Sunday, 7 February 2010

The Dinner Party

The family we rent our place from have been so warm, kind-hearted and welcoming to us since our arrival that despite the separation of language we feel like their adopted children. Every time we pass their side-door to leave or come back one or more of the family is there to greet us, like returning war heroes. Meena, the hard working plump mother greets us each time with a waggle of the head and a wide candid smile from her round jovial face. She’s taken to grabbing Sofie for a hug sometimes and giving her a parting pat on the bum. The man of the house, Sugathan, between morning, lunchtime and afternoon naps, greets us phlegmatically with a raised hand and an inquisitive gaze, often popping up to give us freshly laid eggs, and un-identifiable fruits from the garden. The two teenage daughters, Susmi and Sumi are the antithesis of western petulance. Susmi, the younger of the two has an impish quality, yet she is ever helpful and loving to her parents and Sumi, after studying Animation in Trivandrum each day teaches an after-school class for local children before helping mum cook dinner. Her wide, heartfelt smile is irresistably uplifting. When I took Sofie to the station to go to the Yoga Ashram the two daughters, distraught at their loss, waved us, tears in their eyes, all the way down the street.

However, our exchanges are limited to the moments spent passing back and forth by their door. They are poignant yet fleeting. We wanted the chance to dig deeper, to understand them, to exchange thoughts and ideas, for us all to learn a little more about our respective lives. So we invited them for dinner at ours.

The week spent preceding the dinner was one of discussion, indecision, guidance seeking and receiving conflicting opinions.
“Cook them a western meal as a cultural exchange.” “Make them local food or they won’t eat it.” “Make it vegetarian to play safe.” “Give them meat as a rare treat.” :They won’t trust meat or fish unless it’s highly spiced….”
The more we discussed the more confused we became, the more people we consulted the more bewildered. What began as a simple dinner invitation was snowballing into something much bigger in our minds. We didn’t want to under or overwhelm. We didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable and we certainly didn’t want to offend them with an insensitive choice.

The limitations of our kitchen equipped with only a two-ring hob, no oven or grill, reduced our choices somewhat. We realised how much we rely on grilling and roasting for our indigenous British food.

Still dithering up to the day of the dinner we plumped for the safe, traditional British menu of:
Tandoori Rotisserie chicken (from a bakery in town)
Garlic Sauce
Doughy Naan Bread
Garlic and Cumin fried potatoes

followed by
Banofee Pie

What were we thinking? I’ve never eaten a meal like that in my life!
Still, it’s the thought that counts isn’t it?

The day of the dinner was spent shopping, chopping and scrubbing. Boiling, mixing and blending. Opening, unwrapping and cutting.
I agonised for hours over the playlist for dinner. Not obtrusive, yet not melancholy, not alienating, yet not patronising…. So, bizarrely, I went for the thirty-something dinner party staple of Buena Vista Social Club. Even writing this now makes me cringe.

Where were these bizarre food and music choices coming from? What cultural insights were they going to gain from us with our Indo-America-Cuba-Mediterranean-Sussex blend of stimuli. We were both feeling nervous, and our food and music choices were testament. Nervous of some nice people coming to eat some food.

8 o’clock came and the family tentatively came to the top of our steps.
The candles were lit, the music was on and the low table on the terrace was covered and surrounded by cushions and mattresses. I invited the family to take their seats, but they didn’t. Sofie invited them to sit, still they loitered at the top of the steps. I sat down and beckoned them over but still the didn’t come. Sofie led Sugathan by the arm over to the cushions and motioned for him to sit and somewhat reluctantly the rest of them followed. We brought out the dishes piled high with the fruits of our labour and invited them to help themselves, which they didn’t. We took their plates and served them a little of everything to taste and encouraged them to eat which they did without relish. Coversation flowed like treacle. Awkward smiles. Stilted sentences. Averted eyes. To fill the Cuban tinged silence Sofie and I ate… with gusto! We offered seconds yet none were accepted except for the coleslaw which the girls seemed to enjoy briefly before they stood, leaving us eating and attempted to make for the stairs, to the safety of their domain. Sofie leapt up and headed them off at the top of the stairs.
“We have dessert,” she pleaded.
I kept them talking whilst Sofie nipped to the fridge to the lure them back with the sight of the Banofee Pie. Sugathan pointed out that the cream hadn’t set and that it would be better tomorrow, but we weren’t going to let them off that lightly. We frantically chopped the sloppy pie into slices and shoved plates into the family’s hands. We couldn’t convince them to take their places round the table, so we settled for them perching on the wall, whilst we hovered uneasily around them. Their appetite ignited momentarily and they wolfed the slices down before making a run for the stairs, Sugathan parted with a conciliatory pat of the belly and the girls tossed “Goodnight!”’s over their shoulders as they fled.

8.25pm and it was all over, bar the washing up.
Hands across the sea, and all that….