When I heard that someone name Tareq Salahi had crashed the State banquet for Manmohan Singh, I just assumed he must be desi. After all it is a fine desi tradition -- crashing big parties, especially ones involving food.
Salahi is not desi, but he's following in the footsteps of a hoary tradition. In a gray recession, with one out of eight Americans on food stamps, the Salahis' crash landing into the first official state banquet of the Obama administration is strangely in keeping with an almost forgotten slogan of "yes we can."
The economy might be down, but yes we can still crash the party for the Indian prime minister.
Actually it made sense that if you have to crash a State dinner you crash the one for the Indian prime minister. (Of course, you could say it is proof that desis have arrived, that even non-desis are crashing our dinners!)
Indians have always had wedding crashers. Our weddings are big. Often they are arranged marriages, so both sides don't really know each other. The wedding crasher is assumed to be a guest of the "other side."
Unlike church marriages, we don't have a groom's side of the pews and a bride's side of the pews. So the interloper can just mingle with the crowds, smiling and nodding and keeping an eye out for dinner.
We had our share of wedding crashers. But we didn't realise it till well after my sister's wedding. When the wedding photographs came back from being developed we found some well-dressed young men at the dinner table.
My mother probably thought they were my brother-in-law's friends. My brother-in-law probably thought they were my friends. It turned out none of us knew them. They looked perfectly at home, tucking into the chicken, smiling at the photographer.
Desi weddings often have their own Secret Service, usually a cousin, who was supposed to screen the guests, casually monitoring the dinner tables to see if someone looked out of place. He failed miserably. But we were more forgiving than the White House. We did not institute hearings.
Desi wedding crashers know the rules well as did Tareq Salahi when he and his wife Michaele snuck into the reception without an invite.
- Dress well so you look like you belong.
- If it's a wedding, a gift-wrapped empty box is a good accessory. Present it with a smile. Introduce yourself with as generic a name as possible. Shankar or Ravi will do.
- Smile with confidence. Make small talk with people around you. At least nod and smile. (Nothing gives away a party crasher as someone who is just lurking quietly near the buffet)
- Bring an accomplice so you have someone to talk to.
- If a low level functionary challenges you at any point, pull rank, drop names. Act indignant. They will back down. The steps in the how-to-crash-a-party guide are unchanged.
But the Salahis are cut from a completely different cloth than our neighbourhood party crashers. My sister's wedding crashers were probably local young men who scoured the neighbourhood looking for weddings, for gates with floral signs like Manish Weds Sunita.
They were not looking for their 15 minutes of fame and reality shows. They were young men of modest means who ironed their shirts and shaved in the hopes of scoring a good meal. They wanted to eat their fill and fade into the night.
Of course, there have been stories of young men who sneak into weddings with the hopes of making off with jewellery and cash. But that didn't happen at my sister's wedding. The nameless young men in my sister's wedding photograph valued their anonymity. In fact, their success depended on it. They didn't want to be recognised.
The Salahis, on the other hand, could not wait to post their pictures on Facebook. Their success depends on maximum publicity. They are the toxic products of the reality show culture where fame, even it is fame for crashing a party, is the final frontier.
It may have backfired for Salahis. Now we aren't sure that Michaele Salahi will make it to the Real Wives of Washington DC. But that's just pocket change now. They've made the real big time. They turned down Larry King Live. They appeared on Matt Lauer. And they achieved what they wanted to -- for a few days they ruled the news cycle.
No one is talking about what Dr Singh and Obama discussed. The Salahis are the guests who came to dinner and hijacked the party. Now they complain about being besieged by paparazzi and feeling like their home is being invaded! Aah for the days when all one hoped was that the chicken biryani was good, not whether or not one would land a reality show and an appearance on Larry King Live.
It's as if in those days the old party crashers did it for the art. Now they do it for fame and money. It almost makes you nostalgic for a more innocent age of party crashing.
Sandip Roy hosts Up Front, a culture radio program on KALW 91.7 in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is associate editor with Pacific News Services and New California Media. He has won the Katha Prize for Indian American fiction.