If you’ve seen upwardly mobile Indians lately – which is a roundabout way of saying if you’ve kept your eyes open lately – you would have noticed how incredibly sophisticated they have become. They drive fancy cars, wear cool eyeshades that match their Bermuda shorts, bark out Americanisms like “cut to the chase” and even play golf. But the area where their progress from crudeness to elegance has been breath-taking is their attitude and behaviour towards alcohol. If you throw your mind back twenty years, you will recall that drinking used to be considered wicked in India, much in the way that gambling was. The two vices were always linked in my mind, probably because the Hindi movie villain would invariably plan devious plots at the gambling table with a glass in his hand (and Monica standing seductively at his side). My mother would lecture me on the evils of alcohol while my father nodded in sage agreement, undeterred by the drink in his hand.
In those days, Indians started drinking when far away from their parents, relatives and well-wishers, usually in the college hostel. And they developed the habit in a quiet, unobtrusive – one might even say furtive – manner, devoid of any ostentation. They usually indulged in the activity with friends at a bar. And they did not consider stocking the stuff at home where it would be visible in broad daylight. On the rare occasions that they hosted a ‘wet’ party at home, they would serve their guests from the single bottle purchased on the way home from office, about an hour previously. And the bottle was invariably either Old Monk Rum or Bagpiper Whisky: the only choice that the guests had was the amount of water and ice they wanted with the drink.
But moving up the economic ladder has meant ascending the social staircase too. Serving alcohol has now become a serious Indian pastime. We purchase an elegant walnut cabinet, find an unobtrusive, yet clearly visible, place for it in our living room, stock its lower shelf with spirits and liqueurs, load the upper one with an assortment of glasses and place a mini refrigerator stocking ice, soda and beer next to it. “It’s a pain,” we explain if we’re asked (or if we’re not), “to walk to the kitchen every time.” Standing behind the cabinet, we dispense drinks like benign royalty… to both men and women.
And that brings me to the other sophistication related to drinking among Indians: women taking up the habit. In the last two decades, women have come a long way on the alcoholic road (or perhaps I should say spiritual path). In army parties twenty years ago, waiters in stiffly starched uniforms would walk around, serving soft drinks to the women sitting together in a cluster, and whisky to the officers standing in a separate group (I used to think army officers are not allowed to sit). Drinks would flow until the senior-most officer had had enough. And, since the ability to drink long and hard is a key criterion for progress in the army, this invariably meant lengthy nights. Sometimes, the general’s wife – filled to the brim with Fanta and tired of sitting in the same position on the same sofa, surrounded by the same junior officers’ wives hanging on to her every word – would walk up to the general, pluck the glass from his hand and announce, “He’s ready to eat.”
In two decades, women have progressed dramatically and left those days of sitting quietly on the sofa swilling Fanta far behind them. It took dedication, perseverance and practice – the same traits exhibited by your serious Olympics athlete in training – but they did it. They started by acclimatizing themselves to the bitter taste of liquor through a drink called “shandy” – one-quarter beer and three-quarters Limca. Then they began more serious training by developing a taste for wine. From wine, they graduated to fancy cocktails and from there, took the big leap to regular spirits.
At a recent party, I noticed my friend, who is usually inseparable from his whisky, sipping orange juice.
“What happened?” I asked, “Are you sick?”
“Lost the toss to my wife,” he said grimly, “I have to drive.”
Paddy Rangappa is a freelance writer based in Singapore. Read more on his blog: http://theflip-side.blogspot.com