The name on his birth certificate was a mouthful. Dad jokingly used to say: ‘By the time he finishes saying it, he’s going to become a man, sprout whiskers, learn three European languages and still have time to fry an egg.’
Be that as it many, but when baby Barnabas Ulysses Raphael Pinto uttered his first word, the joke it seemed was on Dad.
It’s common knowledge that the first word uttered by a child is either mamma or dada. This is what little Barnabas said after Mom fed him one of his favourite grownup baby meals: a mash of peas and rice and lentils. He said: Burp.
Mom was busy patting his back to make him belch, so she thought: Did he say Burp or did he burp? Mom tossed the question around in her mind. Barnabas gave her an answer. He burped.
That evening, when Dad came home, Mom told him the story about Barnabas’s maybe first word. Dad laughed and called Mom a name that made her frown. He looked at Barnabas who was in Mom’s arms. ‘Say Dadda, say Dadda,’ he said. ‘No,’ said Mom, ‘say Mamma. Mamma.’
‘Burp,’ said Barnabas, clearly and distinctly. Dad’s eyes became as large as footballs. Mom’s mouth moved like a goldfish’s. They were flustered, flabbergasted and speechless.
‘Burp,’ said Barnabas once more completely disregarding the maxim: speak only if you can improve on the silence.
Once the parents had digested the fact that their son’s first word was ‘burp’, they eagerly awaited the next installment. They began to play a little game with their son. Mom would point at Dad and say: Dadda; point at herself and say: Mamma; then point at him and say: Barnabas. When Mom got tired of repeating it, Dad stepped in. But Dad in an effort to boost his son’s vocabulary randomly picked a name from Barnabas’s list. So sometimes Barnabas was told he also was Raphael or Ulysses.
It took some time to sink but finally Barnabas got it. One Sunday afternoon, without any prompting, he said, ‘Mamma.’ Mom screamed with delight. Dad came running into the room. Barnabas looked at him and said, ‘Dadda.’ Dad danced a little jig. ‘And who are you, li’l fellow?’ he asked Barnabas in a fuzzy-wuzzy voice. Barnabas put a hand on his chest and said, ‘Burp.’
Dad took the blow like a man. If his son chose to spurn his cornucopia of labels in favour of a generic yet unusual moniker, Dad figured there wasn’t much he could do. So he bit the bullet and addressed his son as Burp. Mom, in the manner of all doting mothers, couldn’t care less if he called himself Popatlal, Tutankhamen or Toby ‘Terrier’ Tottenham. He called her Mamma and that was manna enough for her ears.
And that’s how Barnabas Ulysses Raphael Pinto came to be called Burp.
When Burp turned three, his parents made a pleasant discovery. Their little tyke loved food as much as they did. Dad and Mom were always were talking about meals they ate, were eating and were going to eat.
‘I feel like pasta with a drop or two of vino,’ said Dad one evening.
‘We had Italian the other day. I’m more in the mood for Chinese; some divine dim sum at that restaurant in Fort, oh my God,’ said Mom; her tongue darting over her lips.
Seeing that he had a tussle on his hands, Dad decided to enlist the support of a third party.
‘What should we eat tonight, Burp?’ asked Dad.
Burp leaned back into the sofa, arranged his left hand over his stomach and tapped his chin with the index finger of his right hand. His eyes glazed over and he cocked his head to a side. Evidently he was treating the question with a whole lot of seriousness.
‘Tapa. I want eat tapa,’ he said.
Mom seconded Burp’s choice with alacrity.
In the taxi on the way to the Spanish restaurant in Colaba, Dad said, ‘Darling, have you realised we have placed our gastronomic destiny in the hands of a three year-old?’
Mom looked at Burp and raised her hand. Burp completed the high five.
‘It looks like we’re in good hands then, isn’t it?’ she said.
Dad scratched his stubble and said, ‘Serendipity.’
‘What?’ asked Mom.
‘I mean Burp. It’s a fitting name for a kid who knows exactly what he wants to eat, eh?’ said Dad.
