Victorian-era Dining Hall Etiquette

Food holds a special importance in everyday life. A lot of memories are connected to it and apparently the most important word in French is the word for the afternoon snack. In IIT Kharagpur’s Nehru Hall, there were no such pretensions about food; but a strange reverence was shown to the place where food was often eaten, the mess hall. The single most important phrase in this hallowed ground was “Excuse Me”, the over-used English phrase most often heard in Victorian dramas when heroines flustered by their love interest utter these words and an escape hatch is opened to them. Second-years were implored: when you are done eating your food and are stepping away from the table, you must cast this magical incantation. Once cast, the spell worked wonders as it suppressed the bout of shouting and mocking from third-, fourth- and fifth-years. Curiously, everyone in the third-year and above inside the same dining hall was exempt from this rule. As in Pride and Prejudice, another Victorian-era drama, the female characters who are being married off have little say in whom they are married to, while the men have all the choice that they could possibly want; so in Nehru Hall, second years had to follow a lot of rules designed to keep them “humble and respectful”, while everyone else lead rule-free lives. This dichotomy was a part of hazing at IIT Kharagpur, affectionately referred to by the euphemism, “Orientation Program”, or simply, O.P. I recount my experience of O.P. in this 4-part series. This is the third part, Victorian-era Dining Hall Etiquette.

Closely following the sermon on self-introduction, everyone in the hostel appeared to be dead-set on driving arguably outdated customs and practices into the brains of second years. As their location, they chose the one place that second-years were bound to visit a few times each day: the dining hall (or mess hall or just, “mess”). The food that was served here was edible; I hesitate to add any other epithet. While eating this food required a profound acceptance of the status quo, the experience of second-year students in particular was improved by third-, fourth- and fifth-years engaging the hungry masses in spirited conversations about rules, the importance of rules, and adhering to rules. They also provided comic relief, by making jokes at the second-years’ expense. Laughing at a joke someone else makes at your expense is the age-old path to stress-relief.

The topics of discussion ranged from the slightly uncomfortable1 to the deeply distressing2. And like the proverbial lunch lady in kindergarten, the tormentors pointed out the slightest violation in etiquette among the victims.

Did you leave the table without excusing yourself? This would earn you an inexplicably long lecture about values, respect for elders and propriety. The lecture did run the risk of provoking a victim into an impassioned speech about the propriety of tormenting ostensible strangers at the dinner table. The victim might ask the third-years “What gives you the right?” I did not witness any such altercation though, and it was probably because all second years held these people in high regard.

Did you step away from the table to get food at the buffet but did not put your chair in a position indicating that it was occupied? This minor transgression of a deranged directive would be the trigger for an unsolicited meditation on the meaning of “rules” and the importance of following them when you are in your second year and disregarding them when you are in your third year3. Apparently, rules should be followed at least for a year, so that one gets a taste for what rule-following feels like. After that, the former rule-followers are promoted to be “enforcers”. I live by this even today and never follow any rule for more than a year; it has served me well in the real world.

Did you have the audacity to walk into the mess-hall in attire that exposed your bare knees? Well, this was the cardinal sin and would provoke a collective gasp in the form of a loud, screeching, and wholly unpleasant noise emanating from the exalted fourth-years. You would be gently reminded that the rules prohibited this kind of attire. Some second-years might be dispatched to the back of the dining hall, to read the list of rules and give the fourth years a summary of what was written there. Others might face the less loaded question, “Can you even read English?”. To this question, I present the answer that I prepared but never had a chance to deliver: “Yes, I can read English. Also, I am particularly glad that I can write English; for I intend to return to my room and write down what just transpired in a note for reference in the future.”

These conversations might appear normal or even friendly. Some might counsel the victim, “This kind of rhetorical questioning is how barbarians have broken ice for centuries. Cheer up!”. Yet others might console, “This was nothing compared to what happened in the dining halls in my college hostel …”. These people are right! I find the latter piece of nostalgic recounting particularly soothing. The world is famously resistant to change. What happened to your parents in college must happen to you in college. It will also happen to your offspring. Why else would the most memorable phrase about change be the lack of change is the only constant”?

Some second-years managed to avoid the tables where these vultures scavenged for their almost-dead prey. Others employed devious methods and avoided these conversations altogether during the prolonged period of a month. These conversations in the mess could jump out of the dark and assault anyone, those who were complacent and had dropped their guard were particularly susceptible. Everyone knew that this was going on in the dining hall as they heard stories from second-year students who praised their seniors in curiously crude language. The anxiety felt by the about-to-be-hazed is identical in scale to the exhilaration felt by the already-hazed. At least the already-hazed can rest easy knowing that they have gained access to knowledge that is refused to people who have the misfortune of living in civil society!

To the diligent conductors of O.P., one second-year student left uneducated equaled defeat; “No man left uneducated”, was their creed. So, they took the fight to educate to the room in which these second-years slept after a long day. In the final installment of this 4-part series, I will relate the curious nights during which second-years stood in neat rows on the ground in the middle of the night, while fifth-years and even some alumni discoursed at them from the first-floor balcony.

Programming note: This is the third part of a 4-part series.

Post Date
The Curious Case of the Dweller Who Wouldn’t Move Out 10th May, 2021
The Sermon in the Common Room 11th May, 2021
Victorian-era Dining Hall Etiquette 12th May, 2021
The Midnight Assemblies 13th May, 2021

  1. “I don’t care about this at all” 

  2. “What is he talking about and when will he stop?” 

  3. A second-year student not following the rule book and a third-year student following the rule book were both subject to ridicule.