This morning we had cornflakes, toast and fruits for breakfast.
‘Will you have hot milk or cold to go with the cornflakes?’ Radhika asked me. I opted for the former. She withdrew to the kitchen. I was lost in a reverie.
The year was 1969. I was in Patna, undergoing induction course for Probationary Officers of a major bank. The recruits, fresh from colleges, were touted as potential senior executives of the bank. We were being groomed to take on responsibilities.
It was a residential course intended to prepare young recruits in every way for the long career ahead. Public speaking, table manners, group discussions and toasts after dinner were all built into it. The training methodology was state-of-the-art in the days we are talking about – flip charts and white boards.
We were a mix of young men from all over India. Most of the participants belonged to, were educated in or at least had exposure to metros and large towns. In fact, the selection process (consisting of a written test and an interview) was heavily loaded in favour of the urban candidates. It was not often that a country bumpkin would make the grade.
I had lived all my life in Kerala and had no urban upbringing. It was my first trip outside Kerala where I belong to.
On the first day, we had assembled in the dining hall for breakfast. White-liveried bearers with read-and-white headgears, red-and-gold cummerbunds and sashes flitted about with glass jars of cold water. I went and occupied one of the six chairs placed around a circular table.
I was awed by the fine chinaware, gleaming cutlery and the starched white tablecloth and napkins, but pretended as if I was used to all that. As I was about to sip the orange juice, I saw a group of young men ambling in, talking loudly and laughing. They must be the faculty at the Training Centre, I told myself.
They came and occupied the other chairs around my table. They continued their banter, mostly in English, lapsing into Hindi at times. Despite my diffidence, I introduced myself to them. That was when I realized that they were also participants like me.
After finishing the orange juice, I opened the glass jar containing cornflakes and put some of it into my bowl. I took a bit of it in the table spoon and put it into my mouth. It was crisp but felt dry. As I was about to put the next spoon of cornflakes into my mouth, the person occupying the chair opposite mine said, ‘You’re supposed to put some sugar and milk in the cornflakes in the bowl before having it.’
Not wanting to confess ignorance, I said, ‘I know, but I like it this way.’ And laboured through the bowl of cornflakes.
When Radhika brought the hot milk for my cornflakes, she caught me smiling to myself as I recollected those days. I told her why.
Let me add a postscript: during the whole of the month-long training period, if the day’s breakfast menu had cornflakes in it. I made it a point to avoid the table where any of these five colleagues sat.