Opinion | How to love your house guests
After observing A-list hosts closely, I'm convinced the most important trait you require to be one is patience
After years of careful analysis and observation I have concluded that my aunt Maya is the world’s best host. All those who fear house guests can learn a trick or two from her.
She lives abroad for most of the year, but every December she heads back to Mumbai to open and air out a beautiful, battered colonial-era bungalow in Matheran, a small hill station on the Western Ghats around 81-85km from the city. She begins preparations for the annual visit of her sons and their large families from the US and Canada. Thankfully, my family is included in this warm year-end embrace too.
Matheran’s heavy, moisture-laden monsoon, the laterite soil that coats everything with a layer of red, the innumerable creatures that live in the evergreen forest around the house and those that emerge from the cracks in the walls every summer, wreak their own special havoc.
Opening a place that has remained boarded for most of the year is not exactly a job for a 75-year-old, even one who has never been spotted without a smile. Still, she cheerily supervises the displacement of assorted year-long residents such as snakes, rodents, bats and scorpions to prepare for a houseful of humans.
She methodically goes through all the rooms and ensures there’s bottled water, clean linen, enough blankets, soap, buckets and toilet rolls. She stocks up on kitchen supplies: 60kg of different types of rice, at least 20kg of various lentils, 10kg sugar, six tins of Milkmaid...you get the drift. Every day 10 litres of milk and 3-4kg of chicken are ordered from the local market.
This time her daughter-in-law Nina was her point woman and apart from helping her set up things, she baked two loaves of bread every day.
Nina is also in charge of baking cakes for all the year-end birthdays that must be celebrated here. Cooking anything in Matheran requires serious jugaad skills. Things rarely go according to plan. The electricity is fickle. The market is understocked and half an hour away. So when the coconut cream Nina asked for turned out to be runny coconut milk, she quickly modified the vegan chocolate frosting recipe to a butter cream frosting for her three-layered strawberry cake, substituting whipped cream with coconut milk.
But I digress.
Maya can usually be found in the large kitchen, located down the stairs from the dining room in a separate structure behind the house, preparing cheese toasts, croquettes or mutton kebabs for the children or issuing instructions to the two men she’s trained to be amazing cooks:
“Cut the tomatoes for the butter chicken bigger next time, it’s easier to grind."
“Add little more water in the dough, it’s too hard."
“Have you had tea? Stop what you’re doing and have tea first."
And since I’m hovering around in the kitchen, she gives me a free lesson: “You should always wash your hands thoroughly when you handle raw chicken...I’m frying it in very hot oil so it gets lightly coated and then doesn’t become thready."
Most people are horrible with house guests. I used to be awful. I loved issuing warm invitations and organizing the house before they arrived. I wanted them to stay with me, but after a few days I would get irritable, monosyllabic and flee the scene as often as I could. I was keen to be nice, it felt good having them around, but my actions and words always failed to support these positive feelings. Within a few days, I couldn’t handle the loss of control over my personal space.
In recent years I like to think I’ve improved, but I’m still nowhere near Maya Standard. This time I asked her for some tips. “The first step is to greet them and welcome them with love and affection. Show them to their rooms," she said.
Help your house guest fulfil the purpose of their visit. My aunt always ensures her children and their children get the India experience they crave through the year, especially in culinary matters. “I make sev puri at least once during their visit," she says. “Move aside," she told me when I pitched in with that particular dish. “You are too slow. it will take forever." The menu consists largely of common family favourites such as butter chicken, chicken curry, kheema, Sindhi curry, channa dal, mutton biryani. As far as vegetarian goes, Maya knows “everyone eats salad, fried potatoes, bhindis, methi aloo, beans and sai bhaji." This year she made bottles of home-made mixed vegetable pickle, another family favourite. Her sons and their wives all have hectic working lives abroad, so my aunt ensures they take it easy when they visit.
Like Maya, my sister-in-law Aditi—the world’s second best host—organizes a few things beforehand. She cleans her apartment in Jersey City thoroughly, ensures there is enough linen (including extra blankets) and food supplies for a week, makes closet space, cooks in advance, and has a ready welcome gift if one of the house guests is a child. For first-time visitors, she has an iPhone Note ready with directions and she does a quick introduction to Manhattan drive with them. She always tells her guests how much time she will be able to spend with them.
Like Maya, Aditi customizes the experience for house guests whom she knows well. So when her teenage niece visited, Aditi ensured the larder had chips, marshmallows, Speculoos Cookie Butter and lots of chocolate. She made ice cream and double-checked that she had access to all the American TV channels her niece loved. Bubble bath was procured for the bathroom.
After observing A-list hosts closely, I’m convinced the most important trait you require to be one is patience. Maya tries to pamper her large family individually too. After she served onion fritters one day, her eldest son asked, “Why aren’t there any green chilli fritters?" A plate was promptly sent up from the kitchen but the recipient wasn’t satisfied. “These are the wrong chillies. Also, they haven’t been sliced and stuffed with aamchur," he observed. It was only few days later when mutton biryani was served that he sat back after multiple helpings and smiled: “Finally, something good on the menu." I don’t think I’ll ever be a Maya Standard host.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.
She tweets at @priyaramani