He wants me to meet a friend of his, someone who’s recently moved to Delhi as well.
“I’ve always wanted you guys to meet,” the host says, cleaning squid on his kitchen slab, “Both of you have such strong personalities — I’ve often wondered what would happen.”
This makes me so self-conscious, my strong personality takes an instant nosedive.
Fortunately, there are no uncomfortable silences. My friend’s friend is talking about himself, all the people he knows in town: “I had dinner with Jaswant yesterday. He’s a friend of my dad’s. And you know, when I was writing up my PhD, Manmohan promised to help me out. I went over to his office one day and we got talking and then Manmohan said…oh god! did I just say Manmohan? And you know, Rahul told me, ‘join my party’, but I said, Rahul, no, not now, maybe in a few years…”
I’m beginning to enjoy myself. For namedroppers are great — they take the pressure off you in social gatherings. They talk. You listen. I’m beginning to relax, take it all in, when the namedropper throws a quick one at me: “And what about you? I believe your dad’s a famous poet?”
Caught off guard, I fumble for words: “Well, I suppose so…” I don’t know what to say. And then, much to my relief, our man moves on to a story about another Delhi politician. We should just let our poets be. Famous? Are poets famous anymore? Quiet oblivion is more like it.
Listening to our man, I’m thinking Delhi must be the namedropping capital of the country. Bombay comes close, except that namedropping in Bombay is limited to film stars. Every struggling scriptwriter or director in Versova, for example, claims deep and lasting friendship with Amitji and Naseer Bhai. But references to the world outside of Bollywood only lead to confusion. A star struck bureaucrat, sitting next to a famous ghazal singer at an awards function in Bombay, bragged to her that he was an IAS officer. The genuinely puzzled singer asked him what IAS stood for: “Is it the Indian Airlines Service?”
In Delhi, on the other hand, the namedroppers have more names to drop. It might have been restricted to politicians earlier, but now, in newly cosmopolitan Delhi — a city, where even those with old money and old connections behave like arrivistes — one meets many who don’t hesitate to drop names of film stars, bureaucrats, fixers, newspaper editors, fashion designers, writers and musicians.
At a literary festival, I once met a writer who bragged he was part of V S Naipaul’s A-team. He was only half-joking when he said that. I’ve met a young to-the-manor-born journalist who told me how Ness (Wadia) handed him the keys to his Ferrari on the Bombay-Pune Expressway, not to mention lazy afternoons spent in the Andaman’s with Vijay (Mallya). On another occasion, I was having a drink at the Press Club with a journo who sprang up the moment his phone rang and ran out of the room screaming to the world at large: “Can you believe it? Mammooty’s on the line from Trivandrum!”
It’s not just writers and journalists though who namedrop. Musicians do it all the time too. The other day, I was privy to the following conversation about Talvin Singh — the well-known British Asian electronica musician — between a fan and a local DJ:
DJ: So did you go for Talvin’s gig at Blue Frog?
Fan: I did. Hated it. Terrible. I don’t know what happened to him. Used to be so good.
DJ: I know. I’m no fan of his myself. Uh, hold on…a message from somebody on my phone…oh, can you believe it? My friend’s just messaged me. He says Talvin gave an interview to one of the Bombay papers yesterday in which he says I’m a genius.” And finally, there was this guy who, at every party, announced himself as Anoushka Shanker’s boyfriend. Anoushka, of course, was nowhere to be seen, and then, one day, we read in the papers that she’d got married. These Delhi namedroppers remind me of my grandmother’s driver in Dehra Dun. You take one ride with him and he’ll drop more names than your average Delhi journalist. Of course, the canvas and scale is vastly different, but the impulse is the same. He’ll point to passing cars and identify them by their owners:
“Yeh Khosla saab ki mother-in-law ki gaadi hai. This one is Joshiji’s son’s car. And that one over there, the black one, that Skoda belongs to Manu Khurana…” I don’t know these people: wholesale traders, property dealers, doctors, assorted small town notables. My grandmother’s driver doesn’t know them either. But he knows of them. And he knows their cars. His own sense of importance is linked to the status of others.
There was a time when people believed in concealing their connections. It was bad manners to drop names. Not anymore. In neo-cosmopolitan New Delhi, a city obsessed with power politics and capitalist celebrity culture, it’s ok to flaunt your connections. After all, in this fast-paced world, we get about five minutes to network at a party. If I don’t tell the stranger in those five minutes about the people I know, he’ll never remember who I am.
Since it’s legit to boast nowadays, let me share a little secret. Tonight I’m having dinner with Salman. And guess what, Vicky Seth’s coming too. Hope to see you there. What? You’re not invited? Tut, tut. What can I say. Get a life.