Almost a month ago EllaDee tagged me to host a virtual dinner party:
– Five guests and oneself. While relatives are permitted, it will be more interesting if guests are public figures – dead or alive, speaking any language – or even fictional characters.
– In turn, tag five others to hold Virtual Parties of their own.
For reasons that don’t concern us here, the only party I’ve had in this house was for New Years Eve just after I’d moved in, so I thought it would be fun if my virtual party were to be a “Farewell Sri Lanka – Get Ready For the Next Phase of Your Life’ type of party – before the house is broken up into what I can take with me, and what is to be sold. This latter consideration is important, because the dining room table can’t go.
My original guest list began with Aristotle and Homer, Vyasa and Valmiki, segued over to Chaucer and Boccaccio, circled back to Herodotus and Ptolemy, Fa Xian and Ibn Battuta, and more muscular explorers like Shackleton, and David Noble (the Australian Parks and Wildlife officer who discovered the Wollemi Pine), the monk and author Walpola Rahula and … But the rules! Bear with me. There’s an art to creating the perfect guest list for a dinner party …
My table seats eight, so it’ll be six virtual guests, my mother and me.
Dorothy never saw me in my own home here in Sri Lanka, and although she came to accept this aspect of my life, I think it’s appropriate she see, posthumously, just who her daughter became. In any case she’s the person I’d most like to discuss the party with, afterwards, and I know she’ll enjoy the other guests, because she loved to be amazed.
I’d like her to catch an astral plane to Battaramulla, at 8 pm. It will be a full moon night and the other guests will have stepped off their astral plane – or magic carpet – too. Let me introduce you.
Richard Dawkins – zoologist, evolutionary biologist, notorious atheist and author. I was among twenty or so guests at dinner with Professor Dawkins and his wife here at the Galle Literary Festival in January, and although he told me he has no idea what precipitated the Big Bang – which in my view puts his atheism in a similar category to other’s theistic or creationist beliefs – I love his take on life, the universe, religion, and humanity.
Which is why, when I introduce him to you, I’m sure to tease you with this quotation attributed to him:
“Personally, I rather look forward to a computer program winning the world chess championship. Humanity needs a lesson in humility.”
I couldn’t agree more!
I’ll begin the conversation this time by asking him about NASA’s Hubble XDF photograph – what they’re calling a “time tunnel into the distant past” – and scientists’ latest estimate of the Big Bang occurring 13.7 billion years ago. That’s very specific, isn’t it?
Now this is where I’d like to be able to turn to Vyasa so we could talk about this in relation to the Hindu view of the cycles of the universe. Since I wasn’t allowed to invite him, Alfred Russell Wallace – representing the great age of the amateur – will have to take up the topic. The conversation should get interesting because like most of his contemporaries, with the notable exception of Einstein, Wallace grappled with the schism between observable scientific facts and the creationist ideals that bound society so strongly at the time.
Simone de Beauvoir – intellectual, author, feminist (and also a notable atheist) – is sure to have plenty to say about all this too, as an existentialist.
If there’s a lull, or the scientists monopolise the conversation for a while, I’ll grab the opportunity to ask Ms. de Beauvoir to elaborate about her life with Sartre, and her (mis)adventures with Algren in America. And to tell her “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter” is possibly the most engaging and truthful biography of a childhood I’ve ever read – as pleasing now as when it first captivated me thirty odd years ago – that in fact her autobiographical trilogy has withstood the all the culls necessitated by several transcontinental and international moves and still retains a place of honour on my groaning bookshelves.
John Keay, the historic synthesiser and author, with his deep knowledge of South and Southeast Asian geography and civilisations, might question Wallace on his evolutionary observations in Indonesia or the Rio Negro. And if Keay doesn’t, I’ll talk to him about Penny Oosterzee’s “Where Worlds Collide: The Wallace Line”, which I thought provided one of the most thrilling of peeps into our planet’s geological evolution.
I’ll want to talk to Keay about his travels, and his books, but particularly “Mad About the Mekong” – which followed the 1866-67 French Mekong Exploration Commission’s journey upriver in search of a navigable route to China – how it had been a source of inspiration in planning my own trip down the Mekong after Ma died.
