The Oval Canteen

[Avrina Prabala-Joslin]

At the edge of town where no one lives is the oval canteen. Where the road ends it begins. Neon arrows, that can sometimes just lead you on, sometimes take you there. Above the heavy doors is a neon sign announcing the oval canteen. Remember, if you’re here, you’re not elsewhere.

Once Flavian amphitheatre, now canteen, you do not know the purpose of your visit. Except that you had to leave. You know when it’s too much. No one sees you go in. If you don’t want to come out, it will tell no one. You can get lost in the oval canteen and perhaps that is why you and many others like you go there. Though there are countless within its sanctum, your oval canteen is not my oval canteen. Which really means that we are not going to be lost together or find each other. The oval canteen is by manifest a one-woman journey. Where mine glows lo-fi pink and plays Laurie Anderson, yours is beige with Leonard Cohen. Personalisation at its best.

Once you’re in, you’ll realise that nothing is dogma in the oval canteen. Nothing is the dogma you’ll follow as you walk one colonnade to the other. Because you’ve abandoned your judgement, you’ll laugh when you notice that the oval canteen is not really an oval but rather an ellipse. You also realise that there’s no actual food in the oval canteen. There’s no semblance of nutrition but you’re sick of health and growth and diet and meal prep. You don’t care. What you don’t know is that the oval canteen refers to the inner oval arena – oval like egg – and not what you’ve just seen. You’ll know why we are called the oval canteen when you get there.

Neon green vertical gardens abound in the inner arena, grade A nutrition. It will take you multiple visits before you reach this paradise. Sometimes it so happens that you reach it and forget it all when you visit again. Your memory brings to head a chant: All ellipses are ovals, but all ovals are not ellipses. You don’t understand what it means but it’s just the past bringing you to where you really belong. What we do here is not playing with memory but rather fortifying it for the greater good. You see, we’ve engineered organic and if you’re a Huxleyan, you’ll know that’s what utopias are made of.

There are no conditions in the oval canteen. Perhaps there’s a test. Perhaps by the end – and really, who can tell what the end is in this flora – you will be striving for the things you never really knew you wanted. The things you’ve always needed. Take a very satisfied customer for example. Laurie says, “When my father died, it was like a whole library burned down”[1] but with the help of the oval canteen, she found her utopia. She spends hours trimming, teeming and harvesting the vertical gardens so much so that she does all three meals on crispy bio-engineered greens, made just for her. Your arrival at the oval canteen is a return to what you’ve lost. Once you’re here, you’ll know why we believe in nothing to be our dogma. We make plants out of nothing. Our gardens grow on air. Silly you thought nothing meant nothing.

What you perceive as a boring chore is what we see as perpetuation of life. So let’s call it a test. If there’s anything evolution has taught you, it’s taught you to be the best. And in the inner arena, the oval of life, the leftovers of that circle of life, you’ve got to be your best. You’ve got to farm like a maniac. Look at Laurie, being the best version of herself.

It is here where many of you glitch and exit the oval canteen. You came here to get lost, escape loss, pain, resilience. Not save the future of our planet. Though evolution yelled in your ears all along to be the best, you didn’t listen did you? This person who loves to win, who powers up for a fight is also quick to the easiest way out. This is our design. Our trap. Our lure. You come for the perks of the outer arena, the ellipse if you will, but stay to cultivate and feed yourself. How long you ask? Till you reduce the marks you’ve left on where you come from.

Our critics may say that this is the point where utopia borders on dystopia, but we’ve done our research. Our empire of self-cultivated foods has been proven to prolong life on this planet by twenty times with an estimate of a million women like Laurie working day in and out for the next twenty years. Do you perhaps have another radical magical idea that can keep you alive?

Laurie herself has testified to not having lost her agency. Besides what is agency without life? At the edge of town where no one lives is the oval canteen. Where the road ends it begins.

[1] Laurie Anderson, ‘World Without End’.

Avrina Prabala-Joslin is a queer south Indian writer living in Berlin. She writes fiction and poetry on the fluidity of things, place, space and time. She has lived in different cities in India, England, Romania, Italy and Germany. Traces of these lives can be seen in her fiction and snippets of poetry. Apart from stringing together a collection of feminist short fiction, she studies feminist media for her PhD. Her short story “The Plumage” was shortlisted for the Berlin Writing Prize 2019. Find her here.

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