Father was a friendly person and had the habit of inviting virtual strangers over for dinner. Sometimes he went a step further and would invite the person to stay with us for a few days. That is how Uncle Majid, as we were instructed to call him, entered our life.
Uncle Majid was a tall, dark-haired man, with a rugged face and a strong build. He was remarkably polite, almost formal, even with the children, and mother audibly wondered why we could not be as courteous as him. He was an Iraqi scholar, whose research project kept him busy at the local university during the day, but in the evening he would go for long walks to explore the streets of Kolkata. Invariably he would encounter interesting people, from shopkeepers to rickshaw pullers to sidewalk vendors, and over dinner he would tell us their stories and put us to shame that a stranger had found in our backyard fascinating people we never knew existed.
One evening he mentioned that the following Sunday was his son’s birthday and he would like to cook a special celebratory meal for our family. We enthusiastically agreed. Mother and a maid cleaned the kitchen scrupulously on Saturday and Uncle Majid returned from the market with several bags of provisions.
We began with Mezza, a tapas-like collection of various small dishes: Fattoush, a vegetable salad with fried pita pieces, Maqli, fried eggplant with tahini and lettuce and Turshi, a potpourri of pickled vegetables.
Then came an astounding array of entrées. There was Maqluba, a rice and aubergine casserole, Fesenjan, a chicken stew with walnuts and pomegranates, Bamia, of lamb and okra, and in a tribute to my parents’ partiality for seafood, Masgouf, a Mesopotamian dish of fish cooked in tamarind and olive oil.
These were presented with plates of Pilaf and side dish of Muhammara, hot pepper dip, and Tzatziki, strained yogurt with cucumbers, parsley and dill.
Unquestionably this was not just a memorable dinner, but also the greatest feast we have had. Mother thanked Uncle Majid profusely, and we each told him, as he wanted, our favorite choice out of this amazing menu of delicacies. Then came the biggest surprise of all.
Father turned to Uncle Majid, expressed his gratitude for the wonderful experience, and asked how old would be his son this birthday.
“My son, Aftab,” said Uncle Majid, “died of a pulmonary infection when he was six.”