As I opened my eyes to the bright rays of the morning Sun, an overwhelming feeling of tranquility and ecstasy filled my soul. Nidhi was applying kohl in her eyes after having a leisurely bath. Though we were married for ten years, I feel like falling in love with her all over again whenever I look into her abysmal eyes lined by Kajal. I haven't seen her so relaxed at this hour of the day for a long time. Usually on weekdays, she used to get drenched in sweat with unruly hairs covering her face right from the sunrise. She used to run all over the house like a panicked doe to get our children readied by the time their school bus arrived. The occasion that had brought so much serenity to my household was that of a 'Bharat Band'. As there was a nation wide strike, there was neither office nor school and the whole residential colony where we were staying was still in the grip of sleep.
"Get up Ajay, it's too late," Nidhi said as she bit her lips to hide her coy smile as she caught me secretly admiring her beauty."I am going to make breakfast. Better hurry up otherwise don't complain if the tea cools down."
I saw the milk bubble up on the gas stove as I closed the door of the bathroom behind me.
"Open the door, Ajay." Nidhi's agitated voice jolted me as she banged on the door of the closet.
"What happened?" I said as I jumped up and opened the door at once.
"The gas cylinder ...." Nidhi almost sobbed
"What Nidhi....?" My heart raced in anticipation.
"It's empty, Ajay. As there is a strike today we can't order for a refill. What am I going to feed the kids today?"
8 year old Adi kept munching on cornflakes with his 3 year old sibling Rinky in gloomy silence as their mother had promised them to make a few special delicacies to celebrate an unexpected holiday but could not keep her promise.
"What about the lunch, Ajay?" Nidhi said as she thoughtfully sipped the tea.
"Lets ask our neighbors for help. What if someone has got an extra cylinder?"
"Good idea!" Nidhi gulped down the tea in a single sip and jumped to her feet, "I will ask Naseema Auntie to help us out."
Naseema Auntie was a native of Hyderabad but had settled in the colony soon after her marriage. Her balcony faced ours and she used to chat for hours with Nidhi in the evenings.The elderly lady was like a mother to Nidhi and used to bail her out in situations of dire emergencies. A good half an hour passed before I realized that the ladies must have been carried away by the gossips floating in the society or were busy criticizing the climax of some soaps on the television. It must have made Nidhi forget about the urgency of the situation in hand.
"Dad, let me ask Kuljeet for help," Adi pleased me by volunteering like a dutiful son. The boy in question was his best friend and classmate as well as the son of our neighbor Kartar Singh.
I kept staring at the creeping needles of the clock for another half an hour but there were no signs of Adi. Eventually, I made out that the little imp has found a good excuse to play video games with his friend on pretext of helping.
"What shall we do now?" I muttered to myself.
"Let's go to Banerji Uncle's place." Rinky suggested.
"Are you sure he has got an extra cylinder?" I asked her as she was a regular visitor to the Banerji household. The elderly couple had two grown up sons who had settled abroad. They satisfied their life long wish of having a daughter by pampering little Rinky.
"That I don't know but he has got shooo many shondesh in his fridge,"
Her innocent words made me chuckle and I decided to comply to her wish.
The couple's eyes lit up as they saw Rinky but they blew out the little flame of hope that was burning in my eyes as they denied having an extra cylinder. I left my daughter with them and headed straight to my friend and colleague Samuel D'Souza. Though his refusal of possessing an extra cylinder dejected me but his invitation of having lunch with his family elevated me to cloud nine. The idea of having Goan delicacies for lunch had exhilarated me and I ran to my house. Nidhi was already waiting in the parlor with eyes brimming with joy.
"Problem solved!" She said as she threw her arms around my neck.
"But how do you know?" I was astonished.
"That Sam has invited us to his place for lunch."
"What?" It was Nidhi's turn to raise an alarm,"So did Naseema Auntie and I can't say no to her."
"So is the case with Sam."
"What shall we do now, Ajay?"
"Look we have two invitations for lunch," I said after brooding over the issue for a while,"lets ask one of them to make it for the dinner."
"Good idea," Nidhi flashed a sweet smile and said, "ask Sam to because as you know I can't say a word against Auntie's wish."
Like all other husbands I too had to surrender to my wife command. As I was about to open the door to go out, the door bell rang and Kartar Singh appeared accompanied by the boys with yet another invitation for lunch. We accepted it with an ear -to-ear grin as our voice was gagged by the affection so generously showered upon us. The cloud of dilemma that had veiled us began choking us now. The idea of having lunch with his best friend had made Adi jump with joy and there was no way we could make him understand our conundrum.
"What now?" I asked as my eyes met hers.
She threw her hands in the air and slid herself on the sofa.
"Where is Rinky?" She asked as she came to her senses after a while and noticed the absence of our daughter, "I have to get her bathed and dressed."
I went to fetch Rinky but had to return with one more invitation for lunch.
"Wow, the whole country has invited us." Nidhi said unable to decide whether to be happy or sad.
'Hey," I had a brain wave, "Instead of going to their places why don't we ask them to come to ours with the food."
Nidhi responded with a confused stare but finally had to give in.
The aroma of various dishes from different regions of the country filled our parlor. We all sat down on the mat encircling the dishes like a big joint family. The Banerjis were busy stuffing Rinkie with rice and fish curry though her little mouth was already bulging with food sauted in their love. Kartar Singh was mediating a competition between the boys.
"Buck up Adi," he warned, "Jeet is two paranthas down while you have only one to your credit."
Naseema Auntie was preaching the recipe of Hyderabadi biryani to the ladies. And Sam had made our furious Boss the target of his wisecracks. As the whole nation gathered in my parlor that day I was forced to think, 'Our country is blessed with such rich cultural diversity that no other nation in the world has. But instead of cherishing the blessing why do we fight over petty things like caste, creed or religion. Instead of staying united as natives of one country why do we prefer to stay divided among several states. I have often encountered a question during the business conferences.
"Where are you from?"
I will never forget the lunch on a Bharat Band that has changed my attitude forever. I made a firm decision to answer the above question as-
"I belong to a country called India," before going into further details of my native place.