It was time, as it was each September, for her annual dinner party. Each year since she moved into her palatial Tardeo apartment, Mrs Piloo Jal Taraporewala had thrown an annual dinner party to celebrate the memory of her dearly departed husband, Jal, or as she liked to call him ‘Ja-aloo’, the moniker derived from his love for potatoes. The party itself was quite the affair, for it was the last social event before the onslaught of the Bombay winters. It was one last occasion for the septuagenarians to flaunt their short summer dresses before the relatively longer ones were brought out from hibernation. Winter in Bombay was like the poet’s muse – it was notional, mythical, and mostly an excuse to romanticize the city’s weather. Which, out of pity, took a four-month break from its usual forecast of sweat.
The Party was the highlight of Piloo’s entire year. She lived for it. With the departure of her beloved Ja-aloo, her friends had moved too far away for her to visit. In her late years, time was like a toilet paper roll – there was always only so much left – and she wasn’t going to waste it stuck in traffic. Apartment officials had to be notified. Parking had to be arranged for 14 Tata Nanos, the only vehicle that a humble, respectable Parsi drives. What better way to show solidarity with the Tatas than to buy their least-selling car? Except for that Sooni with her fancy Chevy Beat. Ooh, who did she think she was kidding? Everyone knew it was second-hand. But the most important task of all: seating places had to be determined. The last thing she wanted was a fracas at her party. Especially with the New South Bombay Parsi Baug Herald covering it this year. It had taken her three whole months of pleading, one whole month of shy winking across the prayer aisle at Nari, their chief correspondent at the Agiary. It wasn’t easy, especially when Nari looked like a white omelette left out in the sun for too long. And then Nari had insisted on sitting next to Piloo at every Ghambhar function. It was as if a priority lane had been created for her on the grapevine and like a speeding ambulance, her purported indiscretions with Nari went from ear to ear. But in the end, Nari had relented, and the NSBPBH would, for the first time ever, feature a private party that wasn’t going to be graced by a visiting head of state. This was a major win.
Therefore, it was of crucial importance that her dinner companions were seated in a pattern that best contained their inner ape, which, if unleashed, could derail dinner with fatal consequences for the party. Any host worth her salt (and mutton dhansak) knew this. Two talkative people sitting next to each other will drag the rest of the table into the hellish depths of an argument that could bore the Devil himself. Two introverts, on the other hand, will work themselves up into a state of panic about how to break the ice and probably never show up again. And as all of the guests were going to be Parsis, there had to be a few more filters.
While her maids excavated the fancy cutlery from their bubble-wrapped coffins and cardboard tombs, she poured herself a stiff whisky three fingers tall.
The dinner table is the terra firma of any good social event. For the drifters who move from acquaintance to acquaintance, making small talk via multiple rounds of enforced socialization and waiting solely for the eating and drinking to commence, the dinner table becomes the shoreline they yearn for. For those embroiled in the machinations of the world, the dinner table is the battleground from which verbal assaults are to be launched, where logic becomes a Gatling gun used mercilessly to shred the opponent’s intellect. For those looking to exchange mere banter, the dinner table is of supreme importance. It is where the humble wordsmith sits and sharpens his rapier-like wit, as he scouts for those worthy to joust and spar with. It is at the dinner table that the host must, like a good blacksmith, toil at the anvil of conversation and ensure that each guest is bent, smote, and forged to become what the evening needs.
Like a good diplomat, Piloo began by identifying the indices that would determine her seating chart. Two fingers of whisky later, the rubric was ready:
1. The Nose Index:
While this could be confused with the length of a Parsi’s nose, that is not what is referred to here. The Nose Index is the angle at which a Parsi tilts their nose upward after learning that the person they are conversing with, their fellow Parsi, is not a resident of Bombay. The angle formed between the tip of the nose and the perpendicular line of the horizon is measured. The higher the angle, the higher the score.
