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Thursday, 26 April 2012

The World’s Worst Dinner Party

I’m well upset.
I have just returned from the World’s Worst Dinner Party.

I’d much rather have been at the dentist’s office getting my teeth drilled. Or alone at home watching some paint dry.

Sadly, I was doing neither.  Because I was attending the World’s Worst Dinner Party.

“Why?” you ask in surprise and curiosity. “Why bestow upon it such an unkind label?”

Well, you’ll just have to read on. But I’ll tell you this – it was frightful. And there was nothing – not a one – redeeming thing about it that could have saved it from being the World’s Worst Dinner Party.

Now, I have to preface all this by saying that the hosts in question are not our friends. They are not even friends of friends. They are people who know people we know. Who we met through the people we know. Four years ago.

And who, for a reason that escapes my simple mind, keep inviting us to their dinner parties (which they seem to have with alarming regularity).  And have been doing so religiously. For four years.

We’ve always politely declined, mostly because we’ve always had other stuff going on.

It so happened that this time we didn’t.

And so...

“We really can’t say no again, Ams,” Sid says to me. “It’s going to look like we keep coming up with excuses.”
“Well, don’t we?” I ask.
Sid gives me that reproachful look one gives to a particularly wayward child.
“Ok, ok – well go,” I say.
And so we go.
We get in the car and drive the outrageous 1.25 hours it takes to get there.

“I hope the foods worth it,” I think to myself.

When we enter, there are people everywhere. I don’t know how many, but if I were to guess, I’d say there are round about sixty. Which is slightly insane. There’s also an inordinate number of Indian people, which I suppose makes sense, because our host is British-Punjabi. His wife, however, is Irish (with a particular fondness for Indians it would seem). There’s nobody we know. Not even the people we know, who know these people.

No biggie, I think. I quite like meeting new people. Or sixty new people.

“I need the boy’s room,” Sid says.

“I need a drink” I reply.  “Oh and I didn’t know we were coming to a wedding,” I mutter as I make my way to the bar, “If I had, I’d have worn better shoes.”  Oh dear. Well, it’s nothing that some wine won’t fix.

Eighteen minutes and one sip later, I’m still wishing for those better shoes. I slink up to Sid (who, rather cleverly, has opted not to fight his way to the bar) and say, “Mmm...this wine’s really good, try some?” and hand him my glass before he gets a chance to object.  When I look up to see the look on his face (presumably after he’s had a sip), I am happily on the other side of the room.

See, it sounds awful, but I am somewhat of a wine snob. Not because I claim to have any particular knowledge of wine, but because wine that doesn’t taste quite right brings back unpleasant memories of that one time in college when I spent the night in someone’s bathroom with my head over the toilet. And so, if it tastes iffy, I won’t drink it. And will opt instead for orange juice.

Which is exactly what I do now.

And so here I am, quite happily sipping my orange juice, and admiring the house.  It is very gadgety, the house, with doors that come out of walls and lights that come on from nowhere.  “Everything is voice activated,” the person next to me whispers awestruck.  “Wow,” I say, because it seems like the kind of thing I should say.

At this point, I am approached by someone who – without so much as a “hi” – looks at my glass of orange juice and proceeds to ask me – “Are you in the family way?”

Am I, what?

Then – because he continues to stare resolutely at my juice – I work it out.  Just to be very clear – this person is an absolute and complete stranger. But, to be honest, I am less offended and more amused. And genuinely curious. Are you, I want to ask him, too embarrassed to utter the word ‘pregnant?’ Why? Is it because one needs to engage in rampant, routine, and unprotected sex to become it?

I decide to test my theory. “No, no,” I say, “I’m not pregnant...” (I’m right – noticeable wince)…I just don’t feel like a drink right now. Maybe later”

“What is your good name?” he asks, recovering admirably well.

Don’t have one. I’m the bad person who said “pregnant” - I have a bad, bad name.

I say – “it’s Ami”
“Hello A-my,” he says.
I didn’t say A-my, you loser.  I said Ami.  You’re Indian. You should be able to get this.
I say – “it’s not A-my, actually. It’s Ami... Like dummy?” I add helpfully.
“Oh,” he says looking thoughtful.

