Two young men were having a conversation within my earshot. “Let’s try this out. It is the college canteen, but they call it cafe. The cup of tea may be expensive, but we will at least see what it is like to be in this place where the Stephanians hang out.”
Having overheard the conversation that was clearly private, even as I wrestled with the idea of correcting them, I yielded to my diffidence about intruding into their private space. Clearly, they had come from another college and their assumptions were erroneous on many counts. Cafe, with its mince cutlets and scrambled eggs, was reasonably priced, and a lively place to be in. However, for many, the hangout was Rohtas’ dhaba, a tin shack near the cafe where you got nimboo pani, samosas and gulab jamuns. Credit was shrewdly extended to those who could pay, and a person’s worth among his peers was assessed by his creditworthiness.
When General Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan sought to revive his Stephanian connect, he extended a warm invitation to Rohtas’ father, Sukhia, who had run the dhaba before his son took over. Sukhia was not enamoured with the idea of traversing the Wagah border, but, if memory serves right, was not averse to accepting some fruit and other delicacies from Zia. Asked if he remembered Pakistan’s President, Sukhia famously replied: “Not really, he did not have a khata with me.” Thus was the General reduced to a non-entity.
For us in residence, being credit-worthy at the dhaba was essential. We tended to overspend our allowances, and the samosas provided us with sustenance, and nurtured our social interaction as we congregated around the place, sat on the cycle stand or under the trees. Sukhia became the elder figure and Rohtas the person we could relate to. He nurtured our soul with his conversation, and our bellies with his samosas. He had a nickname for everyone, most of them uncomplimentary, and we often saw old students bring their families to college to introduce them to Sukhia and his son.
Samosas and gulab jamuns punctuated discussion on Kant and Kautilya’s Arthshastra during our weekly Philosophy Society meetings at Dr RK Gupta’s residence. We saw Sukhia living a semi-retired life even as Rohtas took over. Years went by, and I became the person who took his family to meet Rohtas. He looked more like his father, who had passed on. He asked about my parents and my brother. I was flattered he remembered so much... this was a bond that had stood the test of time.
We had nimboo pani, and caught up with some gossip about people who I had not met for a decade or so. I would visit the college from time to time, and never without spending time with Rohtas. Then I read about him in the papers. The Principal had decided to make an example of him and censured him for stocking some chicken patties. The row blew up. Students, present and old, gathered to support the man whose dhaba was an institution in itself. The authorities eventually had to back down.
Rohtas would often sleep on a charpoy near the dhaba. How come he never went home? “This is what has given me everything, this is where I belong,” he said. RIP Rohtas. The Stephanians who paid tributes to you at the dhaba recently showed how much you impacted the lives of students who initially came to you for samosas, and got so much more.
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