FOR ME, the highlight of this year (it’s still early days I know, but I doubt any other meal experience will be able to top this one) was being invited for lunch with the President, Pranab Mukherjee, along with a hundred other women achievers recently. These women—from all walks of life—were identified by popular voting on Facebook and by the ministry of child and women development welfare.
The seamless organisation and protocol made it one of the most intimate larger banquets I have ever attended. What will be on the menu? Who will be seated at my table? These are all idle contemplations when it comes to events like these, as one doesn’t really know and can’t ask. Neither is there a benchmark to judge it by—certainly not in my dining experience. Although I have had my share of glamorous dining companions, I haven’t ever dined with presidents and prime ministers.
And before you assume, let me inform you that I wasn’t at the President’s table. As it turned out, there was a very long table at the centre of the banquet hall, with round tables arranged around it. A unique seating plan for sure, but one that might be familiar to guests who have attended such functions before. However, it was a well-thought-out arrangement because it gave the impression of the President dining in the midst of everyone as opposed to being seated at the head of the table and at a distance from others. The President had a different chair from the others—come to think of it, the President always has his own unique chair. Although the same size as others, it’s more ornate.
His arrival was announced before he entered the large dining room and immediately a voluntary hush replaced the chattering voices of the guests—a hundred women and the jury members responsible for their selection. He walked in and headed towards his seat, folding his hands in greeting, acknowledging his guests. Once he was seated, everyone sat as well.
The emcee for the afternoon made a short speech in which she spoke of our achievements. I was delighted that my lunch companions were two people I know well: author Vikas Swarup, presently serving as the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs, and danseuse Pratibha Prahlad. Both Swarup and Prahlad were jury members of their respective categories for the selection of women achievers. Clearly, the seating was planned in a way so that guests on each table had something in common with their dining companions.
The first two courses were served in the classical style. Liveried waiters, wearing bright-red sashes and matching traditional headgears that fanned out at the top, served us the food. There was a touch of dramatic as well: a row of servers entering the dining hall in a single file, plates aloft before placing them in front of each guest with clockwork precision, was a sight to behold. During my hospitality days, I have been involved with hotel banquets where this style of service is used. So I know that back in the kitchen it must have been noisy, the chef screaming at the servers lining up, “Get the food out quick before it goes cold.” It’s all timed—from stove to plate, plate to table. A minute here or there can turn the hot soup lukewarm or wilt a carefully-designed garnish, embarrassing the last guest to be served. That afternoon, it worked like clockwork, but that is to be expected.
The rest of the courses were served buffet-style. Prahlad, who had dined there before, informed me that the different sections of the buffet serve the same menu, so one can jump into what looks like the middle of the buffet without causing any offence. And as the navy band played old and new Hindi film tunes, that’s just what we did. The food was Indian and very tasty. As it turned out, the President is an indulgent host. But soon, it was time for him to leave. He rose from his seat and, at that very moment, the band struck the first note of the Bengali song Ekla chalo re. Maybe it was planned, but the poignancy of the moment, as he was escorted out of the room, wasn’t lost on the scriptwriter in me.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad