(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 27th November, 2010)
I’ve invited friends home only once. I was twelve. After running up and down two floors as my classmates asked me to fetch water, return tumblers, bring snacks, and take the plates back while they gossiped, I realised that being the host is the surest way to exclude oneself from all the fun, while doing all the work.
I now arrange to meet people at neutral locations for five reasons. The most obvious is: ‘I’m so sorry, something’s come up. Can we do this next week?’ The others are:
Guests have a way of turning up when you’re about to nap. The age-old Indian belief that to warn someone of your arrival is to introduce a ‘formality’ into your relationship, means people are ‘in the area’ when it’s most convenient for them and most inconvenient for you. In my experience, excited distant relatives land up just as I have dimmed the lights and am slumped on my bed with a book and hot chocolate.
You’re expected to offer food and snacks, and there’s usually none. In a house where four people work, one is in college and another is eighty, most meals are improvised. As the freelance writer who works out of home, I finish the coffee by mid-afternoon. The junk food is usually scattered in opened, sometimes trampled-upon, packets in my brothers’ rooms. Much to my father’s disapproval, I usually find a way around this hassle by politely taking it at face-value when guests grin and say, “oh, no, no, please don’t trouble yourself. We just ate!”
They usually have an agenda. Guests ‘drop in’ when they want to brag about something inane in a subtle manner – a high-profile wedding they managed to invite themselves to, a new word their kid has picked up, a promotion they have picked up or the announcement of a ‘foreign tour’. It would help if they got right to the point. But the conversation usually goes (a) weather-> when it rains, jungle animals are getting hitched -> wedding -> oh, guess what! (b) weather-> season for fruits -> kanna, A for what? Apple! -> An apple a day keeps who away? -> We went to the clinic, he has a cold -> he keeps talking -> he picked up a new word.
When they run out of conversation, they turn to you for entertainment. At first, there’s the satisfied sigh, and you’re expecting them to say, “seri, we’ll leave now. We have to go to that mami's house also”. But then they turn to you. Personal questions can usually be dodged by ricocheting. “So, when are you getting married?” “Oh, soon. By the way, your granddaughter is so cute! She called me akka! Most NRI kids can’t speak Tamil, no?” But sadly, most people of my acquaintance believe me to be the in-house political pundit/ economist/ paparazzo.
You have no control over when they leave. And they probably aren’t sure how long a polite visit has to be. I usually say I have a class to go to, and drive my car around the block. I wait before my gate till I see the guest car leave. My record sojourn has lasted two hours.