Wednesday, January 29, 2014

School Party - My hungry years at Mayo Girls school in honour of every Mayo Girl, past and future.

On the 25th of January 2014 the Mumbai chapter of the Mayo College Girls School alumni held a small farewell dinner for Ma'am Jamila Singh. Ma'am Singh was the founding Principle at Mayo and retired last year after a glorious legendary tenure of 25 years.

It was a beautifully organised evening at Le Sutra Hotel in Bandra, in which we met classmates and schoolmates after decades. In short it took me on a sentimental trip down memory lane.  The impact of this legend of a lady was there to be seen in the roomfull of girls that had come to the party that day. Each of us had been irrevocable changed by Mayo. I remember thinking at the time that I am what I am because of Mayo and Mayo girls is what it is today because of Ma'am Singh. 
As you know my book A Pinch of This, A Handful of That was published recently. In fact I was honoured to gift Ma'am a copy that day as well. But what not many people know is that  a lot of parts were left out of the original manuscript I had submitted including the one I had written on Mayo Girls although all the recipes from our Mayo mess went in.  

I am reproducing it here in honour of Ma'am Singh and every Mayo Girl, past and future. 
With much love an gratitude for being a Mayoite 



Chapter 6 - School Party
I wrote this chapter as I drove away from a night spent at my Alma Mater, Mayo Girls at Ajmer. I had used my book as an excuse to take a special trip there to relive old memories, of the food (or at least that’s what I told everyone). But secretly I think it was more. It had been 17 years since I left Mayo, years in which I had grown up, married, had babies and now balanced many cares in the tightrope walk of being a woman, wife, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law and career person.
School days never come back, more so for women in India, because we marry and make our husbands' lives ours, leaving behind the friends of our growing years to make new mutual friends. My mind often goes back to the friends of those lovely idyllic days. Friendship was simple- loyalty, unity, friends were to die for and it was easy to promise forever. It was inside the Mayo walls that I learnt the things that helped me beyond. These walls that we felt grew inches every year, represented jail and we likened ourselves to prisoners, each with our own number. S 146 was my number at school. Today S 146 is like a good luck charm for me and its presence works towards making or breaking a situation. This visit was a little treat for me, a chance to revisit the best, most carefree years of my life.

As I approached the school, my eyes unconsciously began to look for the bell tower of the boy’s school- a sign from the old days that we were close to school and were going to meet up with our friends soon. And there it was, still standing proud and  tall against the horizon, proclaiming to the world that the best school in the world is here! And from nowhere I got that familiar sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, the one I always got at this fork in the road because I had not finished my homework! (Up until this point, I would have been blithely lost in the excitement of the journey. Meeting friends, talking about our holidays, but once the bell tower was sighted, I would become silent, aware of homework left undone.)

As I walked through gates again, I recalled walking out for the last time. There was a finality about the “clang” of school gates as they closed behind me for the last time. I saw myself rushing toward life beyond these walls. And now, I wanted to hold back that excited Rushina .“Wait”, I wanted to tell her “don’t be in a hurry to leave, you won’t be able to come back…”. 

But I remembered how it was then; life was just waiting to be embraced and I wanted to  spread my wings, soar through new experiences, discover my potential and realize it and depend on myself…All those races at school, that disappointment in the loss, that exhilaration in the win. We are the same runners, the prize is just as important. Only now, the race is different. We still cry when we lose, are ecstatic in our wins. We still make mistakes.

I slept like I hadn’t slept since I was a student here and woke up to a cold rainy day, unprecedented for this time of the year, but much like the winter mornings we were used to when I was at Mayo, wishing for an extra 5 Minutes in bed before we braved the cold floors and draughty bathrooms.
My years at Mayo were what I term my ‘hungry years’. The Mayo girls’ mess served really good , plentiful food (although at the time we reveled in making people feel sorry at how deprived we were and behaved like we were never fed!). While others counted Dhobi days to the day they would go home, I counted the Rumali Chicken Tuesdays (Tuesdays were the days we got the weekly meal of Chicken Curry and Rumali Roti). But it wasn’t just the term. I got through each day by going from meal to meal; morning biscuit, breakfast, fruit break, lunch, tea break, dinner. Perhaps the only time I did not think of food was when I was lost in the art room. 