2. The Lal Topi Index:
The Lal Topi index came from the red caps that all Parsis wore while praying. A few overzealous ones wore them all the time. The Lal Topi index was used to rate individuals on the ‘free will’ Frenys and ‘Parsis are the best’ Pesi scale. The last time two people with a large variation in this index sat together, dinner was delayed by two hours while the bar had to be stocked with extra cases of whisky. Needless to say, the teetotalers were left fuming, while the vegetarian teetotalers had already left in search of a Shiv Sagar.
3. The Vintage Index:
This rated an individual’s ability to hold conversation about wine vintages, wine vintages being a good measure of their overall knowledge regarding enlightened cultures. Individuals with contrasting scores tended to classify the host as a strait-laced upturned, up-nosed, Colaba snob or its opposite, whatever the term for that might be.
She poured herself another drink and threw a gander at her RSVP list. The Paapwallas (Adil and Kainaaz) had to be seated on the ends as they weren’t from Bombay, and to put them next to a Bombay “bon vivant” who wouldn’t shut up about the city would simply ruin the evening for both of them. They were a complete zero on the Nose Index but scored a full-bodied ten on the Vintage Index.
Rusi Kerawalla had to be seated in the middle; he was sixty, twice-divorced and an extremely high-functioning alcoholic. Piloo had a soft corner for Rusi; often, in one of his intoxicated torpors, he would quote the sweetest lines from Chaucer and Mill as they stood on the tiny little balcony of her penthouse. Rusi wooed her like a noblewoman from circa 1800. If only he could pull off a toga. On those evenings on the balcony, only Antilia, the hairy wart on the face of South Bombay, defiled their view of the night sky. Often Rusi would declare, “This is what happens when you give a non-Parsi too much money. They come and ruin our little fiefdom.”
Was it reprehensible to think so? Yes! Did she hesitate? Not one bit. He was quite the charmer, the witty squire ready to part with a quip just when the conversation was dying. Rusi, two large pegs down, could quote Shelley, and it was an unfortunate husband whose wife Rusi picked to be his muse. He had taken a semester of drama at Eton, and to this day, his parents maintained that those classes were the only useful thing he came back with. Rusi, three large pegs down, could recite Plato’s symposiums on beauty, in English and the original Greek. If your education wanted a bachelorette party, Rusi was the stripper you ordered. His Greek sounded an awful lot like Latin, but with these dead languages who could tell? All of these drunken recitals were, of course, employed in the service of wooing the women who caught his eye. Four large pegs down, Rusi could do a Bogart impersonation from Casablanca better than Bogart. To think there were seventy-year-old women lining up in Piloo’s coffee chairs, balancing their nightcaps, dying to be called, “Kid!” Five large pegs down, Rusi would break into The Red Poppy: Russian Sailors Dance – quite the feat! Six large pegs down, and Rusi had to be carried to his car and escorted home. Such was the draw Rusi Kerawalla had over the socialites of Bombay; to be at a party where he wasn’t was to not be at a party at all. Rusi scored a ten on both the Nose and the Vintage indices.
Roshan Mistry was a woman who could be slotted anywhere: she was politically neutral, discrete, had a taste for subdued conversation and often doubled up as the designated driver. Roshan was a lifesaver – the number of times Piloo had to implore her to drop a drunken guest home was uncountable at this point. She also complied with the occasional curse or two. But then, which Parsi doesn’t deploy a few choice expletives when cruising that nice Merlot high? Roshan was neutral to all three indices, and this made her invaluable. Piloo would slot her last.
