The family’s grand old bash – this time at the start of the year instead of the close – is an annual event and casts its net far and wide. Slowly, the event gathers pace — who’s coming? (why?); who isn’t? (why not? ); who’s to find board at home?; whose lodgings are being arranged elsewhere?. Grumbles gather pace over exchanged phone calls about the pecking order and the notional hierarchy these suggest. Reservations, car journeys, long-distance carriages and lifts are all planned — rejected, cancelled, breaking and building alliances on a daily basis. At home, we plan the seating on the basis of rumours: who’s speaking to whom, or isn’t?; which is the battle, which the war?; To break the ice or keep sparring relatives apart?.
It’s supposed to bring out the best of the family, but so rarely does. In Bikaner, memory goes back a long way and slights have a habit of being dragged up every time the clan gets together. What begins as an affable brunch with the men clinking mugs of beer ends with the flush of alcohol at night around sigris that inflame more than just remembered insults. Initially, sulks and smirks disappear in genial bonhomie, but it’s a temporary truce.
Martial traditions can prove volatile. Last year, the ceremonial swords, so wonderfully arranged on the walls of the family house, had to be removed when a particularly excitable member of the family threatened – in jest, his wife insisted, splitting up the gathering into two camps – to test them on neck of a cousin once removed. While such action might not have caused much loss, it would have caused some little inconvenience — apparently, it’s getting difficult to find lowly fiduciaries in the feudal order to take the rap on the lord and master’s behalf.
Days begin with discussions over the latest scandals, parsimoniously at first, before confidences are openly shared — about marriages falling apart, the dreaded divorce now merely another statistic every time gathered nephews, nieces and sundry in-laws add to the numbers. By the afternoon, the discussion has shifted invariably to property — who got what, or didn’t, and the litany of coveted family heirlooms, stolen jewellery, spoils from the armoury, of fallow fields and rooms in crumbling havelis, that have been unfairly carved up. Unease shifts soon enough to open war. Dropouts call to ask why they are the subject of discussion when they aren’t even present. This year I’ve been tasked to keep apart members of another family who haven’t spoken to each other for months, except to trade insults. There is the danger that when they’re gathered for the bara khana, the fur will fly, which would be entertaining if it wasn’t also tiresome.
By this time, next year, they could be thick as thieves again, so it’s never good to forsake neutrality, no matter how tempting — for the next time you meet, they could gang up against you. Meanwhile, there’s the catering, which must keep in mind allergies, fasts, dietary requirements, preferences, overworking the hired cooks who threaten, with each meal, to walk out. Somehow, it all comes together at the end, malicious meetings melting into remorse, even as planning the departures begins. There’s meals to pack – dinner and breakfast for those leaving by train and lunches for those taking the highway – immediately filed away to gossip about as soon as one is home, and Facebook updates for those who missed the maelstrom. Till next year, again – phew!