Cocktail conversations and newspaper headlines have made a habit of reporting the weather which, this winter, has apparently been colder than most. Cooped up in office, or working from home, it’s been difficult to tell, though I can venture that the evenings have been teeth-chattering, hand-numbing icy, especially when wrapped around a glass of Speyside’s finest on the rocks at Delhi’s dinners that, strangely for this season, continue to be organised outdoors.
My fleeting acquaintance with the weather has been mostly on account of the odd meeting arranged in the garden of a mansion in a gated estate. In those rolling acres, you can almost count on a picture-perfect lawn, weather-proof wicker garden furniture, sun shades, and the perfect tea served from polished silver in fine porcelain (into which hot water has been poured to keep it warm), accompanied by winter chewies, with desultory conversation passing for “work”.
Not all is perfect in that paradise, though, as the hostess invariably grumbles about the inability of the help to cope with the rich life. “These are tea cups, I want demitasse cups,” she corrects the serving maid, before ordering her: “No, those ugly ones are for sahib’s guests; I want the pretty ones with the dragon motif.” A retinue follows with the high-tea — first a battery of tables arranged next to the guest, followed by a team with trays in their terrified hands consisting of tea, coffee, hot water, and accompanied by yet others with petit-fours, dainty hors d’oeuvres, delicate bites served up by the family khansama taking into consideration its fetishes, allergies and tastes.
This is winter almost as I remember it – peeling oranges, slicing guavas, shelling peanuts, spilling open packets of gajak – while settling down with a racy paperback in the sunniest part of the garden. Those years were epoched by the first sinful taste of shandy, graduating to the occasional beer, before, finally, being allowed gimlets and bloody marys. Now, the club where we’re members, and which does an excellent buffet, has messed up Sunday lunches in the sun with noisy music, tambola and chattering families in tightly packed proximity.
Taken as I am by these garden and gazebo meetings, I must confess to being confounded by a recent surreal invitation to take in the outdoors on a densely foggy morning. The servants had lit earthen lamps to pierce the gloom, and the pantry staff was summoned like a procession of wraiths to take our orders of tea or coffee when I might have preferred soup or even a goblet of cognac. The house in front was no longer invisible, so the tea service was preceded by an attendant with a torch to light the way. “Isn’t it marvellous,” asked my enthusiastic host, usually resident in London, “how you can enjoy the garden in Delhi even in winter?”
The sun didn’t show for the while I was there and we proceeded with our conversation over papers that we could barely read, feeling the damp in the air and wishing I’d chosen a thicker jacket. Over an hour, we were served by ghosts that apparated through the mist and as suddenly disapparated. When we finished, instead of heading back indoors, the lord of the manor summoned a retainer to fetch him a book from his bedside because, he confided, he was enjoying the garden so much, he wasn’t about to tear himself away any time soon, which is why he’d hang around a bit longer and catch up on his reading — in the fog.