The Dopewallas, Dinkoo and Delnaz, were two old sisters whose search for the impossibly perfect groom who could meet their father’s standards had rendered them spinsters for life. They had adopted a boy from a Parsi orphanage, but when the little squirm grew up and got a Hindu lady pregnant, he found himself duty-bound to be wedded to her. Dinkoo and Delnaz hadn’t seen him for two years after that. It is funny how, in most old families, while money, pedigree, culture and luxury were family legacies passed on from the old to the new, shame decidedly flowed upstream, from the new to the old. And while the two sisters themselves had made their peace with the eloping, it still remained an open wound, a scab to be picked at any public gathering, for the titillation of the general public. Traditionalist tongues had wagged more than once about the lack of a ‘manly’ figure in the upbringing of the son being the sole cause for such a heinous departure from the faith. At which point, both the sisters had refused to be dragged into the public eye, parties included. It took a lot of cajoling on Piloo’s part, and her word that they wouldn’t be subject to such inquiries, to ensure their attendance at her party. The Dopewallas were a zero on the Lal Topi Index and a complete ten on the Vintage Index.
Feroze Kavina PVSM, AVSM, SENA Medal was an army veteran and a decorated officer. He had a handlebar moustache, wore suspenders, and was of the strong idiotic type. The fact that he was a widower only heightened his eccentric appeal. Feroze was a man asynchronous to the current times. Stubbornly stuck in his youth, he refused to let the world move ahead. As a strict traditionalist, he divided his time between the fire temple and contesting for the elections at the Indian Army Veterans Association. Unfortunately, his obsolete ideas and overall terrible agenda likened his image to a blunt instrument. His presence at the party was a favor called in by a close friend of Piloo’s who was hoping merely to feast her eyes upon him and use every opportunity to endear herself to his presence. While she was aware of his regressive opinions, she promised Piloo that she would handle him and keep him too busy drinking to create an uproar. Feroze was an embarrassing ten on the Lal Topi Index and a ruddy zero on the Vintage Index.
The Masters, Roshni and Faram, were a couple of quiet, old, retired South Bombay artists, and living souvenirs of the Indian Hippie movement. They had met at a peace and rave rally somewhere on a nondescript beach in southern Goa. Hidden from the glaring nose of the Indian public they had fallen in love and were living together at a nudist colony in the French part of Pondicherry. They refused to act their age and certainly lived well beyond their means. Thankfully, Roshni’s father had been a prudent businessman and left her quite a fortune. Their art, of course, was worthless and was written off as a rather amateur attempt at being avant-garde. Faram still drove his vintage Indian motorcycle, and a painful hip surgery made it impossible for Roshni to sit pillion behind him, a fact that he unsurprisingly made the most of by ferrying younger women from one Parsi Baug to another. They scored a minus fifty on the Lal Topi Index and a pricey ten on the Nose Index.
The incessant chime of a cuckoo clock interrupted Piloo’s scheming. The maids having found her lost in thought had surreptitiously sneaked out of the kitchen and gone to bed. The food had gone cold and had to be reheated. The whisky decanter, as usual, seemed too far away. As she drank, she found movement to be overrated. She could ring for the maids, but then she would have to waste her next peg listening to them rant about how they were treated. To Piloo, it seemed as if each and every maid she hired moonlighted as a scriptwriter for a rather verbose, over-the-top daily soap that took perverse pleasure in not having its characters shut up. Abuse in rapid Marathi was a poor accompaniment to any aged brew. And this whisky was too good to be wasted. She cut out a liberal slice of cheddar from the wheel, grabbed the decanter, and like a bear hauling its spoils from the site of the hunt, made her way rather staggeringly back to her list. Who’s next?
Raika Sethna was the outcome of an education system that had nicely failed the plutocracy. It seemed ironic that institutions named after and set up by the wealthy families of erstwhile India following the ‘rather tragic’ departure of the British were to churn out students that felt so strongly about the inequity of wealth distribution. Their alma maters wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the rich few. Raika was one of those educated at both LSR and JNU and had spent almost her entire life in Delhi. A cold, involuntary shudder went through Piloo as she uttered the ‘D’ word. She had often chastised her mother for sending her to the place that the young people of Cusrow Baug fondly referred to as ‘Mordor’, whatever that meant. Raika had proudly declared herself a professional activist – “like there was such a thing,” thought Piloo. She had petitioned the Bombay Parsi Punchayet for equal rights for women, and dragged and complained about the antiquated views of the community on local television. She had demanded the acknowledgement of same-sex marriages among Parsis – “like we needed more reasons not to have kids,” thought Piloo. Her mother had pleaded with Piloo for her to be at the party, hoping it might be her one chance to be rehabilitated within the higher strata of the community by exposing her to the ways of the wealthy. Pilloo presumed that Raika, without a doubt, would thwart all plans of forced assimilation by scandalizing everyone present and inducing enough guilt to ruin the night’s fun. She would have to be seated at one of the extreme corners away from everyone important; her scoring on all three indices was defiant minus ten.
