Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reflections of the Hostess

“Home” means something very different to almost everyone who utters the word. To most it means comfort, or protection, while to others it means constraint. For me, it is often a mingling of the two; my family is extraordinarily close, but this often impacted my relationships with other teenagers. For example, rather than go hang out with my friends on most Saturday nights, I would lay on my parent’s bed with them and my sister and we would watch our favorite British sitcoms or a movie. Also, and more relevantly to the rest of this piece, on the first Friday of every month my mother holds a party for our block, a sort of soiree of the who’s who in southern Bolton Hill. These parties have taken on something of a life of their own, and while no one is quite so intense about it as the women in the story, there have been catfights a plenty, or people who’ve left grievously offended by some slight, unintentional action. But for the most part it is just a group of friends and neighbors gathered to share conversation, company, and of course an exorbitant amount of alcohol (after all, what’s a society event without wine and brandy). The character of each party is different, and occasionally has a theme; most of the time chinos and a polo will do for a man, but once or twice as a gag (or simply to give the women a chance to dress up) it has been a black-tie affair. While these parties, and their guests, can be especially annoying to me, I would stay anyway to help my mother with her circle of acquaintances and especially to help my anti-social father weather the storm of people. My mother, for whatever reason, enjoys holding these occasions, and especially having her children and husband there to help out and just be sociable with her friends. So my family, in this case, bands together to give my mom an enjoyable evening and aid her in spreading some joy to our neighbors.
These parties are given so the people attending can relax and have some fun, and although there is definitely some social jockeying occurring it is nothing of grand scale, and certainly no arranged marriages (although to hear some of the old hens clucking on our couch, they’d arranged every successful marriage in history). The mood at Sheila and Dolly’s Lunches in Vikram Chandra’s collection of short stories Love and Longing in Bombay, however, was very obviously competitive. The women of the Lunch Club (and later of the Shanghai Club) would arrange marriages, conduct business, and discuss politics at what was supposedly a purely social occasion. Rather than being about the comfort and well being of their guests, each occasion is a time to exhibit a bit of power or influence, and as the two women become increasingly bitter in their rivalry the glamour of each luncheon or meeting increases as well. The character of the party reflects the host; where my mother’s are eclectic or humorous, their gatherings become tense and businesslike affairs, with more wordplay than enjoyable exchange. For example, Dolly, upon having Sheila’s son introduced to her, acquired “an unmistakable look of offense, as if she had just begun to smell something bad” (Chandra 37). Impolite in the extreme, the expression only escalates the rivalry and sets the tone for their encounters. Their luncheons, despite being held at houses, never give the feeling of a home, which my mother achieves almost effortlessly. Events in a home should feel like the home, and Dolly and Sheila’s ended up more like battlegrounds. No home should feel like a place of combat.

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