It was around this time that Burp somewhat began to understand the meaning of his name. He had just finished his lunch: a big bowl of spaghetti and tomato sauce. Burp was alone in the hall when he heard someone call his name. He looked to the left and then to the right. No one.
He returned his attention to the picture book lying in front of him. Again he heard someone take his name. He got up and looked around. Not a soul was present. Then he noticed a movement near the hall entrance. He went to take a look and as he reached there he saw a little boy walking towards him. Burp stopped. The boy stopped. Burp jumped. The boy jumped. Burp raised his arms and waggled his bottom. The boy raised his arms and waggled his bottom. Burp patted his stomach and burped. The boy patted his stomach and said: Burp.
So it was this fellow who was calling him. He burped once more. The boy said Burp once more. Burp began to laugh. This was a funny game.
‘Burp,’ said another voice. Burp jumped. The boy jumped. Then Burp saw a woman appear behind the boy. She looked familiar. As she came nearer, he recognised her. It was Mamma.
‘Mamma,’ he said, walking towards her.
‘Mamma,’ said the boy, walking towards Burp.
‘Burp,’ said Mamma, bending and picking up the boy. Burp felt someone lifting him too. He turned around and saw it was Mamma. He looked in front and he saw the boy in Mamma’s arms.
‘What’s the matter Burp, haven’t you seen a mirror before?’ asked Mom.
Something fell into place in Burp’s mind. He pointed at Mom’s reflection and said, ‘Mamma.’
Mom kissed Burp and squeezed him. This made him burp.
Burp pointed at his reflection and said, ‘Burp.’
From that day onwards, Burp discovered how his name was on the lips of the world and its aunt.
While having Shanghai noodles at his favourite Chinese restaurant, he noticed a man at the next table slurping down the last of his soup. The man wiped his lips with a napkin, raised his shoulders and said: Burp. Chandu, the man who came to sweep and swab the house every morning said Burp all the time. Aunty Tina’s baby boy Brad said Burp after being fed. He noticed even Mamma said Burp but she always said it by placing a hand over her mouth.
And that’s when he noticed he said Burp every time after a meal. And he enjoyed saying it. And whenever he said it, Dadda always laughed and imitated him. And Mamma would get annoyed, scold Dadda, and tell him to stop behaving badly.
‘But honey,’ said Dad. ‘Burping is so much fun. Look at him. He laughs like a little maniac after he burps.’
‘Burping. What is that?’ asked Burp.
‘Burp, the funny noise that comes out of your stomach after you eat is called a burp.’ said Dad.
Burp thought he was the luckiest boy in the world. Just imagine. Having a name that felt so good to say and everyone gets amused when you say it.
He burped loudly and smiled.
Miss Almeida was not at all amused.
‘Barnabas, if you make that disgusting noise once more, I will make you stand in the corner with a finger over your lips.’
Burp began to cry. As it is he hated going to school. He had to wake up early every morning, brush his teeth, do potty, drink a large glass of milk; all quickly, quickly, quickly because he had to be in school and in the classroom before something call The Bell. And his class teacher was always shouting at him, telling him to draw this, sing that and write this and that. She never called him Burp because after she had looked at the label with the plastic cover pinned to his shirt pocket, she always called him Barnabas. And now she was going to punish him for burping. Altogether it was just too much.
‘I don’t want to go to school,’ he said. ‘Miss yells at me when I burp. You’ll don’t yell. Why does she yell?’
‘Burp,’ said Mom, ‘It’s all fine and funny to burp but now you’re a big boy. You’re four years old. You must learn that it’s bad manners to burp in front of people. Which is why the teacher shouted at you, you understand?’
‘But Dadda said that when you burp it shows you enjoyed the food. He told that, remember?’ asked Burp.
‘Barnabas, Dadda, was joking when he said that,’ said Mamma.
And that was that. Overnight Burp discovered he was actually Barnabas and burping was outlawed to the point that Mamma, and sometimes even Dadda, would scold him when he burped.
