The canteen paradox

Though it doesn't wax and wane like the phases of the moon, my popularity graph does tend to shoot up and then come down during the festive season every year. Even as everyone tries to spread cheer amidst the festivities, a new crop of people suddenly discovers many praiseworthy qualities in me and the organisation which gave me the halcyon years of my life. The phenomenon is not restricted to the festival of lights.

The lively festival of Holi celebrated with great gusto in the North, witnesses similar effect on my 'spirited' acquaintance. All this, just because of a privilege gained after wearing the Air Force uniform for a couple of decades; a privilege called the canteen. No, I am not referring to an eatery where light meals and snacks are available, nor to the water bottle carried by soldiers on a march. The source of my popularity is the military canteen where grocery and other items of daily use are sold. And liquor, too!

There being no conscription in our country, life in the armed forces remains an enigma for most citizens, who care neither for minor details like the rank structure in the services nor for broad features of the defence organisation. Surprisingly, the one thing everyone seems to know about is the marvellous place called the military canteen. Everyone looks at it wistfully.

While most women seem to know that certain items like toiletries and suitcases are slightly cheaper in the canteen than in the open market, not all of them are tempted to cultivate their uniformed relatives and friends to tap this source. After all, military canteens rarely provide attractive freebies, food courts and multiplexes in their premises which make shopping so much fun. Men, on the other hand, appreciate that the canteen liquor being excise duty-free, is cheaper than in the open market and the chances of its being spurious are nil. I often find their knowledge of the veterans' 'quota' more up to date than my own.

Come festive season, I find even near strangers suddenly starting innocuous conversation. They all seem to have always supported the servicemen's demand for 'one rank one pension'. They suddenly become deeply touched by the gallantry of soldiers along the LoC in Kashmir and their selfless service during the recent floods. The moment they turn panegyric to the 'soldier,' my senses get alerted. Sure enough, when the very next moment they casually ask me if I can oblige them with a few bottles from my 'quota,' I get irritated.

I land up asking those from the railways if they would spare their concessional lifetime pass for my next rail journey and the academics if they would offer to my grandchildren the seats reserved for their wards in their institutions. They then brand all faujis as eccentric and me as the most selfish specimen of the creed. In a strange paradox, my inflated popularity during the festive season suddenly takes a nosedive. Ultimately, I end up losing some friends every year.

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