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December 07, 2014

No Food For Dinner

Illustration by Radha Ramachandran

When you have it all you no longer feel the need to impress, maintains Madhu Jain who delves into what luxury means to various people

To wake up to the crowing of a rooster as dawn breaks and hesitatingly dispels the darkness is bliss enough – that is after a full night of deep slumber away from the fumes, noise and frazzle of Delhi. But to hear the rooster’s operatic ‘cuckeroo’ three times a day gets you even closer to heaven. And heaven in this case happens to be in the French countryside, in the Ardeche region close to Lyon – a rather sleepy part of the country not yet invaded by hordes of tourists but rich with little vineyards, many of them vertical in this hilly area.

Rustic preamble
We are in a charming chateau, up on a plateau, with two fat towers, an orchard with pears, strawberries quinces and apples, a vineyard and very tall trees ablaze with leaves turning a glorious yellow. Chateau de Chavagnac, run by an English couple as a bed and breakfast place, is for me a retreat from the 21st century. Rarely have I had the luxury of being in a place or in a situation where time appears to be suspended – the hands of the clock frozen as it were. Rarely have I had the luxury of being totally switched off from the rhythms and spasms of life and work back home. Rarely, has silence been so delicious. And rarely has stress been so unequivocally banished.

I had left my laptop in Paris, and switched off my cell phone. And I don’t possess an iPad. Nor were there any television sets in the rooms. It was almost as if no world existed outside the sleepy countryside. But within the bucolic chateau and its estate of about 35 acres, there was plenty going on quietly, almost surreally. The rooster had a harem of four hens: he followed his own rhythm, crowing three or four times during the day. There were two cats: one of them was always sleeping while the other one slunk about quietly, trying to snuggle into the beds in the rooms of the guests. There were two large dogs: they never barked and acted as if the cats did not exist. And there were three beautiful horses: just a tiny fence separated us from them. And, yes, a couple of foxes that had from time to time made off with a couple of hens. Nature here was largely in sync. Yes, this was peaceful co-existence, far away from the dog-eat-dog-or-bark-at-cat world. And there was an air of indolence about it.

This rather long preamble is supposed to lead to a contemplation of luxury. For me, luxury is getting to be more abstract. It is not something you can possess or flaunt. Once you get what you want (a coveted brand handbag, saucer-size solitaires, fancy cars, jet, a cricket or football team, an obscenely fat bank account, or even becoming an A-lister) it’s no longer as valuable. You want and get more, but somebody else will always have more than you.

Perhaps, those who have got to the tops of the various ladders realise this. A friend recently told me quite an apocryphal story. A friend of hers from Delhi, who was visiting Paris, looked up an acquaintance who invited her to join him for dinner that evening. The hosts were no ordinary people: they were members of the French side of the Rothschild clan. So, she wore her best silk sari and put on all the jewellery she had taken with her. She even had her hair done, eating into her rather meager budget for the Parisian sojourn. The evening did not quite turn out as she had expected. The hosts were in jeans, and guess what was for dinner: hamburgers. The luxury of fine dining – and entertaining – in this city which probably invented fine dining – was for the arrivistes, not for those who had arrived. Hamburgers were the real luxury!

Inverse snobbery
Perhaps the rich, as the ever-quotable writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his short story, The Rich Boy are really different: ‘Let me tell you about the very rich. They are very different from you and me.’ When you have it all you no longer feel the need to impress. Years ago when I was in Paris I was invited to a dinner in a fancy townhouse by a young writer I had just been introduced to. I learned later that she was the daughter of a well-known industrialist. It was all very elegant: tapestries on the walls, the kind of furniture with good legs, contemporary art in abundance, great wines and expensively turned out guests. But the nibbles and dinner: shelled peas in lovely huge bowls. There may have been some cheese laid out; but I am not sure. I suppose when you are so rich a simple meal (no meal actually) can count as luxury. What’s food got to do with dinner?

Some may consider this inverse snobbery. Perhaps, a bit of insouciance is required for true luxury. Garden parties in Delhi winters can be very special. But one lunch party I went to decades ago was very special, given by an industrialist and his wife one lovely Sunday afternoon, in his sprawling garden. The gloved waiters were in white tuxedos; the guests, most of the men were dressed in various shades of Fabindia, their feet clad in Kolhapuri chappals. Those were the days when many women wore handloom saris and huge bindis.

Since the quest for luxury is never-ending, it may be time to change its definition. The ultimate luxury is a state of mind, of being. When you no longer feel the need to impress, you can luxuriate in a bit of indolence.

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