It seems like an apt moment to escape.
I try to look for Sid but I can’t find him. It’s too crowded, I’m too short, and nobody thought to tell me to wear heels. So, I turn around, a full 360 degrees just in the hope that I’ll meet someone, anyone, who’s not going to ask me if I’m pregnant. Luckily, the wall directly in front of me slides out before my very eyes – it’s actually a door that looks like a wall – but whatever.  Someone emerges from it and smiles at me pleasantly. I smile back. “Restroom?” I ask. “Restroom,” she replies.  And so, thankfully, I go in.

When I come out, the house is empty.  The wedding party’s disappeared. Am I in the twilight zone?  I wonder. I’m mad at Sid for abandoning me.

I wander around the rooms. There’s not a soul to be spotted. The bar is deserted. If the alcohol were any good, this would be my chance, but going by the wine, sadly it’s not. I give it one last longing look before moving on.

Then I see them, all sixty of them – they’re all outside, seated on a long, rectangular table. There is a large glass door between me and them.

I try to open the door, but it won’t open. Now, I consider myself a fairly intelligent woman. I think, there are only three possible ways of opening a door. Push, Pull or Slide.  I try all three. Multiple times.  But I can’t, for the life of me, work it out.

I call Sid. He doesn’t answer. It’s probably too loud for him to hear the ring.

Great! I think, trying not to panic. What a place to be trapped inside. The microwave is probably going to pop out of one of these walls and eat me for dinner. And 1 minute and 30 seconds later, when it beeps to signal it's done eating me, there's going to be no one around to hear it.

Luckily for me, our host is seated on the side of the table facing the house. Facing me, that is. He looks up and our eyes meet. I make my best attempt at sign language to communicate that I can’t get out.

It works. He nods. I am relieved. It is shortlived.

Because he holds up something that looks like a remote control and presses a button.  And I hear a voice. It’s his voice, but it’s inside the house.

“Just wait there Ami. I’m coming in. I’m coming in…from the backside.”

You’re doing - what?

He comes in. Yes, “from the backside.” And then leads me out through it too. I follow obediently.

We walk towards the table. “We thought we’d do a proper sit-down meal,” he explains. “You know, for a formal feel.”

How on earth are they going to pull off a sit down with so many people, I wonder admiringly. I can hardly put on a passable show with six.

He takes me to the only remaining spare seat.  I am seated between someone I don’t know and the family-way guy. There are 60 people here and I get family-way guy?

I will myself to die.

I look for Sid. He is far, far away. To my diagonal-right, to be precise. He’s seated between two women; one is hanging over his shoulder and the other is hanging out of her dress. Surprisingly, he’s looking miserable.

Is this why you didn’t you save me a seat? I wonder angrily.

Then my host explains. “Also, we thought we’d make a rule that you are not allowed to sit next to your spouse or partner. And girls must sit next to boys. Enjoy!”
I feel like I’m back in Kindergarten.

Relax, relax, relax, I say to myself. This will all be over soon.

On my left they are having a conversation about when the “Britishers” came to India.

They didn’t, I want to inform them. The British did.
I hold my tongue.

Then the food arrives.  And I realise that it’s not exactly sit down.  Well, it is. But there are five dishes, thrice repeated, placed on platters, one each on either end of the table, and one in the middle. And you help yourself. So, it’s a sit-down buffet. Which is fair enough. It is, after all, not a wedding.

I cannot wait to get started – I am ravenous.

Because, here’s the thing:  I will tolerate all the bad company in the world for good food. Good food makes me a better person.  So, at a time like this, good food is the ticket out of Alcatraz.  Therefore, quite naturally, I was crossing all my fingers and all my toes, and hoping for good food.  But - and I always hate to say anything negative about food (it makes me feel like I am criticizing a child of mine) - this food was not good. It was not anything.

It was meatless, tasteless and heatless.

Now meatless, I’m willing to let pass. You’re a Vegetarian, fine. I love vegetables.  I will gladly be vegetarian for days if you make it worth my while.  But cooking the exact same vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, carrots and peas) in three different coloured sauces – cream, red and yellow – and serving as accompaniments – white rice and brown pasta, is not going to make the cut. This is not vegetarian food.  It’s not food at all. It’s a sad attempt at a colour chart.

It is also quite, quite tasteless. The vegetables (colour, no bar) are soggy, overcooked and completely devoid of flavour.  If anything, it – all of it – is sweet. Which is unfathomable.  It isn’t Indian (save for the food colouring in the red vegetables), it’s not Italian, (save for the pasta), it’s not Irish, Scottish or anything else from this island. Nor is it French, German, Mexican, Thai, Middle-Eastern or Japanese. And I do apologise if I’ve missed out your home country, but I hardly think you’d want to lay claim to this stuff. 