As time passed, the burping aloud stopped completely because Barnabas discovered that Good Manners fetched him chocolates and toys and treats and Bad Manners took away chocolates, toys and treats.
Barnabas became a Good Boy. He was well mannered and polite to one and all. He did not make too much of masti and got good grades. As a result, he was rewarded with books, toys, movies and video games. But the one reward he enjoyed most was being treated to meals in fancy restaurants. Italian, Goan, Chinese, Malvani, Arabic, Bengali, French, Mughlai, Thai cuisine… Barnabas loved them all with equal passion.
‘Boring. Why is the food so boring,’ said eight year-old Barnabas, picking at the food on his plate.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Mom. ‘I’ve made the ladyfingers, fried them crisp, just the way you like it.’
‘Hey, Barns, it’s fish curry. Pomfret; your favourite fish,’ said Dad.
‘Not any more. I don’t want to eat this same, old, boring food,’ he said.
‘Listen. Stop complaining. Just because we regularly take you to eat out that doesn’t mean you should start knocking ghar ka khana,’ said Dad. ‘You know I love food as much as you do, much more in fact, but trust me Barnabas, there’s nothing better in the world than homemade food,’
Huh!’ said Barnabas. ‘If I had a choice, I’d never eat ghar ka khana all my life.’ Glumly he pushed his plate away.
‘All right, mister. Let’s do this. I’ll get you a new dish every day. Lunch and dinner. Mark my words. I bet you anything within a week you’ll get bored. Then you’ll beg for home-cooked food,’ said Dad.
‘Really?’ asked Barnabas. ‘You mean really mean that? Cool.’
Barnabas tossed his school bag onto the sofa and raced to the dining table.
‘Hi mom, what’s for lunch?’
‘Take a look,’ said Mom. ‘It’s Italian.’
“Wow, you mean dad kept his promise. Cool.’
Barnabas had a Mushroom Risotto for lunch.
And for dinner, Spagehetti with Meatballs.
‘Dada, this is awesome. Thank you so much,’ said Barnabas.
Dad looked up, put a morsel of dal and rice into his mouth, and smiled.
Day Two was even better. Japanese food. Barnabas was crazy about many things Japanese. Karate, samurais, katanas, Pokemon, et cetera. Barnabas devoured the teppanyaki and sushi and sashimi and maki rolls but as usual left the miso soup alone.
‘Mamma, do you want the last piece? It’s tuna,’ said Barnabas.
‘I’m full,’ said Mom. ‘You have it.’
Dad looked up, put a morsel of potato subzi into his mouth, and smiled.
Days Three, Four, Five and Six were just as sensational: New day, new treats. Six days had elapsed and Barnabas was having the time of his life. Apart from Italian and Japanese, he had feasted on Thai, Moroccan, Polynesian and Swedish delicacies.
However, on Day Seven of the extraordinary culinary adventure, Barnabas woke up with a funny sensation in the pit of his stomach and drool all over his chin and on the pillow. He had been dreaming a very strange dream. He was at a swimming pool. He was bouncing on the springboard and had launched himself into the air and on the way down into the water, it wasn’t water any longer but curry and as he went under he could taste the curry and it was the one that Mamma made mostly on Sundays full of meat and potatoes and he loved sucking the marrow from the bones and the smell was the most wonderful smell in the world…
It was then that he woke up. His bedroom door was ajar and through the crack slipped into his room the wonderful aroma of mutton curry. Barnabas looked at the big clock over the door. It read: 9.30. ‘Hello,’ he thought, ‘shouldn’t I be in school? ‘course not. No school today. So it must be a Sunday because I can smell Mamma’s mutton curry.’
He leaped out of bed and ran into the hall. Dad was sprawled on the floor, lying atop huge cushions, reading the newspapers.
‘Good morning, Dadda,’ said Barnabas, jumping onto Dad’s back. Dad put aside the papers and looked at him.
‘’Morning, Barns,’ he said. ‘Wow! You are very cheerful this morning.’
‘Why not?’ said Barnabas, ‘I love Sundays. No school, no homework, no waking up early, no uniform, no fuss and khit-khit.’
