 12th grade crew, who were the big daddies of this town and awed their way through the crowd. All of us united by our anticipated hunger.
He scribbled something on a scrap of paper and gave it to me. That was my claim ticket for a few hours later, when classes would once again break. I stuffed it into my pocket and stepped aside.
He was a burly, overweight man, too tall for the window and too big for the narrow kitchen. Gulliver in the land of school canteen Lilliputians. And yet he’d been put on this duty. It must have been hot and steamy inside because he was always sweating, pushing up his brown-framed glasses as they slid down his nose every few minutes. He tried to keep himself cool, by unbuttoning the top of his shirt – I remember the gold chain that hung down from his neck – and rolling up his sleeves, in vain. I always felt bad for him.
At lunch time, it was a different scene. He was mopped up, hair combed, shirt buttoned up. The kitchen was quiet, no heat emanating through the window counter. Upon receiving the scribbled claim ticket, he handed over the rice and curry packet, efficiently and evenly managing the hungry horde of kids coming at him. Sometimes his wife took over, and even though she was nice too, I preferred seeing his face. There was just something warm and friendly about him, the kind of person towards whom kids instinctively gravitate.
When he handed over the lunch packet, he might as well have been doling out gold. Hungry as only teenagers can be, I clutched the paper-wrapped bundle and found a spot with my friends in the open-air canteen. A fresh breeze crossing across the large hall, I opened my treasure.
It was a standard lunch fare then, rice and curry, but it feels like a feast now. I spread out the paper wrapping to find freshly-made rice steaming up from its central perch. A cinnamon-tinged aroma wafted from curried beef, and I dipped my hand in. Mixing the warm rice with the moist curry, and adding some yellow dal (lentils), I scooped it into my mouth and savoured. Curry leaf and ginger diffused across my palate. Red chillies, garlic and onions hit out their strong flavours, arousing violent beads of perspiration on my forehead. To cool my excited buds, I picked some gotukola salad, a raw, slightly bitter salad using local greens. Steadily, I excavated the pile of rice, mixing and matching flavours and textures until it was all over. I crumpled up the newspaper that had served as my plate and threw it away. Washing my hand, I went off with my friends, happily full and ready to gossip till it was time for the next period.
It was just lunch then. Like the rice and curry packet, however, as soon as my mind goes to this part of school life in Sri Lanka, a whole new set of colourful, vibrant memories also tumble out. I never knew the canteen man’s name, but he has turned out to be a strong trigger to my life then. I’m pretty sure he would be surprised to be remembered like this. I’d simply like to say thanks.