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     Volume 4 Issue 46 | May 13, 2005 |

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In Retrospect

The Lunch That Never Ends
1973 and Counting

Azizul Jalil

It 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.

After 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.

The above 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.

At the 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.

The trouble 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 wiser.

Kundu 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.

By 1995, 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.

So what 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.

Azizul Jalil writes from Washington


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