‘And here some news that’s going to make Sunday fun day,’ said Dad, ‘you’re going to have Vietnamese food today.’
‘But I can see Mamma is mak…’ said Barnabas and stopped.
‘Yeah,’ said Dad, ‘what about Mamma?’
‘Nothing,’ said Barnabas, ‘I’m going to do potty.’
He left the hall and went back to his room. Barnabas was feeling very confused. On one hand, he loved Thai food. On the other hand, he really, really loved Mamma’s mutton curry. But Mamma’s food was ghar ka khana and he had told Dadda and Mamma he hated ghar ka khana, which he now realised wasn’t true. But if he admitted to wanting Mamma’s mutton curry and not the Thai food then he would look like a fool and he hated looking like a fool.
He thought a little more and smiled to himself. He had an idea! He had a plan!
At lunch, Barnabas put his plan into motion.
‘Boring, Dadda, this food is so boring,’ he said, picking at the food on his plate.
‘What!’ said Dad, ‘it’s green curry chicken. Are you calling your favouritest chicken in the whole wide world boring.’
‘Yes,’ said Barnabas.
‘Dadda, I think your son wants to eat something else,’ said Mamma, a big smile on her face.
Dad had a quizzical expression on his face. Mum discreetly pointed her chin at the mutton curry in the serving dish.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Dad. ‘You mean the mutton? I don’t think so, honey. Don’t you know Barnabas hates ghar ka khana. Right, Barns?’
Barnabas smiled. His plan was falling into place.
‘Mutton curry? No way. I’m just saying I’m bored of this pasta-shasta, noodle-foodle, thai-fhai. I want to eat something exciting, something new and exotic. Like fried crickets or Korean sea slugs or, I don’t know, things we see on that Anthony Bourdain’s program.’
The smile on Dad’s face disappeared into his stubble.
‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘Enough of this nonsense. Either you eat home food or starve. That’s final.’
‘Okay,’ said Barnabas. ‘If it makes you so angry then I’ll have some mutton curry then.’
‘Excuse me,’ said Dad, his smile reappearing faintly, ‘you have your boring Vietnamese food. And for dinner, wait, I’ll get you your, what did you call it? Ah, exciting, exotic food. Happy?’
Barnabas head nodded a yes but his face looked anything but happy.
Barnabas was stumped. The plan had failed. He was getting bored of eating fancy food and longed for ghar ka khana. His plan had hinged on the fact that it was impossible to get weird food in Bombay. He knew that since they once had discussed the possibility of eating fried crickets and Dad said for that they had to go to China since the only cricket in the city was in Shivaji Park; great to look at but not very edible.
He had thought Dad would laugh at his new demand, Mamma would too; then he could join in the merriment and admit to being all right with eating home food. They would laugh some more, ruffle his hair, give him a hug or two, and everything would be back to normal.
Instead Dad had got angry and was still angry after lunch was over. As he was going to his room, Barnabas heard Dad talking on his mobile phone. He was ordering something called haggis for dinner.
In their bedroom, Mom and Dad were chatting about the Sunday lunch.
‘Did you see the look on his face?’ asked Dad.
‘Honey, that was cruel. Funny but cruel,’ said Mom.
‘It was wonderful to see him learn a lesson in life. Imagine growing up and hating ghar ka khana?’ said Dad. ‘Making that mutton curry was a stroke of genius, honey.’
‘I knew it would do the trick,’ said Mom. ‘What did he say? “Okay. If it makes you so angry then I’ll have some mutton curry then,” the poor little fellow.’
‘But that boy is far too clever for his own good. I thought we had him over a barrel with the mutton curry. The – I want crickets and fickets idea. Man! He really came up with a smart way to get out of the hole he dug for himself. The boy has my brains, eh?’ said Dad.
‘Thankfully, my looks and your brains,’ said Mom.
Dad made a face at Mom.
‘So how are you going to handle it in the evening?’ asked Mom.
‘Wait and see. I have a plan,’ said Dad.
