Low pressure conditions over Bay of Bengal, a climatic feature exacerbated by global warming. Result: warm winds from the sea gushing on to the land, headwinds that prevented the tramontana from the north from advancing and spreading the chill, -- that ephemeral winter that every Calcuttan savours. Consequence: the hydrargyrum rose 5 to 6 degrees above normal. People sloughed off their woollies and opted for raiment normally mothballed away for spring. So it was on Wednesday, the 27th of December. The evening of the President’s Awards and Members’ Candlelight Dinner of Dalhousie Institute.
Erected to provide lee from hiemal temperatures, the crimson and white canopy, while adding Yule cheer, virtually turned into a cauldron, to allay the effect of which the Secretary, Michael, thoughtfully had a few air-circulators whirring away as the evening progressed. This year the accent was on fairy lights. The ubiquitous Christmas star vied for attention with the “unputdownable” Telegraph; the supplement, T2, almost succeeded – well, not quite -- in elbowing out the pentagram. The Christmas tree, with all its baubles, was this year in light, as much as roly-poly Santa firmly ensconced on a sledge with the reindeer raring to go. The club logo, DI, encircled in bay leaves, glowed on the porch. The willows skirting the wide expanse of the parking lot – to borrow an Americanism -- and the margosa tree doing sentinel duty at the entrance to the lawn, were likewise illuminated in shades of green, red and warm white. In fine, the photic effect was, to take recourse to an understatement, pleasing to the eye.
Sweating under their collective starched collar, the gentlemen had to suffer the lounge suits; the loosening of the tie knots, especially after a couple of drinks, was not so much sprezzatura as it was relief sought from the Indian summer. This did not, however, prevent the frowns earned by the combination suits sported by a couple of members. The sartorially puritanical heaved a sigh of despair at the deviation from the dress code. While black was the general choice, shades of blue and grey were spotted as well. The ladies, by contrast, had cast away their shawls and looked soignee in their sarees and dresses. A fair degree of attention had been accorded to the co-ordinates, it was quite evident. While it could not be frowned upon as leer, the looks of admiration were obvious in the eyes of the more discerning among the spear side, -- the stolen glances shielded from their argus-eyed beloveds, naturally.
It was in this atmosphere that the resident emcee, who else but Leslie, set the evening in motion. He introduced the Velvet Ladder duo, soprano Diya Das who, as the evening proceeded, demonstrated that she sings with equal aplomb in contralto and, in accompaniment, guitarist Dean Vanjour. Some of the retro classics Diya crooned through the evening were “I’m so excited by the Pointer Sisters”, “She works hard for the money”, “Sway’, and “Fly me to the moon”.
After a couple of such numbers, Leslie announced the commencement of the President’s awards. President, Jayajit Biswas, started with the loyal toast. Summoning all the Council members to the dais, and requesting all members to be upstanding, he drank to the health of the President and Republic of India. He then requested Samir Doshi, heading the sports sub-committee, to announce the recipients of the club colours. Fittingly, Leander Paes, arguably the best known DIite the world over for his accomplishments on the tennis courts, gave away the awards to ace cueist, Terence …, who has never let his physical impairment stand in the way of his passion for the baize table, Sourav Mitra , who captains the cricket team, and Saba …, who is just as adept on the tennis court as he is on the badminton variety, nay any form of sport.
Leander then recounted how he had graduated from the third court, meant for the kids, to the second and, finally, to the third at this here DI, when he realized his potential for the world theatre, -- a familiar face at Davis Cups, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, the transatlantic Flushing Meadows and the transpacific Melbourne Park. His first splaying of limbs was here at the club pool, he reminisced, just as he attributed his learning of culture, which, from his deportment, could as much be attributed to his upbringing and innate modesty. His thoughts on Christmas: it is about celebration, -- of life, of family, of values, – profound musings indeed.
Did one discern a silent toast of thanks when Leslie announced that vodka had been sponsored by Magic Moments and whisky by Teachers?
On the other side of the intermezzo, when Diya entertained the one-hundred-and-seven members with her retro numbers, came up the President’s awards. Jayajit proclaimed that with two fallow COVID years, he had drawn up a list of nine awardees, three each for 1920, ‘21 and ‘22. With an extra “new kid on the block”! The list commenced with Claudette King, a member of over six decades. She had, among other feats, organized the first Fete and Carnival in 1968. A nonagenarian and indisposed, her award was accepted by Leander. Then came Tarun Basu, who had been introduced half a century back by his namesake, Tarun Kumar, who had been almost as popular on the silver screen as his swooned-over elder brother, matinee idol Utam Kumar. Basu’s eminently-deserved recognition came from his contribution to the club for fifty long years, not least for paving the way for the Basu clan to be enrolled at the club. A logical sequence was the conferment of the year’s third award to his brother, Tapan Basu, whose expertise in bridge lay as much in ruffing as in riffling.
