I went for a curry last week as part of a party of 35. That is: 35. Thirty-five. Doesn't even look right when I write it down. As in 35. As in a lot of people. I was part of a party of 35 and, weirdly, it wasn't a complete disaster.
My deep-voiced Northern friend had organised it. He's young and fearless and doesn't, as a rule, play by the rules. Once I saw him wearing a back-to-front cap and kicking a clock down the street. So when he looked at the number of people he wanted to invite to his birthday, and when he looked at the type of activity he'd like to do, nothing 'clicked in' stopping him. This maverick Yorkshireman wanted 34 people to join him for an Indian, and so that's what he damn well organised. And no single recipient of the text had any idea of what the scale of his Indian Feast would be. How could we? So no one stepped in. No one put an arm round him. And it happened. Thirty-five people sat round an Indian table in King's Cross scouring the menu. Drooling over the specials. Karate-chopping the poppadoms. Devouring the shards.
I don't know for certain what the optimum number of people for an Indian might be. Six certainly rings a bell. Six lashed goons, waddling across the road from inn to curryhouse, swaying through the door and docking at a table for bhunas and ribaldry. I have come to an Indian restaurant this evening to write this column, and I am observing such a group even now. Loud-mouthed and optimistic, they clutch their Cobras and fire nuggets of banter at one another, laughing like drains; swearing like troopers. Their baltis are slid under their noses and, like hogs, they drop into their bowls and greedily snout for chillies. On the opposite side of the room a young couple savour a thali. She sips wine, he checks his texts. Near me, a man and his daughters. Over there, squash partners, apparently. I am alone. And, at the table by the window, there is no one. Different sizes of groups. Different vibes. And all guzzling their lovely dishes and rubbing their bellies. But no groups of 35.
I have heard of whole rugby teams going for a curry, and I've gone very pale at the thought of it. Unmanageable. Intimidating. Messy. And yet last week, our group was the equivalent of two whole rugby teams, plus officials, plus one commentator, plus a fan. In a group of that size it goes beyond questions of whether you're sat by people you like. You are immediately writing off at least 25 people; you can catch up with them by email in the week. But once you get down to it, once you've embraced the fact that you won't be able to regale "the whole table" with your anecdotes, once you've settled in – having three-dozen people devouring saag around you is a great source of comfort.
To say we were a mixed blessing for the proprietor would be an understatement. He almost sprained his face trying to combine his two facial expressions. One was gratefulness; that we were swelling his coffers. The other, one of horror at how uncontrollable we were as an organism. Normal ordering, for example, quickly went out of the window in favour of something much less scientific: us saying some words and him and his team giving us some curry. We then had two hours of Indian euphoria, before him asking for "quite a lot of money" and us clubbing together to oblige. One way or another, though, everyone seemed happy. We left his Balti House in very high spirits.
And now I will leave this Balti House. My column is done, and I've ordered a hot serviette to wipe down my keys before closing my laptop. My bill is pristine, and I've enjoyed knocking out my 700 words to the strains of the sitar. But as it comes to an end, I must say I feel lonely. It's been a nice curry, sure. But it's been about 34 people shy of what I would now consider "a great curry".