Then there were Jehangir and Najoo Tosh, a rather subdued couple who rarely ventured outside Colaba and lived a life of quietly ornate luxury. Jehangir described himself as a minimalist, yet his collection of fine art remained unrivalled. Najoo was a retired CFO who freelanced as a consultant, often flying out for conferences to islands whose names were unknown even to the Indian wealthy. Jehangir was a self-appointed connoisseur of everything “non-vulgar”, an admirer of beauty as defined by the bard, and addicted to pontification and the defense of the modern Indian millionaire. They were a smooth ten on the Vintage Index. Zeus and Homi Adajania were an openly homosexual couple, both in their mid-thirties. Both of them worked in creative industries and were new to Bombay and to Piloo, but came highly recommended by Homi, her cousin in Bangalore, as robust party material.
And finally, there was Sooni Sam Faramroze Ankesaria who insisted you used her full name. A competing socialite, a definite ten on both the Nose and Vintage indices, she was also a seasoned snoop. Sooni spent most of her days putting her large Parsi nose in places it didn’t belong. She could learn a lesson or two from Manekshaw about keeping that big nose where it belonged. She was a liberal when it was fashionable to be so, and a staunch Bombay-ite complaining about immigrants ruining the city while her audience clapped in delight. And yet she couldn’t not be invited, for the guests expected to see familiar faces because it was they who calibrated the mood of the evening, guided precarious conversations and resuscitated dying ones. While Sooni’s face was as welcoming a sight as, say, that of a Rhino guarding a watering pool on a hot Kalahari day, she was nevertheless a requirement.
According to Piloo’s cheat sheet, the Paapwallas couldn’t sit next to the Kerwallas, the Masters, Sooni or Kavina. Rusi could not be seated next to Kavina or Sethna or the Paapwallas, at which point she knew her brain was dissolving. The whisky, like Hannibal crossing the Alps, had crossed her blood-brain barrier and her neurons were frazzled. In a state of nervous despair, she crawled into her bed, and for the first time in a few months, missed the warmth of her Ja-aloo.
The next few days were spent making frantic phone calls to all her young relatives, and anyone with a degree in statistics or management consulting was sought to solve her problem. There was a monetary reward offered, and within a span of four days, her problem was analyzed, computed and solved by a celebrated cousin who was pursuing his doctoral thesis at MIT. His payment had been two bottles of Hennessy Cognac, thanks to the rapper Nas – “Why do rappers’ names sound like the word for a nasal wash,” thought Piloo – it was quite the rage within college dorms. Two bottles of Hennessy were all the street cred he needed.
The day of the party arrived amidst fervent dreams about its glorious success and large photo spreads in magazines, little speech bubbles calling it the highlight of the Parsi social calendar, so on and so forth. Very little of the post-party success was left to the imagination. The table was set, the ice was taken stock of, the bar was ready, the playlist for the evening had been arranged, and after a small online survey, it was, probabilistically speaking, “guaranteed to be a success”. All that remained for her to do was to put the little name-holders according to the algorithmically arrived at seating arrangement. She had just begun when her phone rang.
