I am so chilled out that one time I forgot to serve the khana and then at some point in the night, found my guests foraging in the kitchen and peering into degchis," says author and journalist Namita Devidayal. “But I’ve become supremely organized and sensitive since."
It appears that I have taken an opposite course from Devidayal in achieving equilibrium, prompted largely by a debilitating back injury while emptying 4kg of ice into my freezer after a manic 24 hours spent in party prep last year. Other recent events that led to a forced recalibration of my attitudes include the time I sulked for days after someone stubbed their cigarette in my Fragonard soap dish. My lowest point was when I “banned" Instagram at a party because I declared it divided the photo-forward close friends from other guests. The Instagramming friends didn’t take to it kindly. In the end I couldn’t beat them, so now I am an enthusiastic Instagrammer myself. And, I think, a more relaxed host. My current strategy is the Tom Sawyer method. I outsourced almost everything to friends at a recent party, and other than the minor pangs of guilt, I had a great time. It helps that the friend who made keema kaleji in my kitchen last weekend is presently in the MasterChef India boot camp.
What kind of party host are you? Do you throw in the money for a big Gatsby-like blaze? Or do you spend the entire evening channelling your Type A perfection to circulating a “flying buffet"? Unless you’re the laid-back beer and chips type, hosting a good party does take work. In her ingenious new book, chef Shilarna Vazé devotes a significant chunk to prep lists and night-before checklists. What I loved most about the book is that despite being a chef herself—and earning her livelihood catering parties—Vazé enthusiastically supports the idea of a potluck. She even factors in the “Oh! I forgot about the Spanish paprika prawns I had promised, but look I bought a bottle of cheap port wine instead" kind of people. Realizing that this is a legitimate personality type is making me feel kinder towards my beloved, flaky friends.
Film-maker Fahad Samar tells me his idea of a perfect evening is hosting exactly the number of people who can fit around his dining table. He doesn’t favour hiring a bartender because he believes part of being a good host is the attention bestowed on each guest. “The fulcrum of our parties is always a meal prepared by Simone," he says. As inveterate party hosts for 20 years, Samar and actor Simone Singh also point to climate control as an important element of hosting (they are a rare couple with a terrace apartment in Mumbai). “We used to throw bigger parties of 40 and 50 but as you grow older, you are more inclined to socialize in smaller groups," says Samar.
Hiring help for the day—chefs, waiters, bartenders—is a divisive issue. Samar isn’t keen on it. Vazé’s general rule of thumb is to call in professional help if you have more than 25 people. Devidayal rarely outsources the cooking (always desi, she doesn’t do fondue, she tells me over the phone) but she does advise getting a waiter for upwards of 12 people. Shunali Khullar Shroff, author of the recently-released book Love In The Time Of Affluenza, a social satire about Mumbai’s super-wealthy, also puts the number at 12. “I’ll get a waiter primarily so I can be more available for my guests," she says.
Shroff, who comes from an army background, has some disdain for the Hey Babe parties—the loud, crowded ones where all you can manage to do is say Hey to a bunch of people and the conversation doesn’t go beyond “You’ve lost weight" (winter) and “Where are you holidaying?" (summer). “It’s like being in a carousel in your own house," she says.
“Army folks are ‘taught’ how to entertain," she says. Apart from the obvious elements of food and drink, for her the focus has always been on engineering good conversation. “Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I’ve seen my mother ‘collect’ people. We would have a writer, a retired bureaucrat, a defence specialist, an Odissi dancer…the exchanges people have is really what keeps a party going," she says.
In India, food often signals the end of a party. There’s a tendency to serve food really late. Vazé writes about her Swiss husband’s confusion on this. “Why can’t everyone eat early, and then start drinking, like we do in Switzerland," he asks. She has a point here: Why would you have gourmet food catered (or spend hours slaving in the kitchen) only to serve it when everybody’s senses are dulled. Shroff thinks this late food routine is discourteous. She makes it a point to inform caterers to have some food ready early for her children and for hungry guests who might want to eat in a side room.
Not everyone needs to put in the work, though. You can be a laissez-faire host if you have on offer something truly original. Devidayal tells me that she grows her own betel leaf. She has two varieties growing in her balcony. This idea is so exotic to me that I have invited myself over.