Anyhow, even now – despite all of this, I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. OK, so you can’t cook. I can’t do Maths. Let’s call it quits.

However, what I simply cannot get past is the fact that it’s all stone cold. And I don’t mean room temperature or luke warm or any of those things. I mean straight-out-of- the-fridge, couldn’t-even-bother-to-microwave, cold.  This – and I am large hearted – I cannot forgive.

I stare at the food on my plate sadly.

My Left pipes up. “You’re not eating anything. No wonder you look so weak...”
I’m not eating anything because nothing’s edible. And what do you mean “I look weak?” This food’s put me in such a foul mood that I could do serious bodily harm. Just try me.

I say – “I’m just not that hungry”

“...and look at K (our hostess)” he continues, “she has reduced so much!”

Reduced so much? What has she reduced so much of? I want to ask.  Though I think he’s saying (in a trying-to-be-subtle, couldn’t-be-less-so, manner) that she used to be fat once.


He continues: “I am an Infrastructure banker in Bombay (Right, didn’t ask)
...with a company in the name of Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation” he finishes.

For crying out loud, I live in 21st century England. I think I know who HSBC are.

“That’s nice,” I say politely.

He goes on to tell me that he’s being chased for an interview by Bloomberg – not just the company, the man himself – for some ground-breaking work he did on solar power.  Or something.  And that he’s angry with Virgin Atlantic Upper Class for providing him with pyjamas that were not quite up to par.

Shoot me, somebody. Please.

I try to force myself to eat because eating is the best and most natural excuse to get out of the ‘table-talk’, but I can’t. This food simply cannot be eaten. I consider a spoonful of white rice because, I think, no one can mess up white rice. As soon as I hear that first “crunch” inside my mouth, however, I know I’m wrong. Again. So we have vegetables that have been cooked so much, they’re dead and rice that hasn’t been cooked at all. And well, isn’t this all just wicked!

My Left won’t stop talking... “I am in London for two more days. I am putting up with my aunt in Harrow”

At this point, my head starts to hurt. And very badly.

I’m thinking – my mother is right (god, never thought I’d utter those words): I’ve got to get to India more often. I’ve been gone too long, don’t go often enough, and when I do, clearly don’t pay any attention because I’ve forgotten, it seems, how to speak the language. My roots are in danger. Grave, grave danger.

This is when our hostess stands up and makes an announcement:  “There’s no formal dessert guys, we wanted to make this all nice and casual. There’s ice cream in the freezer. So, come back to the house and help yourselves.”
I very nearly jump out of my chair. Not because I am excited by the prospect of ice-cream. But because this could be – if I am lucky – the end of the World’s Worst Dinner Party.

I look over at Sid. He holds my glance. Yay – we’ve communicated.

It appears that my Right – family-way guy – is talking to me:
“Sorry we didn’t get to speak much over dinner - are you staying for ice-cream?” he asks.
“No, I can’t I’m afraid,” I say. “It’s rather a long way home.”
“Where is your residence?” he asks.
Sorry, don’t have one. I’m not the Prime Minister. Do have a flat though. With a garden.  And a tree.
“Hampstead,” I say
I fold my napkin and place it on the table. He gets the hint.
“OK, I’ll take your leave now”
My “leave?” No, you will NOT take my leave. Grow your own tree.

Amazingly, at this point, he proceeds to pick up my (used) napkin, fishes out a pen from his pocket, scribbles something down furiously, and hands it back to me.

“If you are free sometime, give me a tinkle,” he says

That pain in my head has just gotten worse.

All I can say, Mr. family-way guy, is that I am never, ever giving you a “tinkle,” whatever that is, whether or not I’m free.

“Bye,” I say as I push my chair back hurriedly and make a run for it.

We drive home in silence.  I am holding my head in my hands.

Then, Sid - the kindest, loveliest, most patient (and basically everything I am not) person in the world turns to me and says, “Do you promise that we will never – not ever – meet those people again?”
I nod my head and say,” I solemnly do.”

Oh, and not before long, we have to make a mad veer off the motorway to calm our growling stomachs. We end up with a Happy Meal each, which still, sadly, fails to make us happy.

And that, my friends, is that.  The World’s Worst Dinner Party.

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