A lesson on how to wash clothes!

“Anu atha, this Madras is soooo hot… I’m itching all over,” my nephew Shriram tells me, soon after moving to Madras and joining his college hostel.

“Let me take a look,” I’m wondering if it’s prickly heat. Nothing much except a mild rash though.

Give him something for it and then we continue our conversation about life in the hostel. How’s the food, is my inevitable first question!

Then questions about who cleans the room (the students!), who washes clothes – is there a laundromat? Expecting that this being one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the country, of course there’d be  a veritable bank of washing machines!

Yeah, there’s  a washing machine but it hasn’t been working for two years! He doesn’t seem to be particularly perturbed, so I ask him how he’s washing his clothes. Considering that he’s a basketballer and that Madras is the sweatpot of the world, there must be loads!

Oh, I wash them by hand, he says breezily. Nosy parker that I am, I ask for details (I’m secretly impressed that he even knows how to wash clothes!)

“Oh, there’s nothing to it, Anu atha, he says, I don’t know why we even need a machine or people make such a fuss about it.” I am by now seriously in awe!

“You just put them in water, add some washing powder, shake them about a bit, then hang them out to dry. That’s all,” he says!

“What about rinsing them out?” I ask.

“What’s that?” he asks!

“You know, you need to get the soap out, right, so you rinse it in plain water?”

“Do you have to do that, Anu atha?”

“Well, duh!”

“Oh… oooh... ooh... so that’s what my clothes are so stiff after they dry?”

“Yes, and that’s also why you’ve got itchy skin!”

And so begins a lesson in washing clothes – for kids who’ve been brought up on machines, this seems like quite an esoteric skill to acquire!

I have an epiphany on perspective. For those of us standing on the other side (the pre-side) of the Great Washing Machine Divide, we look at the machine in wonder. For those on this side, the handwashing days are positively exotic!

And, oh, by the way, he says, the food in the hostel is great!

A few weeks later, the food is okay… and then a month later… I’m coming home now...

Hostel food is a legend in itself and how the generations before Maggi survived in hostels is one of the great mysteries of life.

Researching hostel foods, I stumbled on this brilliant dish – called, would you credit it? – hoppel-poppel! Serious  – it was invented in Germany and was originally called Bauernfruhstuck (there’s an umlaut over both the u’s but I don’t know how to put them in here!)

Presenting the… ultimate hostel comfort food…


  • Two medium potatoes – scrubbed and sliced into thick slices. Don’t bother to peel because I’m sure you won’t have a peeler in a hostel! And the peel is good for you, anyway! 
  • One onion – chopped / sliced – what you will.
  • One large tomato – sliced
  • Capsicum – 1
  • Any herbs – coriander/mint/basil
  • Eggs – 4
  • Oil / butter – 2 tbsp
  • Salt and pepper
  • Jeera/cumin seeds – optional extra! – 1/2 tsp
  • anything else youu feel might do well in this dish – mushrooms, cheese

Heat the oil/butter in a large saucepan. Add the jeera.

Arrange the potato slices on it. If you’re using a capsicum, arrange that first! 

Sprinkle the onion slices over. Cook on a gentle heat turning over occassionally.

Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper  and mix. Pour the eggs over the top and stir to mix well with everything else. As soon as the eggs begin to firm up a bit, sprinkle the herbs on top and take off the heat.

Enjoy your hoppel poppel straight from the pan – why add to the number of dishes to wash up?!

Do remember to rinse out your pan though, after you’ve used soap!