Today we were going for dinner to a distant relative’s house, just down the road. I say ‘distant’ because that’s what all relatives are to me. Anyone outside the immediate family, I mean. Their surnames, ages and professions become blurred. I know them simply as “first name + Konkani family suffix”. Padmini Thaee, Lucky Uncle, Santosh Dada, Sheetal Didi, Prema Pacchi and of course Ajoba and Dadima, my grandfather and grandmother, would all be present tonight.
I enjoyed walking there in the rain, sharing an umbrella with my grandmother. She talked endlessly as we splashed our way down Pali Hill. Oh how she enjoyed talking. I could just about make out what she was saying over the noise of the traffic that rattled by. She was prepping me for the dinner by filling me in on the occasion. The gathering was being held to honour "Sanjay’s" return to India with his young family, from the USA. With the greatest respect, he was someone’s brother’s nephew’s something. ‘Uncle’ is a wonderfully versatile suffix.
Because of her arthritis, Dadima and I lagged behind Ajoba and Shambhavi, who had already reached the gate. Ajoba was always such a fast walker; that had never changed. I remember him making a bow & arrow set with my every summer and then taking me to Jogger's Park to shoot at trees. I wonder what him and Shambhu talked about - because neither of them were big talkers. It was great to cross the road at walking pace, right during rush hour: no matter how angry or crazy the on-coming driver was, he had to slow down and stop for an old lady under an umbrella.
The house was like any other house in Bombay: a 3 bedroom 3rd floor apartment with a tiny living room and cramped kitchen. Tube-lit, of course. It was Padmini’s house and she greeted us warmly as we entered. We took our shoes off outside and were offered cold water by her daughter, Karishma. Her husband had not yet made his appearance, as was his style. Lucky Uncle was quite a character; he’d slink into the living room much later. The floors were white tiles and the furniture was modest but comfortable. Shambhu and I strategically took the chairs closest to the TV, so that we were as far away from awkward conversations with the ancient aunties. Thankfully the World Cup was on; it provided a starting point for conversations and so it was welcome, by football fan and novice alike. Prema Pacchi was the classic distant, ancient aunty. She smiled warmly and patted Shambhu and I lovingly as we bent down to touch her feet. I had no idea when we’d met or if at all but followed standard protocol as always. I smiled sweetly, said ‘namaste’ and touched whosever feet were two generations older than my own.
Padmini played the role of anxious host. Shambhavi and I were now grown up so she couldn’t treat us like kids and followed protocol like everyone else.
“So where do you go to college? How many years left? Do you like it? And what about you Shambhu? Where are you going to go for college? Oh that’s nice”, she asked as she tended to a big pot in the kitchen.
They were fair questions but I doubt anyone really cared what the answers were. And to be honest, I really had no idea what to ask her myself. We Indians are poor conversationalists. I knew so little about my relatives that I felt embarrassed to ask. And so I followed protocol like her. Somehow the balance was maintained. Yin and Yang quietly feasted on the mutton curry that night.
Halfway through dinner, Lucky Uncle walked in, fashionably late to his own dinner, accompanied by Santosh Daadaa and Sheetal Didi. Santosh is my dad's first cousin. Lucky was married to Padmini but I’d never have guessed it and always thought of him as this strange, quiet, distant man who smoked a lot. He was rarely around at family gatherings over the years and so no one really knew him. Mum and dad didn’t really talk about him to Shambhu and I much either. All we knew was that he drank and smoked a lot and wore heavily tinted sunglasses. He reminded me of some sort of successful used-car salesman who lived in Dubai.
Santosh and Sheetal were their usual cheery, charming selves. Santosh was loud and dashing and charismatic and Sheetal was pretty and playful as usual. Their children were older than Shambhu and I, yet the two of them left that silly protocol at the door with their shoes. Santosh was someone I could have a proper conversation with (especially after he’d had a few whiskeys!). We chatted about music, politics and the media. He was loud and boisterous but always maintained a light hearted mood. He didn't feign interest, always waited for his turn to speak and addressed the whole room when he did! Sheetal was a sweet, fun, motherly figure who always seemed like she knew what was going on. She could see right through Shambhavi’s attempts to uphold her ‘child-like’ aura. At the risk of sounding like an ungrateful snob, their presence transformed this evening from being bearable to fun.
After enduring Shambhu and I for a while, the conversation somersaulted from English into Konkani and we were lost. We finish our dinner quickly, eyes fixed on the Germany-Argenina game. As soon as the match had ended, she glanced at her phone and announced that she had to go to town to meet some friends. She had betrayed me. I was left alone to fend for myself and dodge awkward questions from awkward aunties alone.
The cavalry arrived in the nick of time. Santosh and Sheetal’s kids turned up at the door. The three of them were my second cousins and we always had a good time together. I thanked Padmini for the food and Lucky for the whiskey and slipped out the front door, glad to be rescued. We got into two cars and headed for a bar on the beach where Samir’s big TV show launch was taking place. The oldest of my cousins, Radhika, had recently gotten married to him and he had even more recently made it big in the India show business. This made my cool cousins, even cooler than before.
There were plenty of ‘hep’ young things at the beach shack although the party was quite dead. As we arrived, we caught Samir’s eye; he was just finishing an interview and did his best to finish it professionally. The gorged ourselves on the free food and cocktails at this event and even got in a couple of pictures. Shivansh, the youngest one, and I talked about football and he introduced me to some of his friends. He now lived in Boston and worked for an insurance company or something. He was tall and handsome but still acted like a teenager who'd had one drink too many. Gopika, the middle sibling, pointed out some of the semi-celebrities at the party to me. After living outside of India for most of my life, I had lost touch with who was currently famous. I was being reintroduced to this city, this country, these people.