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Tuck!

That was what we called the edible items we got from home to boarding school. I do not know how that word came about. What I do know is that it was a word that made my mouth water as a child.

There were all kinds of tuck.

The Sardars from Punjab got basan ke ladoo, panjiri and dodha. All Indian sweets from the North of India. Made in desi ghee, clarified butter, a symbol of good health in rural (and urban) India. The city dwellers got diary milk chocolates, bourbon biscuits and sometimes cans of rasgullas. However the most treasured tuck was that of the students who came from Thailand. Their tuck was exotic. Perhaps it was not exotic, it was foreign. At a time when India functioned under the License Raj and globalization was unheard of, anything “imported” had an exotic look and smell to it.

The Thai students were mostly Sardars, even though most had Thai names. Monto, Narin,Suvit. They all spoke fluent Thai and I never heard them speak in Punjabi.  It never occurred to me to check how they were both Thai and Sardars. Perhaps their parents had settled in Thailand for business. Or maybe there was another story to their Thai-Sardar ethnicity. Anyway for me, as a nine a year old, it did not matter. I was more interested in the contents of their tuck bags.

In the evenings we used to have tuck time, where in students could open their bags and tuck into their tucks. The most premium tuck belonged to a plump student called Akash Gujral. He was from Kuwait. The quantity of tuck he got could easily fill a small general store for a few months. Huge brown leather suitcases filled with Kraft cheese, orange marmelade, chocolate powder, strawberry candy, Kit Kat bars, Coca Cola cans, choco sticks, nestle ketchup, peanut butter… You name it he had it! It was a treasure trove. Every child dreamed of being of Akash Gujaral when he opened his bag in the evening. If not Akash, atleast his friend. Sometimes Akash was kind enough to share some of his treasure with a few of us and I once saw him pass on a Kraft cheese can to Sister Vimla, one of the nuns in charge of our dormitory. I can still see her beaming smile, stretching from one end of her face to the other. I remember wondering if it was within school (or religious) regulations to gift a can of Kraft cheese to a nun!

But there was something I valued more than cheese. More than all the chocolates and colas put together.

It was Mama!

Mama was a Thai brand of noodles. Very much like Maggi noodles. But it had a different taste and came with two small packets inside the larger packet that contained the hardened block of noodles stuck together. One small packet contained the masala, the taste maker and the other small packet contained the pungent smelling shrimp oil, in which it was to be cooked. More often than not we ate it uncooked. By we I mean my Thai friends who got loads of Mama packets as a part of their tuck. They used to crush the packet without even opening it, so that the long hardened noodles would break into tiny pieces. Once that was accomplished, the packet was opened and the masala sprinkled and the mixture shaken so that the masala would flavour the broken noodles with its spicy, tangy, somewhat sweet and definitely addictive taste.

Sometime I was lucky and got to taste Mama, when a Thai friend happened to extend his open packet towards me. I would dip my small fingers and retrieve a small portion of the mixture. As I put it into my mouth and crunched it with great relish, I was always left wanting for more. Like indulging in foreplay, and not being allowed to proceed further.

I had a childhood fantasy.

It was to have our football field filled with Mama, loads and loads of it and I could eat it to my heart’s content. I have heard, that our unfulfilled desires find manifestation in our dreams. Unfortunately, this fantasy did not find fulfillment even in my dreams.

The closest I came to having Mama was when we used have “party” at night. A few us, boys sleeping in the same dormitory, would get up, some minutes, after light were switched off by the matron. In our night-suits, we would stealthily walk in the darkness to the common washing area that had a number of wash basins lined in a row. Each of us would carry something to eat, ranging from biscuits, chocolates or even a fruit that may have been served to us at dinner time. On few occasions someone would get a few packets of Mama. At such times, we would pour some hot water from the boiler into a plastic mug, dip the Mama into it, sprinkle the masala and stir the mixture. It would take less than 2 minutes for the noodles to cook and be ready to eat. We then greedily scooped the noodles with our fingers and stuffed the steaming curly Mama into our tiny mouths. That was my first experience at cooking. Unfortunately I never proceeded further than that in my culinary skills as an adult, even though I do make it a point to avoid using plastic mugs.

I was wondering though, why would a bunch of nine-year old boys, staying in a boarding school who have just had dinner, want to “party” after everyone has gone to sleep?

It occurred to me boarding life is pretty regimented. There is a time for everything.

A time to wake up, a time to get ready, a time to have breakfast, a time to study, a time to have lunch, a time to resume study, a time to play, a time to stop play, a time to get ready for dinner, a time to have dinner, a time to do your homework and a time to sleep. A life where we had no say over how we would want to spend our time. The establishment decided every aspect of our life. Not that it was cruel. It just robbed me of the faculty of making my own choices and being responsible for them. Years later when I had quit the corporate world and started working on my own, I used to feel lost at times how to manage my time, if I did not have someone telling me what to do or checking on what I have done.

I now realize eating Mama after lights were switched off, was my first small step of rebellion against the establishment that ruled my life.

Those tiny fingers holding steaming noodles were trying hard to wrench back the control that adults had established over my life. It was an effort to reclaim what rightfully belonged to me. In the best manner I could. By boiling Mama in a plastic mug and eating it, when I was clearly not supposed to be doing it. In those moments, Mama symbolized my first struggle for freedom.

I do not know what the other boys, who “partied” after lights out are doing in their lives at the moment. I only hope that we have not entirely lost some of the fighting spirit we demonstrated as children. That our taste for freedom has not been totally extinguished by our struggles to find ourselves as adults.

Recently a school friend who was visiting Mumbai from Thailand, happened to ask me what could he get for me. Without a moment’s hesitation I said “Mama!”. So he got me a carton of Mama with fifty packets in the carton. I have had more than half of them, by crushing the packets and adding the taste maker. Even though I still have more than a few packets of Mama left, my craving for it has dissipated considerably. I guess fantasies have a greater power when they remain unfulfilled.

Or perhaps Mama had already fulfilled its role in my life, the first time I boiled it in a plastic mug after lights out.

My first…tentative…tiny…taste of freedom!

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What do you recollect of your first taste of freedom?

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