House Spirit

By Palash Krishna Mehrotra

“Our attitude to drinking is the same as it is to sex. We don’t do it. But, like sex, we do it all the time. And some states, it seems, do it more than others…

The states with solid drinking reputations are Uttarakhand, Punjab and Kerala. I realized this when I emerged back into the ‘real’ world after spending several years in Dehradun, drinking 8 PM whisky. My first port of call was Bombay. I went to a party and drank too much. A friend turned to me and said, “What’s with the drinking, Palash? Uttarakhand, eh?’ In Delhi, I went to a doctor with a stomach bug. He asked me if I drank. I said yes. How much? I told him. It was way above the NHS recommended daily intake. He asked me where I was from. When I said Dehradun, his eyes lit up. ‘Ah. We’ve had this problem with boys from Uttarakhand.’

Punjab is the Ireland of India. Drinking is more than acceptable. In fact, in Punjab, it’s those who don’t drink who are considered suspect. Prices are among the lowest in the country. It was Punjab after all that gave the world the Patiala peg.

Kerala, the state of melancholic Mallus, is also my favourite place to drink. I love dives (more on this in a bit) and Kerala has plenty. Apart from the local tipple, toddy, Kerala loves its brandy. This came as a pleasant surprise. Coming from the north, I associated brandy with older people. My grandmother always has a shot before she goes to bed. But in Kerala, everyone drinks ‘braandee’. Here’s how you do it: bite into a boiled egg and a piece of bitter gourd pickle, raise your pinky finger and wash it down with half a glass of Honeybee mixed with water. Have another bite; drain the glass. Now you’re a man.”

-From ‘Introduction: Pure Premium Drinking Experience’ by Palash Krishna Mehrotra

“If you ever find yourself on one of Kerala’s highways with an hour or five to spare, keep your eyes open for a distinctive black-and-white signboard by the side of the road. This board will have, in its centre, the single word ‘Kallu’ in Malayalam, and above it, a legend like ‘T. S. No. 189,’ the number being subject to change. If a few kilometres go by and you spot no such board—which in itself would be remarkable—you should flag down the first passing male cyclist or pedestrian and say just one word with a questioning drawl: ‘Shaaaaaap?’ If it is particularly early in the morning, throw in a sheepish smile for good measure.
You must note here that the drawl is everything. If you simply say ‘shop,’ you will get either an indifferent shrug or a vague gesture towards an establishment selling soap, toothbrushes and packets of potato chips. If, however, you get it right and say ‘Shaaaaaap?—like ‘sharp’ but without the burr—you will get an animated nod and detailed directions to the nearest
toddy shop….

Toddy-shop food is strategically kicked into a high orbit of spice, so that customers constantly demand more toddy to soothe their flaming tongues. Our mussels, which arrived first, had been quick-roasted with coconut, curry leaves and coriander, and then buried under lashings of chilli powder. Done differently, in another dish, the mussels looked like giant spiders that had waded heroically through batter only to then accidentally fall into hot coconut oil.

But the staple of every toddy shop is its kappa-meen curry combination. The kappa—bland, steamed lumps of tapioca, tempered with coconut and chillies—is such dense starch that,
according to the laws of physics, light should not be able to escape it. It would be inedible without its thin, oil-slicked fish curry that, in happy symbiosis, would in turn be inedible without the kappa. All toddy shop meen curries come furiously red with industrial dosages of chilli powder. In the average curry, the fish is incidental, a temporary tenant in, rather than the owner of, its overwhelming gravy. The question of which fish you would like in your curry is perfunctory and academic; you won’t be able to tell the difference….

In Kerala, where toddy is as much of a state passion as football or Communism, canvassing views about the relative merits of various toddies is a thankless venture. Every man will have an
opinion, for starters, and he will not be stopped until he has expounded every facet of it, accompanied wherever possible by proof of a practical nature. The only vote that approaches anything resembling unanimity is about where in Kerala the best toddy is to be found. That would be in the Alappuzha district, which has long operated under the alias of Alleppey, drawing
tourists to its backwaters as a siren would Ithacans. Alleppey is the toddy shop mother lode, where shops glint like nuggets every few metres.”

-From ‘On an Odyssey Through Toddy Shops’ by Samanth Subramaniam

“I was born with a defect – but, then again, I don’t know if I was born with it or acquired it. Can you acquire a defect? Maybe I’m looking for a different word. It’s not a defect in the sense that my heart murmur, discovered when I was two and a half, was one. The cause of the murmur was attended to when I was thirty-six years old, and, until then, caused me no distress – it was mainly distressful to my family. This other defect I mention wasn’t actually noticed until I was an adult, and, even then, people saw it less as a defect than as perversity. I’m talking about the fact that I don’t drink. This isn’t a stance I’ve taken on behalf of a world-view or an ideology. That would have been forgivable. No, I don’t drink because I feel no craving for drink. This is seen by the people I encounter socially not only to be inexplicable but suspect. For, to deliberately reject pleasure is sinister. As D.H. Lawrence said of ‘people who are genuinely repelled by the simplest and most natural stirring of sexual feeling…they nearly always enjoy some unsimple and unnatural form of sex excitement, secretly.’ Over the years, I’ve realized that this absence, in my brain, of whatever lobe it is that instructs you that you’re missing the taste of alcohol is probablya mysterious pathology. Once you’re discovered, you are looked upon as the last surviving human being might be by the new colonies of body snatchers: with hostilityand accusation. They nod and smile when you refuse the glass, but the eyes say, ‘What? You look just like one of us.’

This isn’t to say I don’t drink. I began drinking beer when I was sixteen years old because it seemed to go well with playing the guitar and being a young man. Opening the can with an inaugural pop gave much satisfaction; I poured, and admired the surplus of froth on the top; I liked the mild bitter cold taste. After five sips, I grew bored of the increasing tepidity. Finishing a glass was hard work, requiring diligence and commitment. If alcohol is an acquired taste, I didn’t have the patience or respect to undergo the socialization necessary to my acquiring it. The love of drink either had to come naturally or not at all. Also, to my misfortune, the taste had a faint resemblance, for me, to medicine. But the polite drinking I was introduced to as a student in Oxford, I enjoyed – wine, port – though, strangely, perhaps crassly, I enjoyed other things (like eating an egg and cress sandwich) even more. I discovered I liked German Riesling. My taste had nothing to do with refinement or understanding. In relation to Riesling or port, I was like the person who confesses his favourite raga is Kedar while admitting to knowingnothing about classical music.Also, like the person who loves Kedar but gets progressively bored of it after fifteen minutes, my capacity for Riesling was half a wine glass. After that, I reached saturation point and had to force myself. Not only did I not have loyalty to the concept of drinking, I lacked, as cricketers say, temperament.”

-From ‘Some Pathologies’ by Amit Chaudhuri

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