Booze Stories: Two

July 26, 2008

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.


Booze Stories: One

July 8, 2008

I have worked extensively in the North and the South. And I have had some very pleasurable memories of drinking all over India. I write this post to narrate some booze vignettes from the last two decades of steady traveling and steadier drinking!


Brandy in the Mandi:

One indelible image from my travels in Andhra Pradesh during my management trainee days is of the two men who walked into a liquor shop sometime around 1 pm in the afternoon on a weekday. This weekday happened to be in July and the place was somewhere in coastal Andhra. In case you art not familiar with the weather in coastal Andhra in July at 1 pm, specially in the dusty market outdoors, let me tell you that this was something you always hoped would happen to your enemies, or your in-laws. You would never want to be in a situation where the sun overhead is frying your brains, your shirt is clinging to your body due to the copious amounts of sweat you are generating, flies and mosquitoes from the rubbish heaps in the market place swarming all over you and the only thought in your mind is to return into the confines of your hotel room for a prolonged snooze. 


I am sure you would want to know what I was doing at the liquor store at that time of the day on a working day. Well, I was working, and I was not at the liquor store. I was doing something more noble; I was at the pan-wallah next door attempting to get him to stock-up on our range of condoms, the product my company was selling. More about the condoms later, now back to the daaru-shop.


These two gentlemen ordered a half-bottle brandy and two empty glasses. (Brandy was a common drink in Andhra and dispensing liquor was a done thing in the liquor stores in AP.). The sales person promptly pulled out a half-bottle brandy (I think Honeybee was the brand name) and in a jiffy neatly divided the contents equally into two glasses. 187.5 ml each! Some water (or maybe some soda- I do not remember what) was added into each glass and these gentlemen proceeded to demolish the contents in the next seven minutes or so. To aid this process, the bartender pulled out a small plastic pouch of pickles off an array of similar pouches stapled to a calendar-like sheet off the wall and tore open the pouch for his patrons. The patrons dipped their fingers into the pouch and sucked the pickle off their fingers as they gulped in the pleasurable contents of their glasses. Seven minutes later (even before I had made the sale of the condoms to the pan-wallah) the two men had paid off the liquor store owner, wiped their lips and moustaches with the sleeves of their shirts and were off on their next assignment, whatever it was!


Liquor and the art of Telugu numerals:

I have told you earlier I was a management trainee in Andhra Pradesh. Like all fresh management trainees I assumed that the corporate world needed my services to create earth-shattering (and market-busting) strategies. What I had not bargained for was travel across the state and making sure our merchandise was available in adequate quantity across adequate number of stores across the state. And since the diverse merchandise sold by my employer (Gripe Water and condoms) was of use to all infants and men residing anywhere across the length and breadth of the geography one had to travel all over the state. Travel I like, but I was not too happy about taking the 4.30 am train out of Vizag to some god forsaken town. Especially after a late night drinking binge with my colleagues (and their friends) based in Vizag.


There were six of us in the room of one of the reps in Vizag. I still remember the name of the lodge, Jupiter lodge. Much brandy was downed. One bottle, of course, was not sufficient and the junior-most of the group was dispatched to fetch another bottle of brandy. Plates after plates of Chicken 65 were consumed to support the drinking. Many-a-joke was narrated by each of us. I was a rookie among these sales profession, so I remained mostly a silent listener. Someone spoke about his escapades in Peddapuram, while someone narrated his experiences with extra pillows. Someone then started a complex joke revolving around Telugu numerals. As one could appreciate this joke only after knowing the way Andhra-ites count (unfortunately I have forgotten the joke now, but the joke itself is not germane to this story), a good part of an hour was spent by my fellow drinkers teaching me Telugu numerals. 1, 2, 3, 4; wokkati, rendu, moodu, nalugu, ending with enimidi, tommidi, padi; 8, 9, 10.


As I staggered into my lodge (all reps in AP stayed in lodges, the low-end boarding houses where in those days you got a room for Rs 20-40) at around 1 am , I told the guy at the entrance that needed to be woken up at 3.45 and gave him my room number. And then I went to bed and fell fast asleep.


I had barely gone to sleep when I was woken up abruptly. Bang, bang, bang. There was frantic knocking at the door. Groggy with sleep, I staggered from my bed to the door wondering what was going on. Whatever was going on, I wanted to give this assailant a piece of my mind telling him never to wake up a hard-working guy like this in the middle of the night.


I open the door and am about to start on my diatribe when this guys speaks up. While the conversation between us was in a mix of languages; he in Telugu and me in hybrid Hindi and English, here is the gist of what transpired:


“Saar, saar, wake up”

A sleepy me: “Get lost, why should I wake up? Go and wake up someone else.”

He persisted: “No, saar, you should get up.”

I was indignant: “Get lost, who do you think you are to wake me up?”

He was getting positively annoyed now: “Saar, you only asked me to wake you up.”

Angry me, “Bullshit, that must have been someone else”

“No, sir, you said you had a train to catch at 4.30 am and you asked for a wake up call.”

I nearly shut the door on his face saying, “That has to be someone else, not me. You have the wrong room number, my friend!”

My “friend” by now was apoplectic with rage. I had not only spoiled his sleep for my wake-up call but I was even denying the fact that I had asked for such a call at this unearthly hour.

He grabbed me by my collars and pulled me out of the room into the courtyard outside. Twisting my body around to face the door of my room, he indicated the hand-painted room number above the door, “Saar, wokkati…………… wokkati…………. tommidi! WOKKATI, WOKKATI, TOMMIDI,” his voice was fast gaining more urgency and fierceness by now. The chap was reading out my room number and telling me that he had the room number right!


And then, in disgust, he released my collar and went away muttering “wokkati, wokkati, tommidi”. Later, when I reflected about this incident, perhaps he was swearing to himself “If-I-could, I-would-strangle-him, if-I-could-I-would-castrate-him, if-I-could-i-would… etc etc….”


I wonder if it was the impact of the abrupt release of my collar, or the monotonous muttering of “wokkati, wokkati, tommidi”, as the chap was walking away, I woke up with a start. Wokkati,,,etc meant 119. Yes, my room number was 119, and indeed I had asked for a wake up call. And, yes, indeed, I had to catch the 4.30 train to be able to make my date with the distributor there!


So the previous night’s Telugu numerals lesson were of such great help. And I would not have learnt the numerals so quickly if it was not aided by some Honeybee brandy!