Humans of Insti Messes

Have you wondered about the invisible components of the Insti mechanism that help it run, a chugging, ever-going machine? The faces we see daily as we rush through classes and meetings, the quiet, calloused hands that work tirelessly? The people we interact with daily but are never spared more than half a thought?

I’m talking about the watchmen, the sweepers, the water trolley carriers, the Zaitoon delivery boys always busily flitting around, the mess workers, and countless others, each doing their bit to keep the institute running. Every person has a story of their own, and if you can spare a moment to pause the rat race to talk or even smile at any of them, you are allowed a glimpse into the rich lives behind the uniforms.

Mess workers ensure food is on our plates daily, regardless of whether it is a day like any other or when floods ravage the institute. Students have simple-minded, fleeting relationships with the mess workers in different messes, sometimes choosing their mess preferences based on their perception of the workers there. These workers come here from many places and experiences, primarily through sources and contacts, and are hard-working people with simple life philosophies. To give you all a peek into their well-lived lives, T5E spoke to a few wonderful individuals who spared us a few moments from their busy days for a little chat.

Bhagwan (Himalaya SGR Ground Floor)

The hefty, aproned man in the SGR mess came toward me, loaded with a plate of breakfast, tea, and biscuits as I waited to take his interview. “You should eat first, then we will talk. Productive work won’t happen on an empty stomach,” he exclaimed in heavily accented Hindi. Bhagwan Ji is from Nepal and came to India in 2008 to earn money. He has been working in IITM since 2019 in the SGR company. Before coming to Chennai, Bhagwan Ji worked in Bihar and also abroad in Qatar for some years.

While recollecting the tough times of COVID, he had his own piece to add. “The India-Nepal transit was shut down, and I could not go home. All other companies had crashed, but SGR was the one that survived and took care of me. They gave me food and accommodation throughout the time.” As a result, SGR had solidified its spot as his family away from home. “SGR is like my mother, father, and friends. The people here are friendly, and we live like a big family. India-Nepal are like brothers. Likewise, I’m also a brother here, with my fellow brothers around me.”

Although he never saw the steps of a school, Bhagwan Ji strongly believes that life philosophies are taught by parents outside of classrooms. “Is it written on our backs that we are humans? Only our thinking and actions make us human, nothing more, and nothing less.” Such a profound thought laid out so simply left me dumbfounded.

“How does one gain respect? By respecting the ones who are younger than you. By not demeaning anyone inferior to you. If you want to command respect, you should be able to give it first,” is his rationale.

Despite being satisfied with his working environment and the company, he laid out a set of grievances that plagued him and his Nepali brothers. “I don’t have a bank account and an Aadhar card, which gives rise to many problems. I can’t even buy basic facilities like a SIM card. Since I don’t have a bank account, I receive my cash payments, which are often delayed. Despite raising this request repeatedly, the situation hasn’t changed. This company is all I have. I’m like a son to them, so can it not cater to some of my problems? I want the company to ask about us and our problems during a staff meeting.” 

The most critical issue that he raised was working hours and equivalent pay. “We have an 8-hour shift per worker. I work for two continuous shifts, that is, for 16 hours straight. And I get paid Rs. 10,000 a month for that. I also don’t get paid for overtime work. I still haven’t received any payment for my extra work last December. Also, unfortunately, if there is any injury to the workers, the company doesn’t bother to provide any medical assistance. I’m not complaining, but I would appreciate it if the company thinks about us every once in a while.”

Kalpana (Cauvery Mess)

Kalpana is a 19-year-old girl, living in Taramani with her parents. Having studied till Grade XII, she stopped further education and joined the job at the age of eighteen due to some familial issues. She manages checking ID cards and cleaning the mess. Being the youngest person working here, she is well-doted upon. 

But a thought must be spared to this: are we not all from the same age group? Yet we sit in AC libraries, laptops out, with the only physical labor being cleaning our rooms. The disparity in our country lies vast between us, and bridging the gap is a Herculean task.

Bhushan Singh (Vindhya North R Gouras Mess)

Behind the tall, stern figure guarding the doors of the Vindhya mess is a man with a sweet smile and a gentle voice. With my questions in hand, I waited while he tirelessly moved around banana peel crates. 

Originally hailing from Bihar, Bhushan Singh shifted to Kolkata with his parents in the 1970s. He has been working at IIT Madras for eighteen months. Before coming here, Bhushan worked various jobs in Kolkata, including teaching and working in call centers and promotional jobs. His age made finding jobs in Kolkata difficult, and he eventually came to Chennai.

