Everyone knew Priyanaths family wasnt rich. They led a hand-to-mouth existence. The neighbourhood they lived in was reasonably secure, financially as well as socially, and there could be no comparison between Priyanaths frugal existence and his neighbours comfortable lifestyle.
But that wasnt a bad thing the older residents protected these lesser neighbours with love and affection, introducing them duly to all newcomers, to ensure that familiarity bred sympathy and love for this unfortunate family.
There were advantages of living in such a neighbourhood. Priyanath and his family were always at the top of the guest lists for dinner and lunch every time a neighbour had reason to celebrate. Priyanath lived in a tiny, cage-like, two-room house with his wife and three children, and they lost their privacy the moment they opened their front door. Everyone was aware of this, so no one would ever step in. My eldest son is getting married this Sunday. Do come all invitations were delivered from beyond the threshold. Priyanath or his wife Shyama would say: Wont you come in? Theyd always decline politely, Oh, no! Still have a lot of houses to visit. But not only for supper you must come for lunch as well
Two of his children (who were old enough), would eavesdrop, giggling excitedly at the thought of the impending feasts: not just one, but both meals of the day! Shyama would sigh at their salivating fantasies while Priyanath even though he didnt sigh would feel dazed, as the dynamics of food and hunger clouded his brain.
Frugality was fun too, but only occasionally: on the days this needy family had little or almost nothing to eat, the children wouldnt complain. Theyd fall asleep, tired after recalling and discussing the delicious food they had had in all those feasts they had been invited to.
Priyanath hated this existence. In the beginning it had insulted him, more so as he couldnt forget that he was a post-graduate, and therefore educated and a bhadrolok. What was the use of these degrees, hed ask himself. A man is judged by his status and money, things that had always eluded him. He never got a permanent job, or could never get settled in one. After failing to secure stable employment, Priyanath had taken to doing several jobs at once none of which, unfortunately, were very paying. He felt his value spiralling downwards along with the rupees he couldnt satisfy any of his familys wishes. So how could he even dare to oppose the neighbours who politely fulfilled them, that too without any active contribution from him?
So reasoned Priyanath, and he learned to compromise and duly passed on the skill to Shyama. From then on, though they sent their hungry children to the neighbourhood celebrations, either Priyanath and Shyama would stay home, sick. This was how the couple preserved their self-respect, at least for themselves.
But it wasnt as if they were only invited to feasts invitations also came every time an important person visited the neighbour. The neighbour whod invited them would introduce them to the big person too: This is Priyanath, theyd say, a very nice person; and this is Shyama, his wife. And these Bhooni, Taaku and Bini these are their children. Theyd go on: Arrey, why are you so quiet, Priyanath? Come on, say something. You know so much Priyanath would be silent with embarrassment. Sitting there, hands gathered in his lap, hed be acutely aware of how he and his family were inevitably delaying the others, whod queued up to enjoy the big persons presence. At such times, hed maybe mistake himself for a big person as well.
Back home, after the children had fallen asleep talking about the big person, Priyanath and his wife would leave small talk about big persons aside and speak of special things and then even theyd fall asleep. It was during one such conversation that Shyama said something strange.
cant afford to invite people to lunch. But couldnt we invite
a big person just once? Priyanath heard her, but didnt pay
Dibyendu Palit, an award winning fiction writer, is also a respected novelist and poet of contemporary Bengal. An editor with Ananda Bazaar Patrika, he writes in Bengali
and lives in Calcutta