It was an hour before dinner.
‘Barnabas, come here,’ said Dad.
Barnabas looked away from the TV. ‘What?’ he asked.
‘It’s about your dinner. Don’t you want to know what you’re going to have?’ said Dad.
Barnabas came to the balcony and Dad took him on his lap.
‘I spoke to my friend Mario. Remember him, the chef at that Italian restaurant? Well, he said he can make three things for you. One: Haggis. Two: Criadillas. Three: Boudin. Don’t the names sound wonderfully exotic?’ said Dad.
‘What’s haggis?’ asked Barnabas.
‘Let me see. Haggis is a Scottish dish. Scotland, OK? It made from a sheep’s internal organs like the liver, intestines, kidney. It’s cooked with oatmeal in a casing, that’s like a bag, which usually is the sheep’s stomach. Exotic enough for you?’ asked Dad.
Barnabas swallowed and said, ‘Er, what are the other things.’
‘Criadillas are well, a bull’s thingybobs; whatnots. Things that hang below a, as you very succinctly put it, middle point. Anyway, Mario says it’s from Spain. It’s very tasty.’ said Dad.
And the third choice is my favourite. It’s a French delicacy. Boudin. It’s called black pudding in England. Want to guess what it is?’ asked Dad.
‘Something sweet?’ said Barnabas.
‘No. It’s fried pig’s blood. It looks like a cutlet. Simply yummy with fried eggs and sausages. So what’s it going to be?’ asked Dad. ‘Decide quickly because Mario will need some time to make it.’
Barnabas gulped and said in a brave little voice: ‘I’ll have the cria… the bull’s thingees.’
‘Done,’ said dad, dialling a number on his mobile phone.
Mum came to the dinner table bearing a dish. It contained the mutton curry. Wisps of steam curled into the air and Barnabas smelled it and his mouth started to water.
‘Honey, where’s Barnabas’s food. Call Mario and find out,’ said Mom.
‘Give me a moment,’ said Dad. He made a call on his phone. ‘Hello, Mario, it’s me. What? Another hour.’ He looked at Barnabas, and said into the phone: ‘All right. He can wait.’
‘I’m hungry, I can’t wait,’ said Mom.
‘Why don’t you start? I’ll eat with Barns,’ said Dad.
‘Oh my God. I’ll wait too,’ said Mom.
Barnabas did not say a word. He sat quietly at the table, eyes down.
‘You know what, Barnabas’ said Dad. ‘I’ll tell Mario to cancel the order. He can freeze it. You can have it for lunch tomorrow. Today you take a break and have the mutton curry. What do you say?’
Barnabas did not have much to say but the look on his face said everything Dad and Mom needed to know. Mum served Barnabas a large helping of mutton. Then she served Dad and herself.
Normally, during meals, the practice was to talk about various things. The food, Barnabas’s studies, movies they were going to watch together, et cetera. But this evening, no one uttered a peep. Dad and Mom quietly watched Barnabas who was busy walloping the mutton; not even looking up once from his plate. He finished every scrap of meat and the last dollop of curry before holding up his plate for a second helping.
Mom served him and they both silently waited till Barnabas wiped his plate clean with a piece of bread. He popped it into his mouth, chewed and swallowed it, and wiped his mouth with a napkin.
‘So… Barnabas. Did you enjoy the ghar ka khana?’ asked Dad, struggling to hide a smile.
Barnabas looked at Mum. It was like looking into a Dadda-kind-of-mirror because she too was smiling with her hand over her mouth.
The nickel dropped in Barnabas’s mind. He understood that his parents had tricked him into eating the mutton curry. A raft of elaborate thoughts tinged with varying emotions flooded his mind. Some were angry; some bitter; some poignant; some happy. Of all, one stood tall above the rest. It was the perfect response.
‘Burp,’ he said.
Dad was unable to conceal his smile and Mom flung her hands in the air, beckoning Barnabas over. Barnabas looked at his parents. They looked at each other.
As one, in tribute to their lovely little boy, they said: ‘Burp.’