Edited by: Anika Kulshreshtha
Note: This piece is a reflection of conversations the author has had with the Didi on campus. The first-person account is solely to represent Didi’s thoughts without taking the narrative away from her.
The dining hall is filled with the lively chatter of students. As I peer through the small window of the cleaning room, I can’t help but notice the diverse faces that fill the space. Each student enters the dining hall, holding a plate and carefully choosing their meals from a wide range of options. Some of the dishes are entirely new and exotic to me, making me realize how fortunate these students are to have such a wealth of choices.
My thoughts drift to my humble home and its tiny kitchen. In my mind’s eye, I see my family: my husband and our three children, gathering around the table for a meal after long days at work and school. Unlike the abundance of the Ashokan dining hall, our menu rarely varies, usually consisting of just one dish or perhaps two on a special occasion. The grand feasts laid out before us here are a reality we could only dream of, a mirage shimmering on the distant horizon. Nevertheless, the stark truth of our lives has mercilessly dispelled those hopeful clouds of our dreams.
As I shift my attention to reality, my gaze is drawn to a student who loads her plate with a generous serving of roti, rice, chicken masala, dahi paneer, raita, and achaar. I can’t help but marvel at the variety of dishes she’s chosen. It makes me reflect on how long it’s been since my family has enjoyed non-vegetarian food. My thoughts briefly drift to my youngest daughter, the one who adores chicken. I indulge in the fantasy of her coming here to study, relishing the diverse and delicious offerings at her disposal. Yet, I swiftly dispel this fleeting daydream, immersing myself in the stark reality: she won’t be going to college; instead, she’s entering into marriage.
The young woman takes a seat with her friends, engrossed in their conversation, ignoring the food before her. After a while, she heads to the cleaning room with her barely touched plate, casually tossing it out the window. It’s a heart-wrenching sight. My heart throbs with a mixture of frustration and disappointment. I wish I could confine this ache to this moment, but the line of students waiting to discard their unfinished plates stretches on, each adding to the growing mound of wasted food on the counter.
I swiftly gather those plates, disposing of the uneaten food in the bin while my colleagues handle the washing. Our tasks are clearly defined, and I find myself stuck in the painfully mundane routine of discarding their food. As I stare at the imposing trash bin before me, I’m haunted by thoughts of how many hungry souls could have been nourished by the discarded sustenance. Over 100 kilograms of perfectly good food are wasted each day, enough to provide nourishment to more than 200 impoverished individuals whose stomachs have gone empty for days. Yet these students carelessly toss it aside, squandering heaps of food, a choice for some and a privilege to many.
This situation crushes my heart, and I see the same anguish reflected in the eyes of my fellow workers. How can anyone turn a blind eye to this blatant atrocity? I can’t help but wonder how these students can remain so indifferent to their very doing. What’s even more disheartening is the deafening silence surrounding the issue, like it’s bound to happen. We occupy humble positions, granting us little authority to speak out. But even those in positions of power seem to do nothing more than jot down some numbers on a poster, claiming it’s statistical information about food waste. I may lack a fancy degree, so I may not grasp its full significance, but the irony lies in the fact that even these students, studying at such a prestigious institution, seem oblivious to its meaning. If they truly understood, wouldn’t they strive to make a change? Yet, change remains elusive. Each year ushers in new batches of students, and faces change, but the problem, regrettably, persists. Is this what formal education does? Does it breed ignorance even about the simplest of matters? I can’t help but wonder.