That single syllable was the first to leave Sreeraj’s lips, and its subject was to dominate his entire adolescent life. A neat summary of his existence up until the present day could be summed up neatly in the phrase “Unrequited Love.”
But his yearning was not romantically inclined. His yearning harkened back to one of the oldest instincts that we, as slightly neurotic animals, are bound to fall prey to. The need for paternal affection.
His father, a business tycoon, self-made, brimful of pride and vitality, overwhelmingly defined to Sreeraj what a man could be and must be. Sreeraj’s earliest memories consisted of feelings of inadequacy and vulgarity in the face of his father’s relentless façade of stoic reserve and apparent inability to budge.
He may well have loved Sreeraj in his own way, but he would not afford to let it be shown. And Sreeraj, being of a member of a slightly lower strata of grey matter, could never fathom this. For him, it was always a case of trying to impress a man who had achieved everything he had set out to achieve. It was proving to be no easy task, and his attempts had descended from their initial optimistic form of setting out to impress him, into the vulgar attempts at getting his father’s attention. With the help of the perennial motto of the rebel adolescent, “Any attention is better than no attention”, he began to walk down the path less traveled. He began exploring the unexplored, the dark underworld that is only a few scratches under this flimsy exterior normalcy that our society attempts to exude.
And yet, his efforts to get his father’s attention never ceased as is shown in the conversation, shut down before it got going, recorded below:
Sreeraj: “Pa, where is our family originally from?”
Pa: “Many places.”
Sreeraj: “Pa, who do you think is better, Dante or Shakespeare?”
Sreeraj: “I just found a whole new world of the most fantastic movies. They’re completely experimental and totally underground.”
Pa: “I worked my entire life to keep our family’s head above ground. Don’t pull us under.”
This conversational reticence on the part of his father convinced Sreeraj that he was not wanted, and perhaps justifiably so. But, and some credit must go to the lad in this regard, he never gave up.
He craved the smallest reward. Just a word of encouragement, of support, of love. Every time he took up a task, no matter how arduous and fraught with obstacles, his father would look on with an air of expectancy, and yet it would show no emotion. None, that is, until Sreeraj failed. Then the expression of disappointment would be etched on his father’s face with a clarity that none could misread.
As he turned 18, he tried his hand at being an adult, and found that too, beyond him. On every occasion that life demanded that he show his strength, Sreeraj succumbed. At first to Tuberculosis, and later to Hypochondriasis. As a result, his many initial attempts to kickstart his career fell flat. Of one thing Sreeraj was certain. He would never impress his father by following in his footsteps. He did not have the same persona and air of domination, and so he would necessarily fall short by every scale of measurement. His only hope was to go in the opposite direction, and manage to achieve something his father never would. And so his father’s many offers to set his son up with a comfortable position in his own burgeoning company fell on deaf ears.
Now, at the age of 24, by which time his father had already begun to have serious doubts about his son’s capabilities to cope with life, Sreeraj hit upon a masterplan.
“Ma, I want to learn how to make pizzas.”
His mother, long accustomed to Sreeraj’s many queer whims, took this one in stride.
“Very well, boy.”
And so he was off. Immersing himself in a world of flour, cheese, meat and the art of aromatizing his creations, Sreeraj found himself, for the first time in his life, at home. The craft seemed innate and natural to him, his mind thought out fanciful innovations, some of them positively scandalous, but in praxis they always flourished. After three years of strenuous graft and endeavor, Sreeraj graduated top of the academy with his self-esteem soaring. The path before him was now clear.
His father, however, had no inkling of his son’s activities. Sreeraj had begged his mother to keep this fact away from his father. By the time he graduated, his father had mentally resigned himself to the fact that his son would never amount to anything.
Sreeraj, graduating as he did with flying colors, received many offers from reputed restaurants across the country, offering him positions most would kill for. However, they did not fit in with his plan. He applied to his mother again, this time with a bolder request.
“Ma, I need funding.”
“Quite a bit. I want to open my own pizzeria.”
His mother, straightened up with visible alarm. This sort of ambition was not characteristic of her son. She eyed him nervously.
His mother sighed.
“Very well, boy.”
And thus it was, Sreeraj Pizza Bar came into existence. A quaint little café with plush seating, a quiet ambience, and an unassuming countenance overall. People passing by were impressed by its understated assurance of quality, and those acquainted with the elites of the food industry were curious to see what the latest prodigy from the famed academy could conjure up in his first ever restaurant.
The opening was set for the 18th of September, the anniversary of the only day his father had smiled at him. Sreeraj had arranged for his mother to bring his father along. The best table in the house was reserved for them. The rest were already full. His reputation had ensured that, barring some catastrophe, his opening would be a success.
As all the customers patiently waited for service to begin, something Sreeraj refused to consider beginning before his father arrived, Sreeraj set about rehearsing what he would say to his father.
He was convinced that today, of all days, he would show his father enough of his capabilities that he would elicit from his reluctant lips those words of support that he had waited 27 years for.
He saw his father’s car pull into the parking space that Sreeraj ensured would be left free. He signaled to his head waiter and the entire work force sprang into action.
He noted, with a chuckle, his father’s bemused expression at the name of the pizzeria. He still did not suspect it was his own son who created this place. Walking in, he was greeted by the head waiter graciously, and seated at the table.
His wife perused the menu for a while and then handed it to him, he refused. A voice spoke behind him.
“Would you prefer a white flour base for your pizza, sir, or a whole wheat base?”
Recognizing the voice, he turned to see his son, smartly dressed, holding out the menu towards him. His bewilderment prevented him from speaking.
“Yes, father. I own this place. This is my restaurant. I want you to be the recipient of the first dish that this kitchen creates. It would be my honor. And so I ask you again, father. Would you prefer a white flour base for your pizza, sir, or a whole wheat base?”
On finding his father to be just as bewildered as before, Sreeraj began to panic. What if his father did not approve? What if his years of toil and excellence would be reduced to naught by a single dismissive gesture by his father’s hand? What then?
His mother, being of the perceptive gender, realized what was puzzling his father.
“He is asking whether you want your pizza with maida or atta,” she asked, in the local language.
Tears welled into Sreeraj’s father’s eyes as he looked back at his son and said, voice cracking with emotion, “Atta, boy.”