“There is no point in thinking about the past. I knew firmly that I had to find a job, and I’m happy working here. It truly feels like a family. It would’ve been difficult if I had a solo job, but here it is peaceful. Everyone is mindful of their own work, and if anyone makes a mistake, they listen to whatever suggestions we give them.” 

He lives in Taramani, in institute-provided quarters. When asked about the infamous sneak-ins at Vindhya, he said, “The students know there are no punishments for sneaking in, so they try. But it is difficult for them to escape our eyes. We have to be strict because we have limitations on the food capacity. The mess has a capacity of 1100 students, and if by chance there is a shortage of food, it is difficult to make extra provisions. So we try to accommodate everyone within the limit. We hate to turn away hungry students, but we are helpless. That is why we try to handle all things fairly. Isn’t it better if the students are honest themselves? You are IITians, the future of the country. If your roots are strong now, only then will the tree flourish.”

He also talked about some student faces that remain in memory specifically. “If they talk to us regularly, a bond is developed. Then, if we don’t see them for many days, we wonder where they are.” 

When asked about any memorable incident that had happened recently, he was quick to answer. “The floods! I experienced a flood of this intensity for the first time. I spent a whole day without food and water on one of the dining tables! Fortunately, this mess was closed, but we were wondering how difficult and problematic it was for the people upstairs in Vindhya South, who had to deliver food in the heavy rains.”

Towards the end of our conversation, I asked him whether he thought some things should be changed in the system. Without hesitation, he said, “Things should change for the students at the CCW level. For some students, biometrics don’t work for various reasons. An ID card activation system can be put in place instead. For the people handling online transactions, proper training is not provided, which leads to delays and other problems. Such small things can be improved for smooth functioning. It would also be great if large cement bowls filled with water were placed near hostels and messes for the deer. If you observe, there is no water source nearby for them. Although they are wild creatures, we can still provide at least this for them.” Bhushan Singh takes this philosophy to heart, spending precious moments of his free time laying out food for the hungry cats milling outside Vindhya.  

Devendra Kumar and Jugal Sadam (Nilgiri Ground Floor Firstman Mess)

Two workers were resting after their morning shift in front of the Firstman mess. Being Bihari Babus, Devendra has been working on campus for the past year, while Jugal has joined in the last six months. Both were extremely shy and bewildered in the beginning to talk but opened up as the conversation progressed.

Devendra was a construction worker in Bihar and took up work in IITM through a contact after work shut down during the COVID lockdowns. “I want to go forward and upward,” he said shyly, “I’m making rotis currently, and I want to upgrade to making other food items.” 

Jugal is originally from Samastepur district, Bihar. He used to work in a PG mess in Delhi before shifting to Chennai, having a lifelong interest in cooking. “I haven’t thought much about any change or the future. I’ll deal with whatever comes my way when it comes.” Saying this, they happily posed for a photo and went their way to prepare for lunch.

Jyoti Patra (Vindhya North R Gouras Mess)

I approached the fair, smiling lady in Vindhya North serving the last of ice creams on a Sunday afternoon. At first, she found it amusing that I had come to talk to her about her life and was immediately excited to share. 

Jutipatra is from Assam, and family problems and lack of work in her native village send her on the journey to Chennai. Having worked in the mess line earlier, she quickly assimilated into the hustle-bustle of IITM messes. She lives in Taramani, in quarters provided by the institute. “I am content and happy here, with amicable working counterparts and a friendly student community. I don’t want any changes in the situation.”

Insti has a lot of stories that go unheard of. These are the people with whom our lives intersect daily; all they want is a recognition of their humanity from us. All of them are very devoted to their work and are satisfied with their working conditions and the people they work with, but they also have issues that are seldom considered. 

Many of us can empathize with the homesickness of being so far away from our families. These tireless workers help us build a life for ourselves, and if we could do them the slightest favor and ease their burdens in return, it should be done without hesitation. 

So the next time you are hurrying past a mess worker, please take a few seconds to give them a smile that will undoubtedly brighten their day! 

Design by: Keerthana

Edited by: Pooja

Soniya Kute

I am a Second Year student of Humanities and Social Sciences Department, pursuing Integrated MA in English Studies. I dabble in journaling, doodling, poetry and football. Huge fan of classics. Can't survive without coffee.

Soniya Kute

I am a Second Year student of Humanities and Social Sciences Department, pursuing Integrated MA in English Studies. I dabble in journaling, doodling, poetry and football. Huge fan of classics. Can't survive without coffee.

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