Saturday, January 5, 2013

Alcohol, Tobacco and Old Calcutta Wisdom

During many winters, Dhanno ki Amma likes to drag me to the city of her birth -- the city of joy. I get to enjoy the company of my in-laws, meet her extended family, and get the royal treatment that Bengalis like to extend to their jamai-babus, or sons-in-laws.

This winter, was no exception. Calcutta, was cold. My wife's extended family, was warm. And on a specific evening, I was invited to the house of a very senior member of the family, who is an uncle of Dhanno ki Amma. There, while waiting for a lavish meal of Gulda Chinghri Malai-curry (lobsters in coconut milk), Kosha Mungsho (spice fried mutton), Loochee (puffed, deep fried bread) and Nowlen-gur Paiesh (bengali style rice pudding), I was exposed to the collective wisdom of three Bengali gentlemen, from the Calcutta that once used to be.

My wife's uncle, my father in law, and a friend of theirs -- comfortable in their cushy leather sofas -- surrounded me from all sides. First, they offered me single malt whiskey. The kind, that flows down the throat with ease, like the stream in the Scottish highlands, where it probably came from.  Then, they subjected me to the Bengali inquisition, which is a way of finding out if after all these years, I was treating their girl well. And after that, they showered me with their years of accumulated wisdom, which, in this case had more to do with their recent efforts at breaking the law. After all, what other past-time would a respectable Bengali Bhadralok indulge in?!

First, it was my father in law's turn to educate me on the finer details of welcoming four bottles of "international grade" whiskey to Calcutta, while the law allows you only two. After years of international travel, he has figured out the best way to do it. The trick is to buy two bottles abroad, and pack them nicely in the checked luggage, and after immigration, buy two more bottles at the duty free shop. Apparently, the guys in customs, who X-ray the luggage, don't talk to the guys who examine the duty-free stuff. So, both see only two bottles, while you are bringing in four. It sort of works in a way opposite to how you see the world after a few pegs of whiskey -- you see four, while you should see two.

I could see the admiration in the eyes of my fellow drinkers.

Then, it was the uncle's turn. He told me about the old Calcutta days when he would while away hours, smoking cigarettes and chatting with the likes of Soumitro Chatterjee and Sunil Gangopadhay, in the city's old bastion of intellectuals -- the coffee house. During a recent trip to the place, he sat down with a cup, and took out a cigarette to smoke. Then, he asked the orderly to bring him an ash-tray. The man pointed out the prominent "No Smoking" signs on all the walls. When the old man asked him about all the people around him who were smoking, he said, "Sir, the law says no smoking, so, we can't be party to a crime by supplying ash-trays. But, it is the police's job to stop people from smoking, not ours. If you look down, you will see all the cigarette butts and ash. At the end of the day, we will sweep the floor. Have a nice day!" 

I believe the grand old man had fun lighting up on that day.

I was curious about the rather reticent old gentleman, who was enjoying the conversation. The whiskey bottle was now empty and so was his glass. He suddenly took the bottle of soda and poured it down the empty bottle and gave it a good shake. Then, with a wide, and almost childish grin on his face, he offered us a share of the soda-washed whiskey.  Apparently, he had learned this trick at the bar in the Calcutta Club, another surviving relic of the Calcutta of yore. As we declined his offer, he gulped down the last few drops of the whiskey with the "soda wash".

This act -- of going it alone -- almost reminded me of an old Tagore classic, "Jodi tor dak sune keu na ashe, tobe ekla chalo re (If no one answers your call, then, just go it alone!)".


  1. Straight from Calcutta,good one.
    You, a bengali? :)

    1. Thanks Vandana. My wife is a Bengali. I am just a Babu from Des...

  2. Ha ha, yes, now I remember your post about your native place.

  3. 'If no one answers your call, then, go it alone' - loved that line :)