In the summer we were woken in the morning with four glucose biscuits. We’d scarf them down as we dressed for PT (aka physical torture). Or we traded them, like one room mate of mine, who paid in biscuits to be locked into her cupboard from the outside, where she curled up and slept until she was unlocked after PT. She did that continuously for her entire tenure in Mayo and never got caught. Others had themselves locked into toilets and bathrooms with books to read. Later generations found even better use for these biscuits ,as I found out on my last visit; they saved them for weeks along with the rest of the dormitory to make the legendary Mayo Fudge Cake. An abominable creation of biscuits and coke made on the floor and eaten with a wooden ruler at celebratory occasions! Post PT we had an hour to get ready. Mercifully there was no PT in the winter, so we fell out of bed with just enough time to get dressed. Provided we had bothered to change into night clothes, that is- most times we would sleep fully dressed in our uniforms (socks included if they were clean) because even the thought of the cold morning air was too unbearable to contemplate!

We would usually reach the mess starved for breakfast, willing to eat anything that was laid before us. Breakfast consisted of an egg, usually overdone in a myriad different ways , from congealed scrambled eggs to grey yolked boiled eggs and horrid, oily, crater ridden fried eggs but the worst excuse for breakfast was the French Toast. We called it rubber and it lived up to its name, breaking many a knife that attempted to cut it! On the vegetarian side the grass was greener with a parade of savoury yummy things appearing on plates through the week. Thankfully I was able to trade a few desserts for my favourite – the Aloo Katchori , a hollow pastry puff stuffed with a filling of spicy potatoes. There would also be jam and butter (frozen solid in the winter and a melted puddle in the summer),a daily porridge (my favourite was Dalia but I hated Seviaya), milk and bread.

After breakfast we would have classes that I would daydream through until the 12:30 fruit break. At first we had to go to the school mess to collect our daily fruit and cup of milk flavoured with almost non existent Bournvita, but when it was discovered that some of the girls bunked this (Although I was confounded at why anyone would bunk anything edible?), the venue was shifted to the various houses so the matrons could ensure we ate our serving of 5 a day. I blame those daily cups of blyecchh milk for my abhorrence of milk today but I loved the fruit - apples, bananas, grapes, guavas and fresh water chestnuts, and gleefully for me , a lot of the others hated them and were happy  to pass their share on to me. The next two hours of classes up to lunch were a breeze. The bell that announced school was over would cause a mass exodus toward the mess. 

Menus were fixed and we usually knew what we would get at every meal. I don’t remember the exact order, but I do remember that besides the Chicken Curry- Rumali Roti combination on Tuesdays, we got Conti (continental) meals twice a week on Wednesdays and Sundays. These consisted of a Potato Cutlet, Tomato or Keema Pasta or Ajmer style Chunky Chicken or Paneer Chowmein with bread, butter and ketchup. In the summer it was all washed down with cool nimbu paani and in the winter with a watery tomato soup. Those might have been favourite meals, but I was not discriminating, I ate everything with relish from the daily masoor dal and thick Rotis, to the cauliflower subzi. I also ended up making food pairings that lasted a lifetime, even today I always make Pakoda Kadhi and whole Masoor together because that is how we had it at Mayo. In fact I created a special dish of Lobia Dal with meatballs one day out of nostalgia. The two were served together with Rotis on one day a week and I would break up the meatballs into their gravy, add the lobia dal and mix it all together to spoon up with rolled up Rotis.

Of course despite eating everything I would still try to be the first at my table on the days that Mutton Curry or Chicken Curry were on the menu. The norm was that whoever got to the table first would snag the best bowl of the Mutton or Chicken Curries. That meant they got the  first pick of the bowl in terms of morsels of meat, marrow filled bones or spicy if that was their fancy. Those that followed would line up with echoing ‘after you’s if they missed being first. Or, if they were canny enough to snag a bowl from another part of the table and set it by their plate which would set off another echo of ‘after you’s’. All of this casting of dibs on food happened in minutes, while students and teachers were still filing in. We would then drool through the prayer led by the school captain and the moment it was done, would sit down and attack the food.
I was lucky that it was Conti food night the day I visited. i got to eat Keema Pasta.

But Sundays were the best eating days of the week. The day began with the best breakfast, Maggi and Chai. Unlimited Maggi would be on offer ,spiked with slivers of green chillies that set fire to our tongues and there would be hot Chai, the kind that is made by the gallon and simmered for ages, to fan the flames of the chillies. And when I had OD’d on Maggi till I could not have had another bite, I would fill my plate with one last helping, drop my little stick of butter in it, watch it melt and puddle into the crevices between the noodles. Then I would stir it all in and savour it down to the last noodle. If we were lucky, it would be an outing Sunday and our local guardians would come to take us out for the day. If not, there would be a canteen afternoon when we could gorge on oily Bun Omlettes and stock up on candy.   

