THAT SAME PARTY
"Jasbir, you're mad! Do I look like the kitty party type?"
"Its not just a kitty party. It's like a ritual..... sacred,almost."
"Like what? Like planchet, you call up spirits? Or one of those Aroma - Vastu - reiki type...."
"Laila, don't make fun of this now. Just come once. Sandhya's leaving, and you're the only one I can trust to come in her place. That's if you like it."
"Jasso, in that two hours I could do so much! The plumber has to...."
"You liked that theatre group I had got you to join, didn't you?"
Laila was quiet. Those had been the last few years of wearing checked skirts to school, and Laila had resisted Jasbir's suggestions that she join her theatre group after school hours.
"How can I join? It takes all my time and creativity to deal with the stupid board exams!"
Then one day she had forgotten her house keys and tagged along with Jasso only because she had two hours to kill before mummy got home. They walked into the group's movement session, and it had been quite a culture shock.
"Now everybody move like a snake. Use the furniture, floor, walls - everything." Two boys tore their pants and were quite unfazed. They just pulled out skirts from an old costume trunk to wear on top of their torn pants. Then one of the skirt - pant ones had taken a voice session.
"Stick your tongue out and pant like a dog. Very good to strengthen the diaphragm. And relax the jaw..."
Laila had barely managed to pant like a puppy but she had been hooked. She had stayed on for five years, and performed in a dozen plays.
Those had been the best years, really.
Jasso was still waiting for her answer on the other end of the line.
"Ok., I'll come once. But don't expect me to join. Now there are all these responsibilities...."
"I'll pick you up at 3 p.m. And wear something nice."
Laila hung up, smiling. Times change! Before rehearsals Jasso's instructions had always been "Wear something old and loose. If you look dressed up they'll laugh at you."
On Saturday her something nice was an embroidered peach coloured salwar kameez, cut in an A line to hide the hips and bums that had become a little prominent over the years.
Jasso looked her up and down but made no comment, which probably meant she approved. In the car she also refused to supply any more details about the party.
"If you like it, you like it," and Laila stopped asking, and looked out at the posh bunglows they were driving by. They stopped outside one with crazy marble paving on the driveway, lots of plants in cement pots, and an elaborately carved wooden door with a brass door handle in the shape of the head of Alexander. Laila had the owners seized up at once. New money, and not that much class.
Then the door opened and a fortyish woman, short and plump and quite cute, was beaming up at them.
"Good timing! Good timing! I've just sent a nice hot plate of paneer pakoras into the drawing room! And no worrying about your figure please, Laila. Anyway you must be one of the thinnest here!".
Laila silently cursed Jasso for having broadcast her figure worries before she had even met these people. In the drawing room there were six or seven women on full chatter mode. Old hindi film songs were blaring from two speakers, two servants were circulating with trays of assorted snacks and chutneys, a lady with enormously long hair was mimicking somebody and getting big laughs; and Jasso's hand was on her elbow, guiding her to where two women were cooing over a pile of tribal jewellery. They wanted her to try on everything at once, the jewellery really was quite beautiful, and Laila didn't quite realise where she got absorbed.
It was quite some time later when she began to look around, trying to figure out what it was that felt so unusual. Her right ear was sore, but that was natural after trying on so many chunky metal earnings. She was feeling a bit bloated and uneasy, but that was on account of indulging in too much of that home-made gajak. And everyone was treating her in a nice friendly fashion. Maybe that was it. Jasso did not introduce her to anybody, but they all knew her name was Laila and they all seemed to take her presence entirely for granted.
"Laila, you want to play tambola?"
"Laila, you must see Madhurima mimicking Dilip Dumar"
"Isn't the sonth fabulous? Put some on the dahi bhallas. Homemade! Dinky, you're going to get orders for Laila's daughter's birthday party for homemade snacks. She loves them!" Laila had said no such thing, but she was quite happy to smile at Dinky their hostess, and play along. In fact she could have stayed for longer when Jasso suggested they leave.
In the car she accosted Jasso. "Why did you make it sound so mysterious? It was like any other kitty party! Not that I have that much experience of them, but it seemed pretty normal..."
"It did? Good. I'll pick you up next Saturday, same time".
That bothered Laila. She didn't really want to give a regular time commitment. But when she got home she got drawn into the business of the week and there was no time to worry about it.
And when the next Saturday came around it seemed like a good excuse to dress up and go out. This time she wore a pearl grey organza suit with delicate white embroidery. Jasso arrived, looked at her, and made no comment. This time Laila was a little annoyed. What was the point of having good taste if no one seemed to notice?
