Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Drinking In Chennai

Once every two months, on a Sunday morning, I am woken up by the kabadiwallah who comes to take away the empty booze bottles. The disruption of sleep does not irritate me as much as his landing up on Sunday mornings. That’s when my neighbours, after drawing a kollam at the entrance and lighting incense sticks, leave their doors open.

In such a holy environ, our man would drag a huge sack down the stairs, with the trapped bottles going clink-clink, clink-clink. For long I feared the racket would offend the puritanical South Indian sensibility.

I could imagine my respectable neighbours talking:“Aiyo, what a drunkard he is!”

“We shouldn’t have allowed a bachelor here in the first place.”

“Not all bachelors are like this.”

“No, no, they are all like that. God knows what else he is up to.”

My biggest nightmare was the sack ripping apart in the staircase. The society president would immediately convene a meeting and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are scandalised by this morning’s incident. We are giving him 24 hours to clear out.”

After spending nearly three years in Chennai, I have overcome such nightmares. Yes, I still turn red when I hear the clink-clink, and that’s because I don’t see sacks being pulled out of other houses in the neighbourhood. But I can’t be accused of scandalising Chennaiites. No one can scandalise Chennai with their drinking. If anything, it’s Chennai that scandalises you.

No matter which part of the city you live in, there’s always a booze shop round the corner. It opens when you are returning from your morning walk, and it shuts at 11 pm, though you can try your luck even after that. And during those 15 hours, you drink, drink and drink.

One hot afternoon I went to the shop near my place to buy beer. Two men are already standing at the counter and drinking. As I take out my wallet to check the money, one boy, just sprouting a moustache, comes asking for rum. The shop attendant hears it “gum” and waves the boy away. The boy doesn’t move. He wants his booze but is too shy and timid to argue that it is rum and not gum that he wants. I come to his rescue. “Oh, rum,” the attendant grins, “Which rum?” The boy does not know. Obviously, he is going to drink for the first time.

Just as the boy leaves a man comes. He must be a regular, because the moment the attendant sees him, he places a glass tumbler before the man and, with a funnel, empties half of a quarter-bottle rum into it. The man tears a water pouch with his teeth, tops the glass and then, in less than three seconds, downs the whole thing. He grimaces, lets out a content “Aaaahh” and puts the glass back in the counter. I am yet to buy my beer.

Anyway, the people you find drinking at the counter in the afternoon are the Keshto Mukherjees, who you will find in every city. The real drinking in Chennai goes on behind the shop, in the bars.

Every liquor shop in the city, as a rule, has a bar attached. You’ll find the signboard proudly announcing, “Bar Attached” or “AC Bar Attached.” It's not a bar in the real sense of the word, but a small, smoky -- and often, filthy -- room where drinks are served to you at no extra cost. You only have to pay for the water (which you buy in Chennai in any case) and the snacks. Yes, if it’s an AC room, you pay ten bucks extra. Plus the waiter’s tip.

It is in these dingy, crowded bars that social differences sink every evening in Chennai. You might be a Tamil Brahmin with your nose in the air, or a bank officer, or the area manager of a pharmaceutical company, but the moment you enter the bar, you leave your social status at the door and get ready to rub shoulders with people you would otherwise not like to be seen with.

And you literally rub shoulders with them because, for one, the rooms are very small. Two, if a seat on your table is vacant, they don't ask you: "Can I sit here?" They just claim the seat. You are then left with two options -- sulk at your privacy being ruined or strike a conversation with the newcomer. One usually prefers the latter, because the tolerance they show here for fellow drinkers is infectious. Only in temples have I seen such tolerance. There, it is out of reverence for God. Here, it's the love for liquor. And who's the priest? The waiter. No one dares offend him.

One evening in a bar in Egmore, we -- me and a colleague -- found the waiter shepherding a foreigner to an empty chair on our table. The man, who wore a crumpled shirt and shorts and carried a walking stick, hesitated. "Problem, no! Problem, no!" the waiter assured him. The man, still hesitant, asked us in accented English: "Can I sit here for some time?" Not used to such courtesy, we welcomed him. Conversation began.

He was a Frenchman, living in Paris, who had just retired as a professor of applied mathematics. Besides France, he had taught in several countries -- Zaire, Peru, Cambodia, Cuba, etc. The Zairean women -- he says, drawing a figure in the air -- have good ass, but his fun was cut short when AIDS arrived on the scene.

French President Chirac, he says, is no good as an orator. "Even when he speaks for five minutes on TV, he reads from a teleprompter. I have seen Castro speak for seven hours, non-stop, without looking at any text." Our French friend has seen more of India than both of us, but he has a question for us: "Do Indian brides pay money to the groom to get married?"

He has another question as well: "Why are priests in India so fat?" He asked this while showing us, on his digital camera, photographs of Kancheepuram from where had just returned. I don't remember our answers, but we had found someone to call upon in case either of us went to Paris.

(Extract from a piece I had written for Man's World magazine in 2003. I stumbled upon it today while scanning through my old files).


dazedandconfused said...

Very interesting. I generally prefer my booze at home or at a firends place, though I did have a a few experiences in a dinghy bar like you describe when i was in Sholapur district, Maharashtra, a few years back.

Overall, a fascinating blog.

in2mind said...

Your narrative skills makes even "TASMAC" interesting ! :p

Could you publish rest of the article too?

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Visithra said...

interesting read - it always baffles me the upturned nose against drinking when theres a shop at every corner - weird

Bishwanath Ghosh said...

Dazedandconfused: Many thanks.

Insidemind: Thanks. But the full article might have bored you.

enewss: Will do.

Bishwanath Ghosh said...

Visithra: Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

:) How fun. Reminds me a bit of that article I wrote ages ago on the nightlife of chennai, and uncharitably called 'lifestyles of the dull and dispirited'. except that youre much more empathetic!

Anu Russell said...

hahaha! I lived in Chennai most of my life and never had the pleasure of knowing the existence of a BAR! other than the ones at Ambassador Pallava or Chola...Not that I ever visited them...but your recount was very very hillarious!

Anirudha said...

Very nice post . I like the wway you explained. Hope the mind set changes