My parents hated going out to eat. In fact even when we were traveling and stranded outdoors at odd times, we would still stretch ourselves, reach home, cook food and then eat. As a child, I hated this. Even my two sisters hated it. But both my mother and my father didn’t see anything wrong in this.
“Why eat out when you can have home cooked food?” My father would ask.
And my mother would chip in.“In our ancestral homes, the workers used to be given lunch and dinner in the veranda. I don’t want to be sitting in somebody else’s place and eat like a worker.”
“But ma, we are paying them. They aren’t giving us food because we can’t afford it.” My arguments never reached the intended conclusions.
By 1995 I was attending college and started meeting richer kids. I started hearing stories from my friends on how they visited such-and-such restaurant and had great family bonding time.
“You know Santosh’s whole family of eight visited Pandian Hotel for a buffet.”
“Isn’t buffet where you go and pick up your own food?” My mother would ask. “How distasteful,” she would add.
“Why is it distasteful?” I would frown.
“Imagine…what kind of a host wouldn’t serve you food where you are sitting? It is as if saying go-there-is-your-food go-get-it.”
My father would agree. “I would never set my foot inside such a place,” he would complement my mother thoughts.
My sisters and I suspected that my parents were against eating out because it would cost them more money. On the advice of my elder of the two younger sister I tried to find out how much a lunch would cost in such restaurants.
Now the question was to ask the right person. Somebody who wouldn’t judge me. Nitish Popli was a rich classmate I had while I was doing BA Economics in American College, Madurai. I approached him.
“Nitish bhai, you go to restaurants on Sundays, don’t you?” Back then, Sundays were the weekends.
“Yes indeed.” He was least interested.
“So, how much does it cost per person?” I closed my eyes after asking the question, just so I don’t see his expressions.
“Depends on which restaurant you go to.” He was still least interested.
Since I didn’t know the names of any good restaurant, I decided to rely on him. “What is the starting range? And what is the maximum?”
“Let us take Saravana Bhavan for example. The Unlimited Thali is Rs 20 and if you enter the Family Room, which is air conditioned, the same Unlimited Thali will cost you Rs 25.”
Please note this was still 1995, the days before the IT industry had taken off and increased the cost of living for all others.
The moment I reached home from college, and my mother opened the door for me I blurted out. “Amma, Unlimited Thali at Saravana Bhavan is only Rs 20 in non-AC and Rs 25 in the AC room.”
Our landline hadn’t been working, else I would have called them from an STD booth itself.
“What?” Was my mother’s only response. On my insistence, it was decided that once father was back we would discuss the issue.
My father came back home by 8 pm, and I just couldn’t hold it. But my sister beat me to it by running to open the door for my father and shouting right at his face. “The Unlimited Thali is only Rs 25 in the air-conditioned room of Saravana Bhavan.”
“I know. What about that?”
The ground slid from under our feet. So our father knew. So he had been cheating on us. He had been going out and eating in restaurants but never taking us there. This was gross injustice, we thought.
Being the eldest child in the family I had to take control of the situation. So, I called my two younger sisters (one was 16 years old and the other was 13) into a room and we agreed to go on a Hunger Strike. Anna Hazare would later steal my idea and use it to get the LokPal Bill passed.
Being the anointed spokesperson of the group, I spoke out first. “We will not have food till you promise us that we will be visiting a restaurant soon.”
At 10 pm, our parents buckled and agreed to take us to Saravana Bhavan the next Sunday. But not before telling us how the lunch would cost Rs 125 for all five of us. And how this money would have been enough to buy one month’s supply of cooking oil or 15 days supply of vegetables.
The next day I was raring to go to college. Once in, I informed Nitesh Popli that we were going to Saravana Bhavan for lunch the coming Sunday. He seemed least interested and didn’t even acknowledge.
From that day onwards, our house food didn’t taste good. We were yearning for the restaurant food. My parents knew what we were thinking, but kept to themselves.