But Jasso had another agenda. She handed Laila a large brown paper bag. Inside was a salwar kameez, neatly folded. Orange with a big brown print. "These are Sanjana's clothes. The girl whose place we'ed like you to take. We want you to wear them for the party".
Laila was speechless.
"Now don't fight with me about this, please, Laila. They are all expecting you, and in these clothes. It was decided, please!" Laila changed without a word. All through the car journey she sulked. Jasso had said
"Please"! She could not remember Jasso having said 'Please' to anyone or anything before. Why was this so important? She glared at the orange and brown print on her lap. It must have bean Ð what Ð ten years since she had worn something as loud as this. When they arrived at the bungalow, she tried to out Ð glare the Alexander head door handle.
Then Dinky opened the door.
"Hello! Good timing! Good timing. I've just sent a nice hot plate of paneer pakoras into the drawing room..."
If she noticed that Laila was wearing Sanjana's clothes she didn't reveal it. Laila managed a polite smile and brushed past her. Dinky called from behind.
"And no worrying about your figure, Laila. Anyway you must be the thinnest here"
Laila looked back a little shocked. That was almost exactly what she had said last week! She made her way into the drawing room, trying to rationalize it to herself. Who was that actor who had said that he had run out of ways to die in films? So may be if you were at it every saturday for years together, it was conceivable that you could run out of ways to welcome guests into your house!
Inside there was the same din. Laila thought they were like students in a classroom where the teacher hasn't showed up. Madhurima was clowning and had her audience in splits. Laila caught herself staring at her saree. Wasn't that the same blue chiffon she had worn last week? So they weren't very concious here of repeating their clothes. Good, in a way. Then Jasso's hand was on her elbow, guiding her towards the twins. They had brought their box of tribal jewellery again. They cackled with delight and offered Laila an earring to try on. Laila looked at the beautifully worked piece of metal, square with what seemed to be the shape of the sun embossed on it, and felt a little sick. It was the exact same earring they had first offered her to try on last week! She put it on in a daze looking around the room.
Madhurima was mimicking Dilip Kumar, just like she had last Saturday. And not just her. Everybody was warning the same clothes. And all those delicious home-made Punjabi snacks, bhallas and chanas and pakoras, had been the same last week. And those around Madhurima had been in those exact same chairs......
She barely managed an excuse-me and went to look for the loo, took some wrong turn and found herself out in the driveway. It took Jasso about thirty seconds to follow her out.
"I know I know," she said quickly looking at Laila's stricken face. "Now don't jump to any conclusions. They're not mad and its not a joke. Its quite simple, really. Its just that one day we had this really nice party. Everybody just being themselves, and getting on really well together. And we wanted to hold on to that afternoon. As it was. No change. Not like the same group having a different party every week. Because then groups get sort of stale and drift apart...."
"But doesn't this get stale? And boring? How can you repeat the same words to the same people! It's spooky!"
"Why should it be spooky? Its just like in a play! After every party we discuss which parts went well, or where the flow was lost and it seemed to drag, and where we need to work on the spontaniety....."
Laila was staring at the gate and at the road beyond.
"You should have warned me, Jasso"
"About what? Its not something unpleasant. Its quite comforting, actually. Every Saturday morning you get up and you know just how the afternoon will go. Is there any time in your life about which you can say that? ..... And had I told you anything about it you would just have called it spooky and you would never even have come to see it."
Laila looked back at the house. The big door, the glass panels, the Alexander head. She could hear the laughter and the stamp of feet as someone began to dance inside.
"Take some time and think about it. Its quite welll organised. We have lockers here so our families don't wonder why we take the same clothes every Saturday and....."
Laila turned sharply on her heel and walked out of the driveway. She didn't stop till she found an auto-rickshaw to take her to the familiar walls of her own home.
Times change. The skin of Laila's hand had weathered into a wrinkled glove that fitted loosely over her bones by the time she went to pick up Jasso's next phone call.
"Jasso? Jasso! My God, from where? After all this time!"
"You never called, Laila, so I thought you didn't want to speak to me."
"No, no. You were always up to weird things. Like that party. What happened to it?"
"Well Madhurima immigrated. Two of us died,.... and the twins live in Lucknow. Dinky's house is still there for the parties, but she is bedridden and she can't participate... There's only me left now. I go every Saturday on my own and attend the party. I just imagine that they are all there. I know it all so well, its just like.....
Laila, I wanted to ask you, since there's only me... would you like to join now?"