Dinner with Hamilton Naki, Jane Austen and Rasputin
There are moments in life, when one asks oneself – should one go out of one’s way to clean one’s house, spend time pottering around a hot kitchen, blow-dry one’s ‘humiditised’, de-humanised hair, all for the sake of a dinner party?
The answer is mostly “no”; unless of course the dinner party is a fictional account that will be confined to this website and the guests are celebrated icons, yanked from the seas of time and placed unceremoniously on my second-hand, scratched and battered dinner table. I am comfortable with fictional dinner parties. I don’t need to strap on heels or any other accoutrements for them.
First, the menu. I once read that everything in life that is fun is either immoral, illegal or fattening, so I will aim to choose two of these three items to ensure a good time. Immorality has no place on my dinner table.
Our starter will be a lively cheese platter, procured from Agha’s (before the fire) at the nominal price of a black market kidney (or two!). The star will be a stinky cheese (no cheese platter can serve its pretentious purpose without a considerably stink-ridden cheese), then some casually tossed cashews and other nuts as well as a paste or pâté of the ‘liverine’ variety. The main course will continue our theme of cardiovascular persecution with a juicy rib eye steak with all the trimmings. Vegetarians are not welcome at my table. Take your carrots and soapboxes somewhere else. If by some modern medical miracle my guests are able to soldier through to dessert, I will not disappoint their valiant efforts. Dessert will hold its own for being a dark chocolate ganache, dripping with salted caramel sauce. A Mardi Gras in the mouth.
Now who to share this meal with? Strangely, an obituary I read in The Economist in 2005 comes to mind. The obit read: “Hamilton Naki, an unrecognised surgical pioneer died on May 29, aged 78.” Hamilton Naki was a self-taught heart surgeon and if this isn’t interesting enough, he was on the team which performed the first human to human heart surgery in South Africa. Yet the blaze of publicity, accolades and adoration that come with this achievement were not directed at this quiet, unassuming black man. The colour of his skin meant that he would languish in the shadows, unrecognised, uncelebrated and uncompensated for this feat and Christiaan Barnard, a white surgeon, would take all the glory. In fact on that day in 1967, after accomplishing this incredibly complex operation, Barnard faced the world’s adoring press, while Mr Naki took a bus home to his one room hut with no electricity. A room he lived in until the day he died. When he died, he drew a gardener’s pension of $275 a month from the same hospital that he had helped put on the global map. I have often wondered about this man. What went through his heart? Was there any bitterness behind his benign smile? I also wonder how an uneducated man can teach himself liver and heart transplantation. I believe Mr Naki will be a quiet yet interesting presence on my table. And it will be an honour to have him.
From Apartheid to a completely different world. I would like to have Jane Austen curled up on my couch, sipping an adult beverage and bringing her sharp wit and biting social commentary to the conversation. I would like to talk to her about modern day Pakistan and how familiar some of the themes and characters in her stories are to the ones I witness every day. I have always wondered which of her characters most closely matches her own personality. Bossy Emma? Proud Elizabeth? Sensible Elinor? Austen has been an all-time favourite of mine since the days of school uniforms and unrequited crushes. She has been my go to companion throughout life’s vicissitudes and attitudes. I think Jane and Hamilton (we are on a first name basis now) will hit it off – both have lived in repressive social structures and yet risen above them. I think I may be developing a theme.
NO, my last guest is not Malala Yusufzai, although I feel like I understand the pattern you may be developing in your mind. I think I shall give the third and final seat at my fete to Rasputin; Russian mystic, alleged healer and the favoured advisor of Queen Alexandra, Tsarina of Russia. He has long been a mystery to the world. How did a man go from being an illiterate Siberian peasant to becoming the most influential and feared name at the Tsar’s court? So much so that church officials and cabinet ministers were not appointed without his blessing. I still remember the picture of a dishevelled man with piercing black eyes and crow like features staring back at me from my history books. What was he really like? I would like to hear his story, study his character and understand what it was about him that gave him the influence and presence to eventually cripple the powerful Russian royal family and eventually led them to their end. Before you start to think that this may be a very boring choice, let me say that Rasputin was also known for being the life of any party and for his raucous and outrageous stories. Considering he wandered across half of Russia on foot and joined several gypsy cults along the way, I think he will have much to contribute to the conversation.
As the mother of a toddler I will start hinting that the end of the evening is approaching pretty early. I will do all the passive aggressive things a young child’s mother does to hurry the departure of her guests… I will switch on the nursery monitor, loudly exclaim how early I have to get up the next morning and profusely complain about the inefficiency of my hired help. The men will take the hint gallantly but Jane will cheekily request a nightcap and a doggy bag. I will graciously agree and we will gossip about Mr Darcy for another hour.
As I clear the dishes, I will receive thank you WhatsApp messages from all three with just enough emojis to communicate their satisfaction without seeming too juvenile or over eager. We will start a chat group which will be active for about a month before we each run out of stuff to say and then things will gradually become dormant, save for the odd “Happy Birthday” or “Congratulations” message. Eventually I will delete the group and no one will notice.
Nida Haider Khan is Managing Partner, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi. email@example.com