Outing Sundays were the best days. We believed we lived in MCP (Mayo College Prison) so you can imagine what a highlight it was to visit Gul Aunty on our monthly outing Sundays. My local guardian was Gul Marfatia, a lovely Parsi lady who had about 30 wards from both the boys and  girls schools at any point of time. It took a lot to host 30 something children for a meal, but that was Gul Aunty for you - gentle, generous and huge hearted. The patterns of our visits typically started with us spilling into her house and settling down in various sections of it. Kishan, the long time retainer would come around with a tall glass of Lemon Barley water (a local brand that we still ask for from people visiting Ajmer) and that would tide us over until lunch was laid. A sumptuous lunch of Dhansak, the name of the main dish as well as the whole meal built around it, was laid. Dhansak has at its centre chunks of meat slow cooked with lentils and Dhansak masala until falling off the bone. This is served with caramelized rice, browned by a special technique and side dishes of fried Meatballs and a Kachumber salad of finely diced onion, tomato and coriander distinctively flavoured with Kolah’s Vinegar, the vinegar that is characteristic to Parsi cuisine. After lunch we would have the afternoon free to do whatever we wanted, watch a movie at one of the theatres the Marfatia family owned, or go shopping for cards and tuck for friends who did not get to go out. 

When my parents first asked me if I wanted to go to Mayo, visions of midnight feasts like Enid Blyton’s  Twins at St. Clare's or the Malory Tower students dug into ,came to mind and the descriptions I recalled were all it took to convince me I wanted to go to the boarding school!  And so I went to boarding school. Ironically though, Mayo Girls did not allow students to keep ‘tuck’ as food from home was called. Forbidden fruit is always more delicious and that is probably why we were always hungry and never discriminated, eating whatever came our way. Bans on tuck did not stop us. We smuggled in all sorts of goodies and had many an adventurous midnight feast, with food smuggled in from local stores on days out - chocolates, burgers and bun omelettes, cans of beans and condensed milk, Maggi which we ate uncooked was a favourite as was  Wai Wai which came from Nepal. This was all substantiated with pickles and Rotis smuggled out of the mess. But the best feasts were when someone had a visit from parents and in came home made treats like Laddus, Mathri – Achar and even home made food. We ate so ravenously on those days, that mothers would have felt gratified and fulfilled watching us!

Visiting Mayo was like returning to a place where I will always belong. Not a place like home, but a place in time where you will always find a shining sparkly bit of yourself. It was good to leave my older self at the door and revert to being S 146 again for a while.

The Mayo Fudge Cake
The  recipe I got from the girls when I visited was this -

1 weeks worth of biscuits of the whole Mayo dormitory (some sacrifices have to be made)
1 bottle of Horlicks, stolen from the mess
Whatever else you can find to add to this potent mix
Mix everything together on the floor and eat with a wooden ruler for maximum enjoyment. Use aerated cola instead of water for a variation.

My sister Neha sent me a more refined version with this note.
“Dear Di ,  I was thinking of your book and just thought of how the first form of cooking food we ever learnt was kacchha Maggi and Mayo Cake. I am not sure if you have this recipe, but I am giving you mine...”
Traditional Mayo Cake 
200 g Marie biscuits
200 g Parle-G biscuits
250 g Horlicks
500 ml Water 
Crush the biscuits into fine granules. In a cup mix the Horlicks with 50 ml water to make a thick paste. Add half the Horlick’s paste and remaining water to a bowl with crushed biscuits and make the dough. Mould dough to look like a round cake and pour remaining Horlick’s sauce to cover the cake like icing.


Renee Kishore said...

Thanks Rushina di! I was Neha's roomate, still a friend. This blog just took me back on long, hard work day to Mayo times and I'd give anything for that Mayo cake..

Just one secret- a pinch of Coffee also did wonders...

That Mayo cake stood for soo much.. It was one of the highest honors of friendship.. when your friends steal/borrow/beg biscuits for you, wait for you to sleep and labor to get the cake right, blow up balloons and surprise you with a cake that you pretend you didn't know was coming... hehee... I've had many b'day cakes but this is still the best ever. ever. Thank you!

Hemangi Deshpande said...

Hi Rushina di! I am one of Neha's dormmate as well.. Like Renee, I have another addition to the traditional Mayo cake receipe... For those of you who love bitter chocolate, add 1/4th cup of bournvita fudge (bournvita mixed with water) over the last horlicks icing!

Reeta Skeeter said...

Why did I not read this earlier? Someone in Ajmer who used to study in Mayo took us on a campus tour end of 2013 and told us many stories...I can so relate to what you've written..this is such a nostalgic post...
Delhi Foodies' Zone

Rashi Sultania said...

I am a Mayoite presently, nd the Marie biscuits have changed to Oreo biscuits (we get them in the canteen now) nd we have the fudge from our hands nd not a ruler

Atul Jain said...

This blog is too good and thanks to you for sharing your experience of school time. school is most important and best time for everyone. The best school made a successful person like you.