The first award for the next year went to Mr Pannalal Das. An Anglophile, he prided himself at having cast his vote at the recently-held elections, -- a feat, indeed, at an age just six shy of a century. These columns wish him a healthy life to that milestone and many more. Did the claim to fame, or otherwise, of the next recipient lay in having over among his guests at his wedding two who were skinny-dipping in the club pool or, being part of the quizzing team that bested it at the quiz Calcutta Open Scene? Ian Zachariah had for reply a smile that was just as enigmatic as that of da Vinci’s most famous creation. The third prize for the year went to Mr Brian Cecil, along with his wife, Diana. Had they been married when he judged the May Queen Contest? Highly unlikely! He had been a quizzing member of the DI team for a quarter of a century. Along with Ian.
The first in the list for this year was Nabi Dad Khan. A thorough gentleman, and a regular at the tennis court even at this age, he takes pride in making his as well as his extended family members of this club. Raj Kapani, another veteran of over fifty years, had served on the Council for several years and has his entire family as members. Ms Juliana Vansteelsteel had joined the club with six siblings in the Year of our Lord 1966. Daughter of a member who had initiated what he baptized pagal pani, she has served the club in divers manners. Adept at basketball, table-tennis and swimming, she was the Secretary of the club in 2019. She eminently deserved the third award. The last award went to, and again most deservedly, to none other than, yes, you have guessed right, dear DIite, Lesie D’ Gama. As he himself recounted, he had been a familiar face at the club long before he became a member. Small wonder then that the late Neil O’ Brien mistook him for a Proposer when he appeared before the screening committee! Popular in his diminutive hypocorism, Les, the man toils. Heading the Communications sub-committee, which has now encompassed IT and digital, he shoulders much of the work of the entertainment and library sub-committees, apart from emceeing every major event at the club. A family man, he involves his entire family, especially his daughter, Christabel, in the happenings of the club. The award went, in part, to the family as well in recognition of their contribution.
Another entr’acte later came the lucky draw. Les requested Jashodhara … (last name please) to do the honours. While Hema Suri did not turn up, Deboshmita Sarkar came to claim the next draw. The men’s went to Debargho Sarkar. The author observes with interest that for three consecutive years, his table has been bagging this draw: first it had been his namesake, Ukil. The next year it was yours truly himself. Two Covid years later, it is Debargho, yet another tablemate. A mildly peaty bottle of Preceptor’s, ah, I mean Teacher’s. Does one anticipate an almighty rush for this table the next year?
Lemcee, -- oops, three drinks later yours truly has made a portmanteau of Les and emcee, -- then announced dinner. Again DIY, -- do it yourself. While the undersigned has overheard murmurs of discontent – ‘’if I have to get my stuff myself, why need I come to the club” has been the refrain, -- self service has its brighter side as well. First, one does not have to depend on the whims of the waiters, more often than not grumpy at not getting what they had come to consider their birthright, the gratuity. Secondly, one gets to know, standing in line for one’s turn to come, members one is not familiar with and strikes up animated conversations ranging from as diverse a topic as the next big name investing in Bengal, to the Davids who felled the Goliaths at the Qatar FIFA World Cup, -- never mind the servile conditions the workers were forced into to make this mega event happen, yet another topic for striking up comments on while waiting for one’s Darjeeling tea or chaat masala to come up. The “after you”, especially to the ladies standing in the queue, has been a reassuring throwback to the long-forgotten days of gentlemanly courtesy.
Realigning from the digression, Sheriff – not to be confused with the honorary town officer elected mainly for ceremonial duties – had laid out a wide spread. While the chicken corn soup set up a buffer with the tipple, fish meuniere, chicken roast and shepherd’s pie made up the menu for the omnivores. On the other side of the aisle, the fare comprised of … The trifle straddled the sacrilegious line of -vora.
The one item missing the whole evening is the signature feature of DI: dance. Not a single couple came up to jive, sashay, whisk, cha-cha-cha or waltz on the paved floor set apart for this one purpose. All entreaties and urges, from the crooner to the emcee, proved futile. It was eventually left to the D’ Gama family to initiate that. Christabel and brother, …, stepped on to the floor for a line dance to the lilts of the Vengaboys’ Shalala Lala. That prompted the others to follow suit. Before long the patio assumed the familiar look. And a contented Diya sang to her lungs’ content.
The evening drew to a close with the dimming of the lights, with promise to glow up again on the New Year Eve. More on that by my namesake.