“I remember when she first started taking an interest in boys…” My best friend darts a look in my direction before glancing back down at the crumpled piece of paper that could very well be my death warrant instead of a birthday speech. She continues reading. I freeze. Mum whips her head in my direction, and it looks as if she’s sucked a lemon. Her eyes are saying, “Boys! How can you take an interest in boys? I spit in the eyes of boys!”
I’m on stage with one angry mother, two bored grannies, and three large cakes. There are about 100 pairs of eyes on us – 100 pairs of eyes that expect to see all the bells and whistles required of a triple birthday celebration (I’ve turned 21, mum 51, and my paternal grandmother, 87). But all they’ve seen thus far are mishaps, misfortunate, and mortification.
I don’t hear the end of the speech as I imagine my boyfriend (code name: Just A Friend), currently seated at the table nearest to the stage, trying to dodge angry spit bullets Matrix-style but getting hit in the eyes, nevertheless.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for… Supper time!” Enthusiastic chuckles. Excited scraping of cloth-covered chairs. It’s almost as if the party guests have been shocked into life with defibrillator pads.
They descend upon the steaming bain-maries, guided by the tantalising scent of hot curry. I make a beeline for my boyfriend’s table, almost tripping over my floor-length dress – an uncomfortable, form-fitting thing that had been assaulted by a Bedazzler-wielding dressmaker.
“It wasn’t so bad,” Ash says after taking one look at my face.
“We started over an hour late. Somebody played the wrong damn slideshow. And a quarter of the guests didn’t pitch up.” I pull out a chair and sit down next to Ash, watching guests return to their tables with curry-filled plates.
“It doesn’t even matter. If the food is good, everything is good.”
The rice is undercooked. The chicken curry is bland. And there is a shortage of veg curries. Unable to eat the grainy rice that, when chewed, feel like sand against my teeth, I head to the buffet station to see if there’s something more palatable on offer.
“Hey,” the photographer says, stopping me in my path. “It would be nice if we could get some photos of you with the guests.” I recoil as his breath fans outward, hitting me in the face like an unexpected (and unwanted) gush of wind.
“Uh, okay,” I say backing away.
He ushers me to a corner table and uses authoritative hand motions (the kind used by car guards) to ensure that I am standing in the “perfect” spot. Crouching with his backside poised high in the air, he starts turning the camera in various directions, snapping photos in a manic fashion. The guests, hands messed with curry, pause mid-bite, too stunned to do anything but stare at the man photographing them eating.
“Move in closer,” he says. “Yes! That’s it. Now put your arm on that uncle’s shoulder. Not that uncle! The one in blue.”
I listen because I don’t know what else to do. My cheeks are flaming with embarrassment; all I can do is smile at the guests apologetically.
As we move from table to table, I follow a series of steps: greet guests, place arm on one surprised guest per table to create pseudo-camaraderie, smile in general direction of camera lens until flashing ceases, thank guests, repeat.
Pleased that he’s now captured almost all of the guests with food stuffed in their cheeks, the photographer says, “These pics look tops. I’m gonna catch some chows now. Check you later.”
His words convey a subtle threat: I’ll be back to take more photos, and I’ll have curry breath.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a little surprise for you! Uncle Gee, take it away!”
The remaining guests (mostly close family members waiting for the customary dance session that comes at the end of every Indian function) whistle and cheer as my granny’s brother makes his way to the centre of the hall.
“This is for my big sister who used to take care of me when I was a little boy,” Uncle Gee says into the mic.
The opening chords to Bryan Adam’s “(Everything I do) I do it for you” fills the room, quietening the chatting, commanding attention with its sweet, nostalgic tune that pulls at the heartstrings. I’m transported back in time to when my dad’s warm, unassuming smile was something so familiar to me. I feel the sun on my face as he teaches me how to hold a golf club. I see little gap-toothed me sitting in the back seat of his Corolla, complaining about how he always makes me late for school.
Ash is looking at me, and I know he knows I’m fighting the tears.
Uncle Gee starts singing over the backing track: ‘Look into my eyes, you will see what you mean to me’. His voice shakes with the natural vibrato that comes with old age. Even though he is slightly off-key and sounds nothing like the rasping Bryan Adams, my granny is looking at her brother as if he is the best singer in the world.
As I look into the eyes of this beaming 87-year old beauty dressed in a baby pink sari with her signature gold necklaces dangling from her neck, I don’t care that our party could have featured on Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events. I don’t care at all.
While everyone is clapping for brave Uncle Gee who had taken on one of the greatest love ballads of all time, I’m clapping for my brave grandmother who had taken on life’s greatest battles of all time and had emerged victorious. I’m clapping for the life of the party.