90 mins with our Emsworth

A few of us who have reason to meet him occasionally refer to him as Lord Emsworth, that Empress of Blandings loving Wodehousian character who appears to live on his own terms, afraid only of saintly aunts, and devoted to pottering around as an end in itself. Our desi Emsworth, too, is given to dawdling, is amiably good-natured to a fault, prone to providing random advice bereft of any context (such as suggesting raw turmeric instead of powder in one’s food), shares liberally of his bar and table — but like another bon vivant, the late Khushwant Singh, has no hesitation in turning you out of his home at the indicated hour.

It was to such an evening that my genial host asked me over — “alone”, he cautioned, causing some little misgivings about the nature of our rendezvous, but it turned out to be his standard stag summons when, every other day, he chose to ask a motley group of friends and acquaintances for exactly 90 minutes of their company: “No dinner,” he clarified, unless you chose to make a meal of the kitchen’s offerings: Broccoli samosas, lightly braised snow peas, and other fare easier to eat than describe. There was neither occasion nor reason for this revelry other than that grotesque term that some choose to describe addabaaz — social networking.

As the only scribe in the room, I had occasion to observe the casual worth of the company I kept that hour and a half — a good share of the city’s old money was present, represented by its seniormost generation, put out to pasture in the guise of leisure. So they did what money does best: They travelled (frequently, but only to cities where they had their own homes — and cooks), dabbled at the races (but also owned race horses), enjoyed a bit of shopping still (for companies, or properties, not clothes and stuff, silly). They had lived long and well and had medical histories to prove it, but glowed with the goodness of home spas and masseurs on staff duty.

When not in the company of women, men turn always to their favourite conversation — politics; so they did, even if they muddled up their facts. They talked about diets and complained about wives. No one mentioned money — which is a nouveau riche-addiction — because it was taken for granted. Though there was a gent who complained about flying first class “on a commercial airline” — as good a barometer of the economy’s downturn as any — most were merely content to quibble about the maintenance of their cars. 

Through all this, our genial host pottered about, now pointing to some new treasure he’d added to his collection of antiques, now insisting on a “thimbleful” for the road. Someone asked him for the lease of an acreage running into a figure of a few hundred that he waved away impatiently — such talk was not suitable on an evening in the company of gentlemen. “Eat, eat,” he admonished recalcitrant diners; “drink, drink,” he gestured towards the bar. And then the time was up, the bar was closed, the hors d’oeuvres were withdrawn, the lift was summoned, and Emsworth ambled over to the front door to see off his guests, ensuring no malingerers remained. Out on the road, Wodehouse’s briefly magical world petered out, the city descended, and all was — alas! — normal again.

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