The second beer I ever had in my life was when I met the man I was eventually going to marry. The first one, well, was with a close girlfriend of mine who didn’t hesitate to drink while we were growing up in India, someone who might have been considered ‘fast’ in those days!
In the conservative South Indian middle class family I grew up in, any alcohol is bad. Period. The loud drunk man walking down the street at midnight cursing his family and his work people and the whole world in general, while we were trying to sleep after telling each other bed time stories on our cots out in open air in our front yard in summertime is held up as a loud and vivid example of the bad effects of alcohol. The story is that he would go home and beat up his wife and children. Whatever he was cursing about was a great conversation topic while we were brushing our teeth in the morning and getting ready for our morning bath. Furthermore, after we moved to the city, there was a liquor shop across the four lane road our house was on. Come first of the month, there would be way too many drunk men on the side of the road. They would have just blown away their entire paycheck without leaving any money for food or other things for themselves or their wives and children. On top of that, there was a thatched roof ‘dhaba’ down towards the intersection a couple hundred yards away from our house. Those stories of home-made ‘hooch’ contaminated with methanol and people going blind – well, those stories originated from places like this dhaba. Unlike the expensive glittery ‘wine shop’ across the road where only men drank, both men and women drank in this cheap ‘dhaba’. “Laborers” my mom would say. “They drink because they need to forget the physical pain after a hard day’s labor”. Those ‘laborers’ included construction workers who carried bricks in metal baskets over their heads, and those toddy gatherers who climb the tall palm trees to gather both the toddy that’s made into liquor, and the yummy tender toddy palm fruit that is a summer favorite for many including our family.
My dad didn’t drink alcohol, and both my mom and dad had a healthy disdain for those ‘uncles’ who drank whiskey or brandy and got loud and rowdy. As for my mom trying alcohol, how dare such a thought even crossed your mind! Imagine the scene when my mom overheard my brother tell his friend over phone, “I drank some wine and crashed”! Tears streaming down her eyes, she picks up the phone, runs into the bathroom and calls me at some ungodly hour. “He got drunk last night and I didn’t even know it. My son! And drinking! I can’t believe it!! Too much stress in America. He needs to get married!!!” Oh God, here she goes, I think to myself. “Mom, I was sleeping. We’ll chat about it tomorrow. It’s too late. Try to get some sleep”. One thing about my parents is that they make sure their children eat and sleep well. No matter what. Fast forward a few years and I am married. My mother-in-law and my mom are chatting over phone, and my in-law in an attempt to have a friendly fun conversation shares all her son’s escapades with alcohol, late night parties and hangovers and throwing up and all. Even now, she has no idea how many gallons of tears flowed down my mom’s eyes by the time that conversation was over. “Anil is such a lovely man! I couldn’t believe it!! I think she was exaggerating”, my mom says to me over phone the next day. One day when my parents were visiting us and I came home late, unwinding from a state of hyper-focus and submitting a grant application. My dad asked me as he usually did, “Shall I make some ginger chai? It will relax you”. “No poppa, I need something stronger.” Without looking at either of my parents, I reached for a bottle of red wine, poured myself a glass, sank into the couch, extended out the footrest, and stared into our beautiful blue pool and the tall bamboo behind it. I didn’t realize my husband came home until I heard my dad jump on him and yell, “It’s all your fault!”
In the picture is the best cocktail I ever had, a masala chaitini, and a pomegranate mojito one of my best friends had in a London restaurant when we took a short trip together. She, like me, hadn’t touched a drop of etoh in India.