My earlier piece posted 3 weeks ago had a couple of pieces from my Andhra Pradesh days. Part two has some stories from Punjab.
The milkmen and their source of nourishment:
Punjab was a part of my beat during my days the sales manager in the North. While I was based at Delhi, Punjab being a big market, was a significant part of my travel routine. Punjab those days was still largely a disturbed area. Traveling was not advisable after sunset and the safest place to be in after 6 pm was in the confines of you hotel room. One could travel inter-city only in the early hours of the morning, well before sunrise. So to cover the distance between, say Chandigarh and Amritsar, to be in time for the field work starting at 10 am or so, one would commence one’s journey at around 4.30 am. (One had to budget some time for the surprise checks at multiple points along the route.)
Pre-dawn traffic was mild, one could spot some tractors moving in the foggy countryside. Others regulars were milkmen with large milk vessels slung all across their bicycles. I am sure they would have got up much earlier and after feeding and milking their cattle would hit the road to deliver milk to the local milk-processing centers. What they did on the way back is the topic of interest in this little story.
One common sight during a visit to Punjab is the country liquor shops dotting the state. “Theka Sharab Desi” they are called, written in bold Gurmukhi across the shop frontage. Even at this very early hour the thekas would be partially open, the front shutter up maybe 9-10 inches or so. The theka sales person would be perhaps taking a snooze behind the semi-opened shutter.
On the return journey these milkmen would stop at the thekas. After parking their cycles, they would pull out the lid of one of the empty milk vessels. These lids typically are a couple of inches deep. The upturned lids would be slid through the semi-open shutter and out came the lid filled with the desi daaru. One deep gulp off the lid contents and the customer’s upturned palm would slide into the shutter opening again and pulled out quickly, this time with a handful of salt. Some quick licks off the salt-coated palm and some more deep gulps off the lid. (Now on hindsight, I am apretty sure this must be the origin of tequila. Maybe the lemon was given a miss as it would curdle the milk!) And then the milkmen were off. Off, I am sure to a well deserved siesta after concluding their early morning chores!
A most nourishing start to one’s day, I’m sure!
Patialas in Patiala-land:
During my North sales manager days, drinking after work with colleagues was mandatory. And the preferred choice of all was whisky, “Director’s Special” whisky.
Around eight pm or so, the local sales team would land up in my room, one of them carrying the bottle. Someone would carry a black polythene bag filled with chunks of paneer. The paneer was fresh and soft, but the taste was marred by the packaging which perhaps was extruded from third- generation recycled plastic.
The team would settle in and someone would take control and order stuff. Some soda, some chicken kabab, some masala papad (“with lots of tomato and onion slices on top, please”) and some Coke. Yes, Coke! The Punjabis love their whiskeys with Coke! I forgot, the key thing to have with drinks was a plate of salad, “salaaaaad”, as it was called. And some extra glasses and a bucket of ice cubes.
Shortly thereafter the paraphernalia would arrive. The process was always slow in my companions’ opinion. The wait for the waiter would be punctuated by several calls to the room service threatening to cancel the order as they were taking an inordinate length of time to service it. Anyway, sanity would prevail and by-and-by the waiter arrived balancing the goodies on a tray precariously placed on the upturned palm of his raised left hand. The right hand clutched a greasy-looking jug of water.
The drinking process began; one Patiala after another. Someone would grab the salad plate and squeeze the lemon slices (dirt-lined finger-nails and all ) all over the mix of onion/tomato/kheeera slices. I remember one guy in the team who besides being the most enthusistic tippler was also the master of ceremonies. He would start the drinking process by dipping his right forefinger into his glass of whiskey, ceremoniously pulling it out and flicking the drops clinging to his finger against an unknown space as if in an offering. To Bacchus? It was only then we would all say “cheers” (some would even use the Punjabi transliteration, “Cheeriaaan…”) and start.
Much stories would be told, most of them repeats. But the guffaws and the waah-waahs would continue unabated. The reputation of many an ex-manager was ripped apart, the mysteries of many a distributor and their family narrated. Then, of course, came the turn on bawdy jokes which had a certain ring attached to it when narrated in Punjabi! Amidst all this merry-making someone would realized the DSP bottle had run dry. A quick hunt began to get a replenishment. The junior-most among the revelers was dispatched to fetch another bottle with suitable instructions from the others about the likeliest place to get a bottle at that time of the night. Sure enough the chap appeared carrying a bottle. (The source was nearly always a liquor store near the railway station. ) And the party would continue.
After the demolition of bottle no. 2 many were already rolling on the floor, eyes closed as if deep meditation (eyes wide open if in deeper meditation) and a plateful of kababs next to them. Then someone got the great idea to “drive the spirits away” (“Bhoot bhagana” as it was called). A burning match stick would be lowered into the empty whiskey bottle and cheers would go up all around when the matchstick caused the alcohol vapor to ignite inside the bottle. The process would be repeated till all the alcoholic fumes would be exhausted. Someone then would throw a challenge whether more such flames could be coaxed out of the barren bottle. Bets would be placed and a contest would be on way! The competitors would rub the bottle along their thighs against their trousers trying to coax out the “spirit” to participate in the revelry. A few minutes later, the bottle would give up and a minutes after that even the hardiest of men would follow suit as they pulled out cushions from all over the room and settled down into a deep, inebriated slumber.