Weddings are big in India: huge numbers of guests, masses of flowers and decorations, tables groaning with food and whisky. The loudspeaker volume is cranked up to 11. The organisers need special venues where professionals can manage all the arrangements. These emporia congregate along Mahatma Gandhi Road (AH1) in Azadpur, from the “Royal Pepper” to the “Celebration Banquet”.
This is the “Pushp Aleela”, by day and by night, with blue-lit columns of bubbling water in the window.
Now the heat and humidity of the summer has departed, we are in the cool of the popular wedding season. But the pandit/astrologer will still have to decide on the exact day of the ceremony. When the heavenly bodies are in the most auspicious alignment, he fixes the time of the wedding. There is even a banquet hall called “All Heavenss” (sic).
This is La Mansion.
During the inauspicious times, other citizens hire the halls for parties on a grand scale. I have been fortunate to have attended two birthday parties in the past month, one at the “Mosaic Banquet Hall” and the other at “Cherish”, pictured below.
Being British, I made the mistake of turning up on time. I was even fashionably late (30 minutes) for the second event and was still an hour too early. So when the invitation says 7pm, this means 8:30pm. As I had dressed in my best outfit, I had no problem breezing past security. The servants ushered me to a sofa and plied me with cold water, cola, fruit juice and mocktails. I settled down to read an electronic book on my smartphone (2016 Man Booker prize winner, “The Sellout” by Paul Beatty) while I waited for the action to begin.
I should have felt embarrassed, but I am used to being regarded as strange by the Indians. I knew no one at the parties apart from the people who invited me. As the hall filled up, I wandered around making conversation with people whom I thought would be fluent in English – young, university types. Then I sat with the old men and watched them put away large amounts of scotch while their wives tut-tutted.
The entertainment was lavish, with children’s entertainer, a small dance floor with DJ, and a magician. He wore a black top hat and a capacious suit. The card tricks were interesting. He asked me to pick a card, remember it, put it back into the pack. He said abracadabra and all the cards turned into the Queen of Spades, including the one I had chosen. He never did get back to my chosen card.
His other trick involved two interlinked loops of rusty metal. He slid them apart in front of the audience to show it could be done. Everyone around the table had ten seconds to try to pull the loops apart again. The magician counted down from ten to one, piling on the pressure like the late Richard Whiteley. No one managed to extricate the links. He whisked them away before I could try thinking laterally about the puzzle and do the opposite of what you think should do.
One party had a photo presentation and live video feed of proceedings showing on screens around the hall. A photographer snapped everyone as they came into the hall, posing them with the hosts. I have noticed that it is very rare for Indians to smile in front of a camera. It is as though they are posing for an official passport photograph. When I am behind the lens, I take one serious shot and tease them about their stern expressions. As soon as they start to smile and laugh about this, I squeeze off another few shots surreptitiously. My camera has a silent electronic shutter, so they are oblivious of my stealing some more images. But when I show them the results, they are usually delighted.
Another photographer took pictures of guests and beamed the images by WiFi to a computer. Following some digital jiggery pokery, the images were printed and thermally sealed onto mugs as a souvenir.
After the birthday boy/girl has blown out the candles on the luridly decorated cake, it’s a free for all. At one party, guests smeared the host’s face with icing and cream while sticky fingers tapped on smartphone screens to record the event. The cake is much less dense than a traditional British birthday cake. It doesn’t cut cleanly, so everyone ended up with a messy dollop of sweetness and light on their plate.
The amount of spirits Indian men can drink impressed me. A bottle of 100 Pipers whisky lasted less than twenty minutes for a table of eight men. A barman with one white glove and a silver hostess trolley doled out less generous portions of Johnnie Walker Black Label to individual guests.
This amount of alcohol needed mopping up with some food. Waiters brought snacks of papadums, spring rolls, dry roasted peanuts coated with a mix of salt, pepper, chilli and spices. Carrot and cucumber batons sprinkled with the same spice mix was the healthy option. We shared bowls of dahi veda and finished off with whorls of soya curd which tasted of nothing but the texture reminded me of tripe.
It was after 10:30pm when the cooks brought food from the kitchens for the banquet. All the dishes were pure vegetarian North Indian dishes, apart from some “live pasta”. I guessed that this meant fresh, rather than dried pasta. Most guests lined up to serve themselves from the buffet, but this didn’t stop some impatient, hungry men from barging into the queue.
I had been snacking all night but I had a yearning to try all the dishes. So I had a dessertspoonful of each, including the sweets. On my way out, I saw an ancient espresso machine at the bar. I couldn’t resist and asked for a coffee. The barista heated up a pot of milk with the steamer, added a diabetogenic amount of sugar, and tipped in some Nescafé powdered coffee. I was disappointed it was not true espresso, but it tasted excellent.
It was only a twenty minute walk back to my shared apartment. I took a short cut and encountered the night guard patrolling behind the locked backgate of our alley. He pointed to my watch and said, “What time do you call this?” Or words to that effect. “This is the last time I let you in here at this time of night.” It was just after 11 o’clock.