The Foundation for Liberal and Management Education (FLAME) campus is renowned for its architecture and sense of aesthetic. Viewed from a distance, it appears to be a set of large sandstone slabs, neatly spaced out between well-tended shrubbery and stone pathways. Its aesthetic beauty is also attributed to its connection with its surrounding hills and forests. A walk westwards towards its west most residential blocks and eventually its hills takes one outside campus, essentially outside its boundaries. Here is where reality begins to set in, one realises that FLAME isn’t based upon the natural aesthetics of its surroundings but rather the sheer scale of the campus creates a false sense of the natural to its viewers. There is no better place to experience this disillusionment than Balu’s tapri, seemingly the last human settlement between FLAME and the hills. Much like the ancient pirate capital in Jamaica, Port Royal, it stands in near direct opposition and defiance to everything that FLAME attempts to enforce through its conservative administrative ideology. FLAME is a wonder of stone, cement and glass, Balu’s is a bunch of exposed brick walls painted pink with an aluminium sheet roof. FLAME goes to great lengths to prevent students from consuming tobacco and eggs, Balu sells them. The eponymous owner, ‘Balu’ (Bal meaning baby in Marathi) sits on land which FLAME needs to access its staff quarters, making him and his tapri immune to FLAME’s inquisitors.
Being both a student allocated to West housing for two years and a non-vegetarian, I was initially attracted to Balu’s out of necessity. Eventually, it came to hold a special place in my experiential memory. To me and many others like me, Balu’s is a place free from the formality and clean-cut nature of FLAME. A five minute chai stop there often consumes the entire afternoon or evening, playing an important role as a place of social gathering. Ever since the management banned and dismantled the students’ Kundh based birthday tradition, Balu’s has become the default place for cake cuttings and more recently, the nearest legitimate place where one may buy tobacco. There is something about its grittiness and simplicity that one tends to miss within the FLAME campus.
In the following paragraph, I shall attempt to establish a relationship between the people and space that is Balu’s as I experienced through my five sensory modalities, for an hour between 1:00pm and 2:00pm on Wednesday, the 18th of February 2015.
Upon my arrival, the Eponymous Balu, his partner Bapu and his sidekick Sachin were finishing up their own dinner, a simple meal comprising of rice and ‘Amti’, a sort of Maharashtrian Dal. Immediately, as one enters the tapri, one is hit by the smell of fresh steamed rice and stale cooking oil. In one corner, sits an old man with an impressive beard, supposedly a shepherd from the nearby hills, sipping his chai. Being lunchtime, there are few students here at this point, apart from myself and Jessica, a foreign exchange student present there for the same assignment as me. As students begin to pour in for their post lunch/post class cigarette, one cannot help but notice that they are comprised mostly of people living in the West housing blocks. Those living in the East block (like myself) frequent Kaki’s a tapri because of its proximity to us. One immediately notices the impact Flame has on the Tapri, with many student activity posters and Graffiti (mostly denouncing Sachin) covering the pink walls. If one looks to the roof, one notices an ingenious DIY system of avoiding rainwater leakages by tying half cut plastic bottles to the walls. One hears Balu and Bapu jesting with Sachin, a man no older than most students in FLAME and remixed Hindi music from the neighbouring Boni’s Chinesh (that is how Boni spells it) restaurant. The poured cement floors and the surrounding unpaved land is covered in thousands (no exaggeration intended) cigarette butts and old soda bottles. The immediate noticeable difference between Kaki’s and Balu’s is the immense space that Balu’s affords. Because of this, while interactions with fellow students in Kaki’s are often performed sitting down on the ‘L’ shaped tables, one is free to stand in large groups or reformat the near unusable red plastic chairs and white plastic tables to one’s convenience. While Kaki’s provides a view of the neighbouring Oxford Golf course, Balu’s provides a view of FLAME housing blocks, the FLAME sports complex, the hills and a daydreaming Balu. On the ground, one may see Freddy, one of the last surviving dogs adopted by the FLAME student community as he sniffs around for scraps of leftover food. A few construction workers and staff descend from the hills, coming in for their afternoon chai and bidis. They sit away from the Flame students and often give them the right of way even if they were at the counter first.
Eventually, the Tapri emptied out, and I was left discussing the nature of my assignment with Balu and Sachin. They were not startled by my seemingly purposeless presence and scribbling there as they were with Jessica. Being a new face to Balu and displaying Caucasian features (not often encountered by the locals of Lavle village, apartfrom the odd United World College faculty, they assumed her to be a member of the FLAME management, there to file a report on the conditions at Balu’s. I was immediately requested to omit certain elements from my report by Balu, putting his long-standing immunity into question. This can be interpreted as a sign of the endangered nature of Balu’s. The management, attempting to gain Deemed University status appears to be pressurising Balu to either sell them his land or adhere to FLAME standards of service. This is made more evident by the near complete wire mesh wall surrounding FLAME with a gap left open to permit exit from campus and entry into Balu’s. The completion of that wall would potentially threaten Balu and his employees’ livelihoods. Despite this, it is hard to imagine Flame students taking a ban on Balu’s seriously from what I saw there that day, most students seemingly willing to break rules rather than give up their last bastion of freedom. Balu’s serves an important role in a FLAME student’s life as the other option for food as well as social interaction.
Much like my grandmother cannot comprehend why I would occasionally go out for dinner despite there being food at home, FLAME does not understand the need students have for Balu’s. They do not realise that choosing to go to Balu’s rather than the dining hall or the many scenic public areas in FLAME is not because their facilities ae unfulfilling but rather a need for freedom and isolation that every human being requires once in a while. Even the roughness of the brick walls and the seemingly unusable chairs have a sort of Wabi-Sabiaesthetic to them that one is deprived of in a place as clean- cut and futuristic as Flame.