The gesture of inviting someone is a polite one, the inability to attend needs to be conveyed with delicacy
THE NEWS and social media were all abuzz on Thursday about the alleged ‘boycott’ by the Congress party of the dinner hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The dinner was in honour of visiting leaders from Africa during the India-Africa Summit in New Delhi. The reasons tossed around by official and unofficial spokespersons of the party were aplenty: personal reasons, no invitation for Sonia Gandhi, no mention of Nehru, etc. However, the overwhelming impression that was conveyed to the masses was that the grand old party responds quite like a high-school clique when it comes to regretting invites, sort of like, “They are like so rude. If you’re not going, I’m not going… like yeah whatever. Who cares!” Certainly, this response (intriguingly, no one invited from the Congress turned up) came off as much more offensive to the African leaders than to the host.
However, all this got me thinking about something entirely different: the etiquette when it comes to dinner party invites and general dining behaviour. International diplomacy has its own share of human faux pas when it comes to dining. One of the most famous, or rather infamous, incidents is that of former US president George Bush Sr puking into former Japan PM Kiichi Miyazawa’s lap during a diplomatic banquet. Supposedly, the American president had intestinal flu. The incident caused a flutter, even leading to the coinage of a new term in Japanese slang called ‘bushu suru’, or ‘doing a Bush’, which is to puke! American presidents are consistent at this sort of thing. JFK Jr once famously said in German during a speech, “Ich bin ein Berliner”. He meant to say “I am a Berliner”, but the use of ‘ein’ turned his statement into “I am a jelly donut!” Really not the kind of message you want to send out during the Cold War! Closer home, another American president got some flak for chewing gum during our Republic Day parade. But, to be fair, President Obama is a consistent offender when it comes to chewing gum through events, be it during a World War II commemoration or turning up at an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Beijing with gum in his mouth. In India, we are used to the gutka-chewing politician, as writer Shobhaa De tweeted. But in China, gum-chewing is viewed as a sign of immaturity. A quick scan of social media on President Obama’s gum-chewing habit will turn up a range of comments in multiple languages. But it’s better than reaching out for cigarettes that being the official line on his constant masticating.
But humour aside, inviting, disinviting and regretting invites is seriously tricky business, especially when international guests are involved. It compels a ‘ghar ki baat ghar mein hi rehni chahiye’ kind of propriety that most of us are familiar with. No matter how contentious internal familial workings are, our roots in the joint family system linger and warring factions of families even in this day manage to put up a show of solidarity at weddings, funerals and other such public functions. Hypocritical? Sure. But when it comes to hypocrisy, it gets a little difficult to give politicians a pass. So not attending a dinner function of this magnitude in honour of guests who haven’t visited you (en masse) under such august circumstances in over 30 years and who represent one-third of the world’s humanity is well, kind of, high school, to put it mildly.
But this column must not only be about the embarrassment one feels at such peevish behaviour that continues to diminish the grand old party. It’s also about what etiquette queen Emily Post has to say to the rest of us who don’t get invited to state banquets, let alone turn up our noses at them. She says, to put it simply, learn how to regret an invite politely. It’s called RSVP, short for the French term, ‘Répondez, s’il vous plaît’, or ‘Reply please’. The response should usually be short, crisp and without any whining. The gesture of inviting someone is a polite one, the inability to attend needs to be conveyed with delicacy. Most importantly, the ‘May I bring…..’ extension of the conversation is a big no-no. The invite is meant for you and you alone, emphasises Post.
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