Seriously, when you call someone home for dinner at 8:30 p m, what time do you actually expect them to show up? As New Delhi becomes increasingly cosmopolitan, the issue of the “right time” is betraying a black hole of social information. In “sophisticated” Delhi, if you’re invited for dinner, it is alright so long as you drop in some time before midnight, which is when your hostess will lay dinner, thereafter having it re-heated and served at hourly intervals. In “partying” Delhi, where only finger food is served, you’re free to drop in any time before breakfast, so long as it’s after midnight. But the norms of “society” dining are changing as the buffet gives way to the sit-down where, if you’re trapped between a wife with whom you had the poor sense to quarrel in the car, and a social climber who doesn’t think you’re her ticket to a page-three appearance, you could spend the most miserable two hours of your life contemplating the unappetising plat du jour — because, really, which kitchen can serve a hundred pre-plated meals without it congealing on said plate, or getting the orders mixed up, or with any concession to taste?
Our English friends were getting a farewell at their Scottish friends’ home, a secretary emailed us the info — would we care to join them at 8:30 please? “I think we should be there on time,” I told my wife, “the British are sticklers for punctuality.” My wife, who is good at remembering things, reeled off a list of our diplomat friends who had had the courtesy to observe flexible Indian time when they’d visited us. “Nine-thirty then,” I said resignedly, “no later.” In the event, it was 9:45 by the time we actually got around to ringing their doorbell, an excellent record on our part, and early by Delhi standards.
But the British being, well, British, 8:30 p m apparently meant you were meant to arrive by 8:15 so you could schmooze before being packed off to a table full of strangers where you’d find your assigned chair and allotted portion of bottle-gourd and – oh god, thankfully – a glass of wine to tide you through introductions with people you were unlikely to meet ever again. My wife and I had chosen to arrive embarrassingly just as dessert was being served, so everyone looked at us condescendingly while we pretended to be interested in the bottle gourd on our plates, before surrendering these, with a sense of relief, to the hovering Jeeves.
Speeches followed, and in pucca tradition, we removed ourselves to the lounge where drinks were announced. The unnerving sight of our Scottish host in a skirt was somewhat redeemed by quaffs of his homeland’s finest, and by the time we were a couple down, I sensed we’d been forgiven our tardiness and could actually join in the bonhomie and conversation without allusions to New Delhi’s boorishness. Having bolstered our confidence, there was still the departure protocol — what was an appropriate time to say goodbye? “Maybe we should be the first to leave,” I whispered to my wife, “for having the temerity to be late in the first place.” “Don’t be silly,” she hissed back, “we must stay longer for having come in later” — only to notice that while we’d been jousting with each other, the room had emptied, leaving us with our friends and their hosts looking at us expectantly while we made up our minds on when to go.