By Towfeeq Wani:
My friend Maria says that a university should not be judged by its classrooms, laboratories or libraries. It should be judged by the spaces outside the classrooms. It is the space outside the classrooms where students begin to take control of their lives. This is where students interact with others, develop their thoughts, try to make meaningful changes and above all, discover themselves.
Dastarkhwan, a canteen in the university is one such important space in Jamia Milia Islamia. I have been frequenting this place for almost two years. I usually go with friends but sometimes I go alone as well. The word dastarkhwan is used to refer to the cloth on which meal is served in the Islamic world.
One will find a picture of the Vice Chancellor inaugurating this canteen hanging on the wall. There are some faculty members, dignitaries and students around him. However, this is not the reason it is famous in Jamia. It was inaugurated on January 16, 2015 by Salma Ansari, wife of Vice President of India Mr. Hamid Ansari as a part of Jamia’s ‘Outreach Programme’ and ‘Women Empowerment Initiative’. This is a canteen inside a university campus which is run exclusively by women. It is operated by the Ekta self help group.
Around forty women from Jamia Nagar area are associated with the canteen today. Before the inauguration, Jamia’s Outreach Programme arranged for their training to ensure an effective business plan and entrepreneurial skills.
Each woman working here has a different story to tell. The earning helps them to lead a dignified life. For some, it is about supporting their higher education while others have to support their families. What bonds them together is the fact that all of them have had it hard in life. When one sees them smiling behind the counter, there is a willingness to pay the extra ten rupees they charge for a plate of chicken biryani. It is 10 rupees cheaper in the central canteen. The quality of the food is better than many cafes and canteens in the campus. Dastarkhwan doesn’t just attract students from Jamia, but people from outside as well.
I have been visiting this place with my friends right from the day of its inauguration for the lovely and lip smacking kebab-paranthas that are served in the evening.
Somehow, this canteen always reminds me of the Castro Café. It’s perhaps because of the design that one remembers the latter. It might also be as they shut down the Castro Café only recently in 2014. Dastarkhwan became the next hit spot in the campus.
Thinking of Castro Café makes one nostalgic. It is situated in the lush green lawns near Nehru Guest House and M.F. Hussain Art Gallery. This semi-open air café first came to the notice of the outside world in 2008 when it was featured on the cover of ‘The Modern Architecture of New Delhi’. The book described this café as ‘a blur of the inside and the outside through a space that is never enclosed.’
Jamia Millia named this café after Fidel Castro some time in 2004 as a tribute to one of the foremost anti-imperialist leaders of modern times. It used to be the favourite hangout spot for students, especially in the evenings. Its popularity in campus surpasses that of Dastarkhwan by miles. When it was declared in May, 2016 that Castro Café would be reopened, students were celebrating and cheering. Everyone was waiting for the exams and vacations to end.
However, two batches of students stand detached from this café and have no memories associated with it. So, it might take some more time to become the favourite hangout place once again.
Even then, who knows, Dastarkhwan and Castro Café might complement each other, since they are situated in two different campuses of the varsity, separated into almost equal halves by the road leading to Jamia Nagar and the newly constructed metro line overhead. Speaking of this road and the metro line, there is a rather small gate near the old library that is never open. During the day, it might be the most dull and boring spot in the campus, but as soon as the clock strikes six in the evening, a tea vendor sets up shop there and stays there till about midnight. He sells the best quality tea available inside the varsity. When all the other cafes and canteens, small as well as big, close a few hours later, the sales of his tea shoot up as the number of students keep on increasing. There is hardly any topic in the entire world which is not discussed at this stall.
It isn’t just food that they serve in college canteens. There are endless memories with friends in the canteen as well. This is where everyone interacts, trying to think of making a difference and sometimes even discovering a new part of themselves.