Next Sunday, we all got up at 6 am itself. By 8 am we had all taken bath and put on our best clothes. My parents didn’t seem to be in a hurry.
By 12 noon, my father made one last ditch attempt to dissuade us from going to the restaurant. He said, “Why don’t I buy a kg of chicken and you guys help me cook. We can all then have a hearty meal in the house itself.”
My younger sister spoke up. She said, “But that’s something we do every Sunday.”
My father’s face fell. So did my mother’s. But we were least interested. We wanted to go to Saravana Bhavan for lunch.
My father called the auto rickshaw. If only I were accompanying them we would have gone by the Pandian Bus Service. But since my sisters were also accompanying us – I always suspected him to be more loving towards them – he had booked an auto.
At 12 noon, we hit the road – all five of us huddled in an auto. Since I was the most able-bodied I was asked to sit next to the auto driver.
My sisters and I haven’t been able to recreate the joy we experienced walking into Saravana Bhavan, that fateful Sunday afternoon. In the last 16 years I would have dined at the best of places, but never felt the joy walking in that I felt that Sunday.
Since I was walking ahead of the pack, the waiter motioned me to a table in the non-AC section. With great pride I waved my hand and said, “We are heading for the air conditioned section.”
It was quite a family affair. My parents, who till now were against eating out, also partied. After lunch my father asked for the desserts and we even ended up spending Rs 5 extra per person.
We came home an excited lot. It was the best Sunday we had ever had. Well, that’s if we didn’t include the Sunday when we watched the only movie we have seen in a theatre as a family in the last 30 years – the 3D movie Kutti Chatan (Chotta Chettan, in Hindi).
Once back, my parents had gotten into their shell again. “We have now had food in a restaurant. That’s all. This shouldn’t become a habit.” My mother said. Which I was sure my father agreed to.
Later in the day, I overheard my father tell my mother that the whole outing had cost us Rs 220. Rs 125 (lunch for all), Rs 25 (dessert for all), Rs 20 (food for autorickshaw driver) and Rs 50 (autorickshaw fare).
I also heard my father say: “That’s ok. Don’t worry. We will manage.” And my mother followed it up with: “Yes, I know we will.”
Being a teenager, I didn’t think about it much then.
As you are aware, I was in the beach-side Tirchendor temple in Tamil Nadu recently for offering prayers on the 5th death anniversary of my father. My mother and I had found the priest who was to help us with the prayers. All three of us had to walk 50 meters barefoot on beach sand heated by the 10 am sun. Not a difficult task but I started complaining. I started questioning my mother’s insistence that we do the annual ritual for my father in Tirchendor.
My mother looked at me in disbelief. Then her expression changed to that of love.
She said: “Remember, when you were in college and with your sisters you went on a hunger strike?”
“You wanted us to visit Saravana Bhavan for lunch?”
“Ohh yes. Those were good times.”
‘For you…yes. They were good times.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your father had just retired and we had also built our house, which had cost a lot more than estimated.”
“Ohh…is that so? I didn’t know.”
“That was our intention. We were really cash strapped back then but your father didn’t want you to know.”
“I wanted him to share the family’s financial situation with you. But he didn’t. He said it might affect your studies.”
“Yes. And did you know? After taking you guys out for lunch he didn’t ride his scooter for a month so that he could save on the fuel cost?”
“Yes…he walked 3 kilometers up and down every day for a month. Sometimes twice a day.”
“Yes. But he loved you a lot. You can walk this distance for him, can’t you?”
“Yes, ma. I can.”
After walking the 50 meters or so, as I sat down facing the sun for the prayers, my mother took the corner of her saree to wipe the tears in my eyes. “Ahhh…just some sand in my eyes,” I tried to fake it. But my mother would know.
As the Brahman chanted the mantras, I tried to recollect that month. Yes indeed, it had stuck me as odd. For almost a month my father didn’t take out his scooter and instead walked 3 kilometers up and down whenever my mother asked him to fetch something from the market.
I remember, once I had muttered under my breath: “What a miser!”