Nari’s car had broken down and since he was to fetch the photographer as well, Piloo would have to manage both. She dumped her precious list with her head maid with strict instructions to follow it “to the letter”. While her driver was dispatched to fetch the photographer, she herself would take the other car to get Nari. Cursing under her breath, she revved the engine of the barely used Honda Civic. Invocations were made to the devil to give Nari piles so that he would not be able to sit, tradeoffs and bribes were offered to the only Parsi God there is to break his legs, her bargaining cut short by the engine of the motor coming to life. It was 6 p.m. If she drove absolutely furiously, she could be back just in time for her party which was to begin at 9:30, hopefully accompanied by a penitent Nari who would make up for this inconvenience by dedicating a lot more column space to her.
Nari was called ten minutes before she reached, he was kept waiting for three as she pulled up to his house. The car was dropped into gear before he could shut his door. The passenger-side seat belt clicked into place, not out of fear for the law, but the dogged expression Piloo wore. She would get back to her party in time. Nari knew better than to make small talk on the way. A rather abashed Nari was pushed into the elevator, and as the wheels turned, she could hear the distant chatter of people – the party had begun. The only silver lining: she got to make an entrance at her own party.
She glanced at Nari. While he wasn’t really the best partner she could have, on such short notice he would have to do. She straightened his cravat and brushed a few stray flecks from his velvet smoking jacket. Poor Nari, he mistook these as gestures of fondness.
As the doors to her penthouse opened, instead of the comforting hum of restrained chatter, she heard, instead, the sounds of someone roaring, “Aye ghelsappa, taari kasti kaapi nakhas,” over Ja-aloo’s beloved Beethoven’s Pathetique.
Her maids were hurrying to clear the table of cutlery and china, fearing their possible use as weapons of drunken destruction.
(Note: The following scene has been described by the author using personality traits to signal characters rather than their names. This has been done to save the reader from the trouble it would take to scroll up and re-read the character descriptions.)
The war veteran with suspenders looked as if he would strangle the professional activist: it seemed as if only her gender halted the conversation’s devolution into a fistfight. The homosexual couple was busy making out, but noisily so, just to scandalize the non-Bombay couple. The art collector and his wife were crouched behind the bar, holding on to each other for dear life. The nudist hippies were tumbling around in a drunken stupor dragging the two spinster sisters with them, reminiscing about their younger swinging days and trying to initiate what could only be described as group incest. Rusi, the life of the party, was everywhere at once; he had a wager going on with the gay couple as to when the non-Bombay couple would break into tears; he had an arm around the art collector’s wife chatting with her about the Monet he had once owned, and another arm around Mistry the designated driver who was being regaled about the rambunctiousness of the seventies. And in the midst of it, all was Sooni, recording the whole thing on her smartphone, posting live updates and taking questions.
Nari’s jaw dropped in shock, but before he could recover, his photographer arrived, and with a telling smirk thrown in Piloo’s general direction, he went straight to work. “Now this is a party,” he thought. This little shindig had done more to revive his professional spirit than a hundred previous gatherings he had been forced to cover on behalf of the NSBPBH.
But how could this have happened? The MIT cousin had assured her that the seating plan was foolproof. How had the people who were not supposed to be next to each other ended up exactly with the ones they were to avoid? She could only imagine the kind of coverage she would get in the NSBPBH: the educated mind does enjoy a challenge, and when it comes to tormenting itself, it never holds back.
Three versions of “You won’t believe what happened at socialite Piloo’s annual dinner party” later, she was being revived by her maid. She asked her to pass her trusty whisky decanter, and two liberal swigs later, Piloo knew exactly how it had all gone wrong.
She turned to the maid and in her best Marathi possible she said, “Tumhala Inglisa mahita nasela?” (You don’t know English, do you?) The maid turned a deep shade of red and smiled like a child caught with its hand in the candy jar.
Piloo sighed and took another swig. At least the whisky was good. What more could she ask for!
About the author:
Percy Bharucha has previously been published in eFiction and eFiction India, Eastlit, Reading Hour, Gratis, The Madras Mag, and The Haven. He also tweets infrequently at @Sab_Bakwaas_Hai.
Feature image by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash