So there I was, gate crashing (as one does) a fancy dinner for a bunch of lawyers who were in the throes of celebrating a merger of firms with double- and quadruple-barrelled names. It was at a beautiful restaurant with a wine list fit to cripple your wallet, and food good enough to set the most frigid palate aflame with desire.
The blokes were in crisply cut suits to match their crisply cut diction; I was in a weird witchy black skirt, a wildly-printed export-reject chiffon blouse filched from a photography shoot, and black sandals which I had earlier brushed against fresh white paint, acquiring the new international ‘zebra’ look. Phrases like ‘international arbitrage’ and ‘the so-and-so Act’ flew thick and fast. I chipped in with stammered mutterings about freelance writing whenever my face accidentally fell out of my trough into the rarefied corporate air, or when I emerged from the wine glass where I spent most of the evening nose-first, sampling the joys of excellent Californian red, followed by something French and fine.
There are a few simple rules to remember when gate crashing formal dinners with lawyers: don’t wipe your nose on the tablecloth even though you are quite aware that that’s what tablecloths were originally intended for; try and look professional by blinking and nodding a lot until you see stars and feel seasick; don’t drink too much or too fast; if you do, at least refrain from playing footsie with anyone, especially if you have fresh white paint on your sandals; don’t indulge in any natural bodily functions such as burping the national anthem even if that’s your best party trick, because you’re not supposed to admit to having any bodily functions for the duration of the gathering; don’t tell lawyer jokes even though there could not possibly be a better moment for them to shine; don’t talk politics; and if you must talk politics, don’t shout at anyone.
It was all going swimmingly. The evening was full of the tinkling sounds of breaking ice, and I was seeing stars and feeling seasick. I enjoyed talking to a nice Dutch gentleman who jets around the world from case to enormous case. Things were so relaxed and friendly that I was even toying with the idea of attempting some lawyer jokes, and I think I would have, except that I can never remember any jokes when I need them.
We sat down to dinner. And then somebody brought up Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, and the whole ticklish question of how much he did or did not have to do with the Godhra riots of 2002. Somebody at the table turned out to working for his defence and somebody else said that he could not be held personally responsible. Other people got exercised on behalf of the other side of the argument.
Somehow, talk that had thus far teetered around on the polite stilettos of weather and the relative hotness of Keira Knightley, suddenly put on hobnailed boots and become a strongly-worded discussion on identity, democracy and state-sponsored violence, and then, between one delicately flavoured dish and another, it had escalated into an all-out shouting match across the table—Indians going at it with both guns blazing and foreigners pitching in with steely, pithy international contributions of their own.
If it hadn’t been for the fact that one person kept steering the conversation back to his ex-girlfriend, I believe that things might have ended badly, with soup on the floor and prawns up people’s noses. But what lawyers do best is argue, and it was actually a stimulating discussion; and at the end of it everyone shook hands with a smile. So to the host, if he’s reading this, thank you for a lovely evening.