Absolut Nonsense

by Pam

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It isn’t late but it is dark, and I know I’ll want a nightcap before bed; Phil is out of town and after some random creep exposed himself to me on the street awhile back, I am still a little nervous about being left on my own. So I decide to brave a trip to the liquor store before it gets any later.

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I slip on a dark coat and scarf, and head for the main road, planning to hop into one of the many tuk-tuks that Kali and I dodge on our walks each day; but the roads are nearly empty, and the tuk-tuks that do pass are occupied.

There are two liquor stores in our neighborhood, and both are within easy walking distance; or they would be, if I wasn’t alone, white and female. The only thing I really have going for me is that most Indians are terrified of my dog. My very small dog, who loves everybody. But having her with me attracts the wild street dogs, so as far as safety goes, it’s probably a wash.

Kali and I are starting to gather the attention of more and more of these snarling dogs, who change from sleepy ragamuffins by day into menacing monsters by nightfall; I decide that perhaps just walking to the store is a better idea. I stand on the corner for a few minutes longer, trying to decide which liquor store to go to: the place where you order through chicken wire, or the Wine Baron, which is a bit further, but plush by comparison.

I head toward the Wine Baron but get spooked after half a block when a scooter with its lights off almost runs me down, and a group of thin men show a little too much interest in Kali and me. We scurry back to the corner and stand under the streetlight.

I resent the limitations that come with being a white woman in India. I miss being able to go about my business unnoticed, without the curious and leering stares. When I walk in this neighborhood, I carry a rock in my hand, both to fend off feral dogs, and to knock out the teeth of the chubby pervert on the brown scooter who decided I needed to see his willy a few weeks back. I resent being scared. I am determined not to give in, and now I want a nightcap long before bedtime.

Finally, a tuk-tuk stops, and I climb in, dog first. The hunchback driver, who is probably drunk himself, adjusts the side mirrors so he can look at me in both of them. I point up the road and say, “Vine Baaron, Vine Baaron.” I’ve developed my Indian English to the point now where I can usually make myself understood. Though it is rare to find a driver who speaks anything but his native tongue, most will know where to find a liquor store.

For the most part, women in India don’t drink.

For the most part, India makes me want to drink.

There are days when I’ve considered riding out the rest of the year in a Valley of the Dolls stupor, fueled by bad liquor and easily obtainable prescription drugs. In my fantasy I’d lounge all day, watching noir movies from the 1940’s in a pink bed jacket with fluffy, white trim on the sleeves. There would be bed trays with silver domes over silver plates, and on the plates there would be a selection of colorful ways out of the day. In my fantasy the calendar pages would tear off of their own accord, and spin. But after a half a day of lying in bed with a horrific hangover, this didn’t seem like such an attractive option.

Still, at the end of the day – I do love to sip a small glass of delicious single-malt whisky.

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There is no delicious single malt whisky here. There are instead Indian whiskies with names that either sound like a dare (Royal Challenge, Officer’s Choice), or they conjure images of the British Raj (Diplomat, Black Knight, Red Knight, Imperial Blue, Aristocrat). Most are available in juice boxes.

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In the rest of the world, whisky is made from grain. In India, whisky is made from molasses – doctored with whisky flavoring. Which technically makes it whisky-flavored rum. The same goes for the vodka and gin.

Alcohol is a growing market in India, and is fiercely protected. There is even an official category of hooch called IMFL, Indian Made Foreign Liquor. This means that various types of brand name alcohols are distilled, bottled and sold in India, but using India’s recipes, instead of the traditional, good, recipes. The IMFL version of Smirnoff vodka is really vodka-flavored rum that unleashes a demonic hangover. Actual imports carry a 52% tax. Well worth it.

Aside from the tourist destinations like Goa, India doesn’t appear to be much of a party place. The state of Gajurat is dry, and various holy sites have liquor bans. During elections, alcohol is banned for a week leading up to the elections. Liquor is also banned on major religious holidays. In Bangalore, dancing and live music are actually illegal. The few pubs that do exist close down at eleven PM. On Saturday nights, people line up outside the juice bar sipping pineapple juice and lime sodas, or outside the ‘milk bar’ drinking God knows what.

