4 min read.Updated: 17 Dec 2020, 09:14 PM ISTRahul Jacob
Delhi hospitality is large-hearted and welcoming of the guests of guests, but it’s another matter when a surprise turns up in the shape of a Hollywood star whose blockbusters one hasn’t seen
Few invitations to a Christmas party could have been as intriguing as the one I received five years ago. I was invited to the home of then finance minister Arun Jaitley. The spokesman said as he hung up, “There will be bishops. We look forward to seeing you." At the appointed hour—3pm on 30 December—a colleague and I duly arrived at the finance minister’s official residence. Jingle Bells was blaring loud enough to scare the birds out of Lutyens’ Delhi. Alighting from a car just ahead was a bishop. He would later cut a Christmas cake with Jaitley, whose birthday had been a couple of days earlier. As we listened to a trio sing carols, a senior diplomat sidled up to point out the Vatican representative.
Delhi’s peculiar mix of politics and business, new money and old, make for some of the best parties anywhere. Punjabi hospitality is unusually warm and informal: I have gate-crashed more parties as someone’s +1 than I can count. So I was not entirely surprised in December 2015 when a friend asked if he could bring a friend visiting from England—who might bring her travel companion—to dinner that evening.
I was fixing labneh in the kitchen when the first guests arrived at 9pm. An hour and a half later, the front door flung open. The artist Bharti Kher, who could double as an actress, burst in with a diatribe about the traffic from Gurgaon. Standing behind her was my friend Vikram, his gorgeous guest Ruth, and a +1: the Hollywood star Orlando Bloom. I was suddenly worrying about how I was going to seat nine people at a small round table for six. The most pressing problem was that I had missed seeing Bloom as Legolas in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and also in the popular Pirates of the Caribbean movies—and so, it turned out, had most of the party. I needn’t have worried, however.
Bloom had been deported from Delhi airport a few days earlier because his electronic visa had inexplicably not come through when he landed. By the time he arrived in London, the late Sushma Swaraj, then foreign minister, had organised an instant visa. Bloom, a Unicef goodwill ambassador for his work in refugee camps, made light of the ordeal when he wandered into the kitchen while I was heating up dinner to help himself to some ice to dilute his gin-and-tonic. We chatted about using Pilates to recover from spinal injuries.
Dinner turned out to be the opposite of the initial embarrassment in Notting Hill when Julia Roberts, playing a movie star, arrives unexpectedly at a similarly modest dinner. Bloom pronounced the Tamil chicken curry a hit. The mutton fry from Andhra Bhawan’s canteen didn’t set any guests on fire. Bloom cut the dessert and passed it around. A good time was had by all—well, almost. A WhatsApp from Kher the next morning read, “Thanks for dinner, you star@^&!"
Casual dinners and impromptu lunches in the Kolkata of my childhood were mostly the norm. My elder brother remembers a family friend shouting across the room enquiring if my brother, then in college, was old enough to be served alcohol. “He’s old enough to decide for himself," was my father’s reply.
Still, come December and I am not certain that Tolstoy was right when he wrote that all happy families are alike. And, not just in 2020, when it seems wrong to celebrate a festival in a year bookended by protests labelled “anti-national" and a once-in-a-century recession. For many of us, Christmas and Diwali are entwined with memories of loved ones who are no longer around. To compound a loss that needed no compounding, my mother died three days before Christmas a decade and a half ago. Last week, two friends in their thirties lost their father, one of the cleverest doctors I knew blessed with the courtesy of another age.
I thus approach the holiday season the way a nervous flyer would a long-haul flight. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio makes me miss my father, who sang it in a church choir in Kolkata, while the alto arias remind me of my tiny mother, who improbably sang in that deeper, low range. A copper-coloured mould for fish mousse incongruously adorns my Bengaluru balcony, an artefact of dinners my mother hosted after a day at work. I inherited the faintly Art Deco family dining table, but find it hard to entertain around Christmas. My mother, who once warned me not “to grow up to be the most irritating kind of Indian male chauvinist: the kind who puts his mother on a pedestal and looks down on other women", would disapprove of such sentimentality.
The melancholy is momentary, and there is always the next 12 months to look forward to. The last dinner party I was invited to in Delhi in February was spectacular, if initially discomfiting. Within seconds of arriving, I was cut down to size by a politician. Sharmila Tagore, a friend of the hosts, perhaps sensed I looked deflated. Always unfailingly kind, she said I reminded her of “Tiger" that evening. I protested that no one could ever put a bookish bald man, who had never made a school team, in the same sentence with her late husband, known for his dashing looks and swashbuckling cricket. She was referring to the jeans I was wearing, a very loud purple.
Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.
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