It was in the year 1997 and somehow huffing and puffing me and my friends managed to pass our 10th board exam. So precarious was our situation that our parents were not concerned which division or ranking we would secure instead they were more worried about if in the first place we will manage to pass our boards or not. Before going ahead let me describe each of my friends, for ethical reasons I am changing all their names but trust me all of them are real.
First and foremost is Vijay, we shared the same birthday and even though logically our sun sign was the same but we were miles apart. He had a habit of exaggeration and I mean it, he can actually convince you that he had lunch the other day with the president of United States of America and for a moment you would actually believe in it.
Next was Dev, son of a banker and had the opportunity to travel half the length and breadth of India as his father kept getting transferred from one end to the other. His father was last posted in some remote island of Andaman and Nicobar and somehow I started associating all the people from there with his face. He was like my alter ego, more and less same likes and dislikes especially our love for Bond movies, always first day first show.
Shan was staying alone with his grandparents here in Kolkata as his father used to work in a coal mine in Dhanbad thus often on weekends he would vanish to meet them. He had a fascination that one day he would marry a beauty queen, he had a complete misunderstanding about his own looks and often would compare himself with movie stars.
Arijit was the quietest his father was a computer engineer and assembled PC’s in his house this was very much interesting to me thus used to visit his house quite often. Actually, I had vested interest in getting the combination for the best value PC that could be assembled.
The last one in our group was Rathin, the only non-Bengali in our group and even though he could not understand a single bit of Bengali he would keep hanging with us. For us, he was like a referee often break arguments with his neutral point of view.
Amongst all of us the lowest was scored by Vijay but he was the one who was most excited. Dragged us to Park Street Police Station to get our mark sheet attested and then standing in the queue at St. Xavier’s College to get admission even though our marks were way beyond the minimum threshold limit.
No amount of discussion could make Vijay understand in fact he was contemplating to choose Science or Commerce. He went to such an extent that he was actually guiding us on what subjects to choose, as I had told in the beginning he had a fantastic gift of the gab and could really convince you.
With all the running around we were all really tired and were about to depart when suddenly Vijay declared that on the gracious occasion of him passing the boards he would like to celebrate with all his best buddies with a grand lunch.
A free lunch then was always a good bait and we all agreed to join him in the feast. We were expecting Chola Bhatura or up most roadside noodles but instead he shocked us by informing us that the lunch will be at a restaurant in Park Street. I had never previously been inside any restaurant in Park Street then and with the opportunity I was in so was the others in the group.
We walked all the way in the summer sun to right in front of Park Hotel and it was then Vijay declared that the lunch would be at Floriana which was situated actually at Russel Street. Happily, we all walked in and was almost immediately welcome by the floor manager who guided us to a table.
After all the walk in the summer heat, the air-conditioning was much required so was the ambient music played live on a grand piano. All around I could hear only light whispers by couples talking amongst themselves and the soft sound of cutlery against the tableware. To our right there were some gentlemen in black suits clearly, some sort of business meeting were going on.
No sooner do we take our seat Vijay grabbed the menu declaring that he would order the food since it was his treat and he would first start with a welcome drink since we had walked quite a lot. By now the waiter was at the table and even before opening the menu Vijay asked the waiter to serve some cold “Mango Juice” as a refreshment after which he would order the food. The waiter left at once and then Vijay started going through the menu. All of a sudden the look on Vijay’s face changed, he seemed to be engrossed in the menu, the way he was studying the menu if he had actually studied the textbooks I am sure he would have scored much more.
By now the glass full of fresh mango juice had arrived and it was instantly devoured by all of us ready to move to the next on the menu. The waiter came back to take the order but this time, Vijay asked him to come back after some time as we were all talking something important.
We were all perplexed and kept on staring at Vijay’s face, we could definitely see the fear in his eyes. We all demanded out next course of the meal but then Vijay dropped a bomb “How much money you guys have with you”.
What do you mean by that demanded Shan, why are you asking us aren’t you supposed to pay? Vijay then informed us that the menu was extremely pricey and was way beyond what he could afford. Not surprised with his action as we were much used to his castles in the air we decided to drop lunch and go back home.
It was then that Vijay dropped another bomb “I don’t have enough money even to pay for the mango juice”. All of us jumped on him like a hungry hyena and demanded that he pay for the basic mango juice after all how expensive can a glass of mango juice can be. 80 Rs a glass that makes it 480 Rs for six glasses informed Vijay.
In 1997 that was a huge sum of money and at most I had 20 Rs in my pocket and more or less other had a similar amount. That meant we actually did not have money to pay at the restaurant.
Left with no option our hope was that any one of us would leave and get the money from their house which we would pay later. But this was a problem since none of us trusted each other, we were sure that if given a chance to leave the restaurant that person would surely vanish never to return.
It was like a standoff which we see in western movies, all of us wanted to dash towards the gate and run but no one had the courage as we were sure we would be caught. All this while one person never spoke, it was Rathin as most of our conversation were in Bengali and he could not understand any. “Arey bhai agey bhi kuch order karo, kub tak baithay rahengay?” (Hey dude order fast how long do we wait) uttered Rathin. Arijit was kind enough to translate the situation and that made him furious. “Saley paisay nahi hai jaib may to aya hi kyu?” (When you don’t have money in your pocket why did you come here?) grumbled Rathin.
The main problem was that no could trust each other in this situation, given the gravity of the situation anyone could go out on the pretext of arranging money and never come back. In the meantime, the waiter came back again to take the order and this time Vijay confidently replied that we are expecting some more guests to join in and will order once they come.
Every minute that passed by seemed like an hour we had to quickly find a solution to this mess. Breaking the ice Arijit informed us that his cousin brother comes for private tuition at Park Street and he might just me around. Amongst all of us Arijit was the quietest and he was somewhat trustworthy thus we had no option but to trust him. Arijit left the restaurant and vanished out of our sight.
We just kept praying that he would return soon, in the meantime one of us suggested the other options that could be a possibility. We had to either wash all the dishes or might be we would get arrested and put behind the bars at the same place from where an hour back we had got out documents attested. Someone also suggested that we can do a bit of drama by acting as if someone amongst us has a bout of fits and that would create an excuse for us to leave.
After around fifteen minutes of intense silence we saw Arijit coming back to the restaurant and quietly placing 300 Rs on the table given to him by his cousin. We all thanked him and promised him that we would all return the money personally and not to trust Vijay in returning as he might come up with another story from his stable.
Years passed but Vijay never changed he is still what he used to be. Dev also remained in touch and over the years became one of my best buddies, unfortunately, I have no news of Shan, Arijit, and Rathin I am sure they would never forget this incident for their whole life. I have been working on Park Street for more than a decade and every time I pass by Floriana I peep to look inside, the pianist is long dead, the waiters and servers have changed but the tables remain perhaps waiting one day for all of us to come back and finish our unfinished meal.