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The emaciated guard watches me tie Kali to the handrail and digs his fingers deep into his balls. Men grab at themselves a lot in India. That isn’t a gross generalization: though it is truly gross, it is also a fact. From one end of the country to the other, if the men aren’t peeing on a cement wall, they are tugging and scratching their member, without a hint of modesty. Where I come from, we make a point not to grab or scratch our private parts in public – I don’t know why exactly, it’s just our culture.

When I reach the door, the guard opens it for me.

The Wine Baron smells like vomit, and has that sticky sort of a feel like a nightclub at 2am, where your shoes peel off the floor like band-aids. The men behind the counter, and there are many, have blood-red eyes, like the tuk-tuk drivers. I walk to the counter quickly, and can feel their eyes glued to me. I point to the row of imported liquor.

“Absolut,” I say.

One of the men looks at the shelf, then back at me, confused.

“Vodka. Import,” I clarify.

“Mandarin Orange. Absolut.”

He hands me a bottle of Bacardi rum.

“Neh, neh. Wodka, wodka,” I point more emphatically. “Orange.”

By now, the magnetic force of the white lady buying vodka is drawing everybody in the store closer and closer. The clerk places the bottle on the counter, and I feel like I want to explain that it really isn’t for me. But it is for me, and I want it more now than I did five minutes ago. I want the vodka to create a magical force field around me – a dome of solitude. I want to physically climb into the bottle of vodka soak it in through all my pours until I pass out and forget I’m in India.

I take the bottle to the cashier, and he turns it over in his hand, examining it like I’ve just handed him a fish. I attempt to break his spell by sliding my credit card toward him.

“Man-din Oange,” he says and locks eyes with me.

“Hacha,” I say and twitch my head to the left in agreement.

Normally I’m a purist, and don’t like fluffy flavored drinks, but Absolut Mandarin tastes like St. Joseph’s Baby Aspirin, so I make an exception.

I sign the receipt, grab the bag, and dash out of the store, past the ball-scratching guard and the dozens of eyes. It feels like a humiliating perp-walk; as if I’ve just bought a vial of crack instead of a very expensive bottle of imported Swedish vodka.

It’s really just easier not to drink at all in this place, but I don’t want the terrorists to win.

10 Responses to “Absolut Nonsense”

  1. christine says:

    You go girl, fight for your right to party with distilled molasses and baby asprin.
    Maybe you should print a fake boarding pass so you can get into duty free and get some real booze. Phil likes trouble with the law I am sure he will approve.. good Indian fun yes.
    LOVE&KAOS

  2. Emily W. says:

    The fiction so pretty, the reality so gritty…
    Maybe you can set-up a still in the bathtub at home?

  3. Usha says:

    uff.. these flashers – what perverts!
    Next time you want a drink , please go to Monday to sunday that is on the main road parallel to Rangashankara. you will get everything you want including some good selection of wines.

  4. Phil says:

    Usha,

    Nobody ever flashes at me, so I think these are stories that Pam makes up just for sympathy ;)

    That’s a great tip too, thanks, we know just where that shop is !

    Phi l)

  5. Usha says:

    Hey Phil, no one is going to be brave enough to flash a man of your height (with tattoos and all) who resembles a WWF champion! What’s more he knows that he will be caught by the flash of your camera!!

  6. John Feld says:

    Another great piece of writing. I am truly a fan.

  7. Kate says:

    Pam. You are my hero. You set the bar high for us all : )

  8. Katrina J. says:

    Where I come from, we make a point not to grab or scratch our private parts in public – I don’t know why exactly, it’s just our culture.

    Apparently two of my three coworkers didn’t get that memo — one of them being the owner of the company. Forty hours a week I’m exposed to more crotch scratching & adjusting (not to mention bum scratching & wedgie picking) at the office than I’ve ever seen my boyfriend do at home in the nearly three years we’ve lived together.

  9. Sujoy says:

    This post has been quite “educational” for me. Now I can be a connoisseur of instead of “I’ll buy what he/she is buying”. Now i yearn for single-malt whisky & spurn the molasses-sourced whisky flavored domestic imposters. No more local rum ho-hum for Vodka anymore.

    Cheers

  10. apu says:

    Some of the Foodworlds stock alcohol; there are also fairly decent wine stores (not your neighborhood store usually) where women can walk in and pick up alcohol comfortably. I think the Forum mall has one. I don’t knw South Bangalore very well, but to the east of town where I live, there are plenty. I’m assuming JP Nagar/Jayanagar isn’t too different. So, it’s a question of finding them and stocking up.