This happened several years ago, when I must've been around seven or eight. A relative had started a chinese restaurant 'neath her unnecessarily large house and we were all invited for the grand opening. It wasn't very grand, though - the sort of opening a patio-turned-chilli chicken fried rice place should have - tacky tuni bulbs hanging from a large tree in front of the house, decorator-hired white chairs with the plastic weave ripping off from the backrests, unreasonably overdressed women in their best kanjeevarams and the finest jewellery they own all the better to show whose husband earned the most for. And plenty of free food that was, and presumably remains to this day, unpalatable and unhygienic in equal measure.
I remember feeling tortured like I always did at these gala familial rendezvous, where gossip flew about in hushed whispers and rolled eyes - when a little boy in brown shorts came up the street, holding his father's hand. He stood, mesmerised, looking at the restaurant's cheap chinese lamps and the celebrations- it was as if he'd never seen something so marvellous before. They were the archetypal bangali middle-class. You meet so many of them during the Pujos, the fathers looking disinterested but happy (proud), the tiny boys with bright eyes, wearing silly paper hats and clutching onto a party whistle or a plastic toy, constantly being scolded or fussed over by their mothers who walked two paces behind the husbands.
As is the wont of all children, the boy was abrim with questions. "Ki hochhe ekhaane, baba? Eto shajano kyano?"
I remember the boy tugging at his father's hand and begging to be fed at the restaurant. He was very hungry, he said. The father gave in, after some coaxing, and they sat down. For an interminably long time nobody attended to them. The boy and his father sat on two rickety decorator-decrepit chairs in the middle of a footpath on a Kolkata residential alley, feeling underdressed and unwanted. They waited patiently without hollering for a waiter. Finally, the father got up and managed to get hold of a menu card. He pondered thoughtfully over it and furrowed his brow just a little bit while the little boy could hardly contain his excitement and wanted to know immediately what they were eating. While the boy rattled off "chicken chow mien" and "mixed fried rice", the father kept shaking his head but keeping quiet. Muted in his discomfort, while some gaudily made up eyes looked questioningly at him and turned away, disinterested. Eventually, a waiter went up to them, and I heard the man ordering a half-bowl of chicken soup, much to the son's dismay. When the child protested, the father simply said, "Na baba, eibarta otai khao." The boy's face fell, but he said nothing. When the soup arrived, he ate quietly, while his father watched and wiped the sweat off his son's forehead, refusing to share his meal. I took a look at the menu, it was the cheapest item on it. When the bill arrived, the man took out a note from his shirt pocket and didn't tip. They went on their way and I haven't seen them since. That's all.
I can't remember the last time I met my extended family, but I do remember, sixteen years ago, while I was stuffing my face with food I could have in plenty and didn't want, there was a young boy sitting across from me, understanding lack with dignity and silent endurance.