Sitting in class during my school days, my mind would wander off as the teacher made his or her way through the lesson of the period. It could’ve been the English teacher explaining Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strained” speech or the Math teacher triumphantly proclaiming “Q.E.D” after solving an intricate theorem. There was a football game to be played during lunch. I wasn’t particularly great at football but I did not lack for enthusiasm. Then, if I had some loose change in my pocket, there was always the enticing thought of eating at Widdy’s!
Widdys to any boy who went to my school, conjures up images of a small shack at the corner of the school which contained a veritable smorgasbord of treats. Every school has its canteen or tuck shop, we had “Widdy’s”. The owner during my time was called Abdul and I had just assumed that Widdy was his surname but it turns out that Christopher Rego in his excellent book “Faith & Toil” provides a couple of explanations to the origin of his name, suffice to say, it was not Abdul’s surname.
My introduction to Widdy’s started even before I joined my school. My brother was a student there and I would visit the school on sports days. To a young kid of 7 or 8 years, high school boys were certainly intimidating and their athletic prowess was impressive. More impressive were Widdy’s samosas – vegetable and mutton. Crispy, triangular turnovers filled either with spiced potatoes or minced meat, deep fried and absolutely delicious. This was not a food for the faint hearted or health conscious but as kids we were neither and we feasted on these. My recollection is that the veg samosas were 25 paise and the non veg ones were 30 paise. Occasionally, there would be camel meat samosas, I never got to eat those though.
When I did join my school in 4th grade, my horizons opened up. There was a treat for every budget. Five paise got me a “bulls eye”, a black and white retro toffee from the days of the Brits, with a minty taste. Ten paise was enough for a small scoop of fried spicy green peas, “farting tablets” as they were referred to. They were potent and they did live up to their name! I could work my way up to a burfi – a sweet made with shredded coconuts and sugar. I rarely bought those, my mother made them at home. There was halwa, a flat sweet but the sweet of choice was the incomparable stick jaw!
The stick jaw along with samosas were Widdy’s signature items. If you’ve never had a stick jaw, Merriam-Webster has an apt description “something (as candy or a pudding) that sticks the jaws together and is difficult to chew”. This description could not be more apt. A pink, sweet, sticky candy resembling a flattened cylinder, wrapped in butter paper. I would wrestle the wrapper open, not all the way, just the edge and bite into the candy. I could clamp the edge between my incisors and then pull the candy, the candy would just elongate! Mostly I just chewed my way through the candy, unwrapping gradually as I went through it, taking care that my fingers never touched the candy. It was a losing battle, I invariably ended up with sticky fingers. Our “tea-break” was all of 15 minutes, not enough to enjoy a stick jaw.
Speaking of breaks, we had two. A fifteen minute break between 11 and 11:15 am and lunch between 12:45 pm to 1:45 pm. As soon as the bell rang, a raucous bunch of boys streamed out of the classrooms. However in this Brownian motion of school boys, the ones with a definite purpose in life were those lucky boys who had enough “tuck” money. These determined individuals would bolt to the southern end of the field towards Widdy’s. Once there, there was hurried hustling and jostling to get to the 2 windows which had grills. We stuck our hands in and chanted “Abu, samosa!”, “Abu, samosa!” or “Bonda, Bonda, Bonda” and so on till Abu (as Abdul was called) or his son Asmath heard us and took our money and handed over the treat. We then backed our way out of the throng to enjoy our hard fought treat on the field. But we had to be careful, for circling high above were kites with keen eyes and a careless young boy and his samosa were soon parted in a flash as one of these keen eyed birds swooped down and made off with the samosa. If you were actually eating the samosa, you could end up with a scratch on your face! The prudent ones hung under the shade of the trees, Gulmohar I think, or sat on the low stone wall and ate their treats contentedly. I was a day-scholar and my visits to Widdy’s were fairly limited, this made my occasional visits even more memorable! Sometimes, if I was plain lucky, one of my friends would “stand” me. A bite of a samosa, a piece of a bonda or on those lucky days, an entire samosa! Not everybody fought their way through though. There were regulars and “high spenders”, these boys would skip the windows and enter the canteen through the door and buy their choice of treat. The first time I did get to enter was on a visit back in 2002!
There were seasonal treats of course. Raw poly mangoes, sliced with chilli powder and salt in summer. Gauvas, similarly sliced with “masala”. Bondas, a rung below the samosas, fried potato fritters, delcious nevertheless. My first acquaintance with Widdy’s started with the sports day and I suspect Widdy’s made a killing those weekends. Old boys flocked to the school on sports days and the “Old Boys Day” that followed, and most, faithfully paid a visit to Widdy’s to relive their boyhood treats. Sports days were the days the athletes shone and I can still remember names of those stars. For the non-athletic guys like me, there was club-swinging or figure running, an opportunity for every school boy to participate on sports day. After the displays, we would head to our respective classrooms for a treat of “bun and pop”. The bun was, as it’s name indicated, a plain bun and “pop” was soda, usually a cola. I think the brand was “Crown”, I may be mistaken though. Those “free” treats were the best!
As I had mentioned earlier, I was a day scholar and I took my lunch in everyday as opposed to the boarders who ate at the refectory. Abu extended a line of credit to the boarders and I suspect my boarder friends have partaken of all the varieties of treats that were on sale. I really should have counted my blessings for getting to eat home-cooked food everyday but on the occasional day when my mother had to perhaps attend a wedding or some social event during the day, my dad gave me money to eat at school. Concentrating in class was pretty hard on those days. I had to figure out whether I should conserve my money, skip the tea break and eat four samosas at lunch. I could alternatively, eat a samosa at tea and then eat 3 at lunch. Perhaps 3 samosas and a stick jaw, it was just great to run the permutations and combinations through my mind. During the fifth period which just preceded the lunch break, concentrating in class was especially hard. If due to some lapse in my self control I actually paid attention to what the teacher was teaching, the coins in my pocket nudged me back to reality, reminding me of the upcoming feast. As the bell tolled announcing lunch break, I joined that herd of determined boys heading towards Widdy’s!
I don’t remember the items at Widdy’s changing much, but as a nod to the changing times, Abu started selling “burgers” in the eighties. You could go for the chicken or vegetable burger and these were at the top of price range. I had a burger once, but then again, I think the going rate was 3 samosas for a burger, so I stuck to samosas!
I last visited my school in 2007. The majestic old building that held such fond memories had made way for a new one. Widdy’s had moved to a new location, it was now housed in a makeshift structure in the pavillion. The familiar classmates were no longer around, most of my teachers had retired, some had passed on. The school uniforms had also changed, apparently boys wore their house colors on days they had PT. There was an occasional girl too, the formerly all boys school had opened its doors to girls for the 11th and 12th grades. It had been 22 years since I had left school, a lot had changed and in many ways, I was a stranger at my alma mater. I stopped at Widdy’s and spoke to Abu. I then bought a samosa (it cost Rs 5) and as I bit into it, I realized that some things had still remained the same! And the kites were still circling, waiting for a careless school boy.