Lunch That Never Ends
1973 and Counting
really started without a conscious decision or plan. Dr.Ved
Gandhi and I, both in the East Africa Region of the World
Bank had gone on a mission to Somalia in mid-1973. That is
when I got to know Gandhi. Originally from Multan in Pakistan,
he moved to Delhi after the partition of India in 1947. Gandhi
was a fiscal economist and I from Bangladesh, with a civil
service background, worked on the programmes side. We had
many common interests.
returning from Somalia, we would have lunch almost every day.
Dr. Arobinda Kundu, a World Bank statistician from West Bengal
(originally from Munshiganj, Bangladesh) would join us as
well. I knew him from my London days, where in 1956 we shared
a house in Belsize Park. He brought along a friend of his,
S. Rangachar (from Karnataka), an economist at the Bank. Except
for some official lunches or missions abroad, meeting together
at lunch had become more of a rule. We would go to the IMF/World
Bank cafeterias, the nearby George Washington University Student's
Union/Clubs, or pizzerias. On Fridays, we would treat ourselves
in restaurants, often with music and singing. In the harsh
winter, we would sit after lunch in a corner of a lounge and
smoke our cigars and pipes. On better days like in the spring
and fall we would go out on long walks, look at the flowering
cherries and other trees, and relax to concentrate on the
day's work ahead.
arrangement did make us unsocial in the sense that we would
not meet new people and this might have a negative impact
on ones career. However, we always had the good company of
friends every day at lunchtime. Sometimes, officials from
Banks would call for lunch dates, but would often get frustrated
because people already have other plans. Such was not our
fate. In the Bank, you always planned your work schedule within
the overall goal. There was little day to day accounting of
progress. We took a little liberty during the extended lunch
hour but made up for it with increased efficiency and productivity
at other times.
lunch club, our jokes and discussions never got stale, due
to repetition. One can think how the lunches lasted for so
long, with one member being a vegetarian and the others non-vegetarians.
The Punjabi, South India and the Bangali cultures and attitudes,
not to speak of the languages spoken, could not be more different.
Yet, there was unity in diversity. It allowed us to harmonise
the different traits and mannerisms into a strange chemistry
that had worked well for about thirty-two years and it still
does. Kundu was a synthesiser and unifier. He would speak
the least, observe the most and as necessary, interject in
a timely manner with words of wisdom. He was precise and objective
as befits a student from the Presidency College, Calcutta
and London School of Economics. Rangachar was a man of few
words with a good sense of humour and a slow suppressed laugh.
He would never burst out in loud laughter as I would. South
Indians are mild mannered and soft- spoken people, and rarely
push an argument amongst friends to its limit. Stable and
sound, these two would occupy half the space.
was with the other half- Gandhi and me, both somewhat mercurial
and argumentative about all matters, big or small. Gandhi
was a Ph.D. holder from Harvard. His statements earned from
us the title of 'Harvard analysis' and held some prestige.
Whether we were discussing world problems (frightening), the
Indian/Bangladesh economies and politics (divisive), immigration
matters (vital) or Bank management styles (maddening), he
would break the issue into pieces, analyse ad infinitum and
end with a masterly conclusion. Gandhi had a special sense
of humour and could think of the most absurd scenarios, yet
there was a method in his madness. I happened to be emotional
and rather frank. This would get me into unnecessary trouble
and sometimes hurt people. In the end, whether it was an earth-shaking
problem or a practical issue of real estate investments, taking
care of children's education, attempting to get green cards
or repair of appliances, we all came out of the debates better
and I retired early in 1988. Gandhi and Rangachar, younger
to us, hung on for some more years. At one point, I had jokingly
told Gandhi that he would only leave the IMF job -- as he
had later moved across the street to the IMF -- on stretchers.
That did not happen and our friend, on his last day at the
IMF, was able to walk out on his own.
we four had all retired and did no longer have to go to the
Bank or the Fund in Washington DC and specially missed the
lunch at noontime. We all did some consulting work. Gandhi
and Rangachar continue to do so even now, on and off. Our
lifestyles and travels have also changed. Kundu bought a house
with a vineyard near the Adriatic Sea in Italy, where he spent
his summer. Rangachar divided his time equally between Bangalore
and Potomac, Maryland. Gandhi spent some time in India. I
travelled to Dallas and Atlanta visiting my grandchildren
and on sightseeing tours to Alaska, Caribbean, Scottish/English
Lake Districts, Mexico, Canada and India. Visits to Bangladesh
became an annual two-month ritual in the winter.
happened to the Lunch Club, did it retire also? Of course
not, but the frequency and composition changed. The aged members
decided to meet irregularly, say once every two months or
so. Their better halves, Sandra, Saroj, Bhagya and Lily, became
ardent members of the group, providing vitality and grace
to the discussions. They are as diverse in origin and characteristics
as their spouses. The men now measured their words and watched
their manners, lest they appeared mean and unmannerly to their
wives. The lunch venue also moved closer home to the Maryland
and Virginia restaurants where parking is not a problem. Thus,
the luncheons never really ended. In three years, we expect
to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the lunch club
and we hope to do so in a fitting manner.
Jalil writes from Washington
(R) thedailystar.net 2005