All this talk of Southeast Asia will be making Dorothy a little antsy (she was always very Euro-centric in her passions), until we talk about the ‘discovery’ of Angkor and its magnificent stone relief carvings depicting the life and history of the lands of the great river. Wallace and I will talk with him about the extraordinary hydrology of the river that protects the Delta from salination and leads to the annual reversal of the Tonle Sap River, refilling the great lake and bringing life back to the inland fisheries and paddy fields of Angkor.
Hearing the accent, Wallace will remind Jan Morris that he too had been born in Wales and Ms. Morris will tell him that there was often discussion as to whether Wallace was a Welshman or an Englishman! Being a proud Welsh nationalist, Ms. Morris is sure to come down toward the latter, but it will be happy banter. The ex-intelligence officer, journalist and author will talk to Wallace about adventures on Everest in 1953 when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first people to ever summit the mountain – and the pell-mell race back down to wire the news to the world in time for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.
Ms. Morris will want to quiz Sir Richard Burton about life on the Frontier and the spying game during the Raj – who better to do so than the author of “Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress” – the first of the Pax Britannica trilogy about the rise and fall of the British empire.
The conservative in Ma will want to be scandalised by the reputation of Burton – linguist, explorer, Orientalist, spy, poet, fencer and diplomat, but they had a couple of things in common. Burton was born on 19th March, Ma’s birthday (well really, it’s the other way around!), and the Royal Geographical Society – which her esteemed ancestor Sir Roderick Murchison co-founded and presided over during the 1850s when it funded Burton’s infamous Hajj to Medina, and his ill-fated exploration of the Great Rift Lakes in search of the source of the Nile.
Though he is reputed to have been irascible, his flair suggests great charm and he will quickly draw my mother into the conversation, in Italian, which she’ll follow avidly while mostly keeping her appalling Australian-accented Italian to herself.
We’ll all want to talk to him about his life of adventure – the things he saw, the places he explored, his insights into the cultures of peoples of different faiths. Ma and Jan Morris will talk of their delight at the “One Thousand and One Nights”. The old man is sure to make some remark about Ms. Morris’s own sexual adventures and although she hates to be defined as the ‘sex-change’ person, will respond frankly to a man whose career was probably halted by rumours of sexual ambiguity.
Burton is sure to be fascinated by Morris’s “Conundrum”, which makes her the ideal person to draw him out on the persistent charges of homosexuality and the rumour that his wife, Isabel Arundel, had in fact had the last rites administered to him posthumously, after first burning his papers in the garden. Rather than silencing the rumours, this act seems to have kept us guessing about his beliefs and his proclivities through the decades. In any case, the burning scene in their Trieste garden made an enigmatic ending to “The Collector of Worlds, a terrific novel based on his life by Iliya Troyanov, I say.
Speaking of Trieste, I’ll tell Sir Richard that Jan wrote about the city where he had been posted as British Consul in 1873, but that it was “Venice” her biography of La Serenissima – published fifty years ago – that first fired my imagination to explore deep into the mysteries of the most magical city on earth …
No, we won’t feed on ambrosia – living people are present after all. Since it is a virtual party, we will have many virtual Kumaris to whip up a simple menu centred around my friend Mo’s famous Crab Curry – and Cadju Curry, Dorothy’s favourite. I can think of nothing better designed to create immediate esprit de corps and conviviality than the slow and delicious process of excavating the sweet fragrant meat from every joint and carapace.
Hovering above – virtually – are the bloggers I wish to tag:
Kate Shrewsday because I’d be fascinated to meet anyone she invites to a Virtual Party.
Creative Signe, who so often talks about things that interest or upset me – and because her partner is a chef and if I’m lucky perhaps she’ll invite me in return!
Adair You – who loved “Wolf Hall” too, as simple as that.
The Urge to Wander – because I’d love a South Indian feast and to spend time in Madhu’s purple living room, and because she has the wanderlust, and we could talk endlessly about the marvels of the world.
Tea Break with a Pirate – who’s lived in places I’ve only dreamed about!