Tag Archives: alcohol

TOI iDiva: A Toast To The Ladies

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Everybody knows that the second greatest euphemism in the food and beverages industry after “Rocky Mountain oysters” are the words “ladies’ night”. The suggestion: the clinking of glamorous, girly and most importantly gratis cocktails against a backdrop of softcore feminism. The actual serving: vodka deposited with an eyedropper into a sea of diluted juice against a backdrop of hardcore desperation.

Cheapskate tactics? Maybe. Maybe folks only want women to drink if they pay money to do so, which would be perfectly fair.

But then I recall two scenes, not far apart, at the same restaurant in Chennai: in the first, a female friend and I ordered a bottle of white wine. The waiter, asking no further questions, walked off to get us one. In the second, dining with a male friend, I asked for a single glass. “White or red?” I told him my preference. “Chenin blanc or sauvignon blanc?” In the presence of male company, regardless of how minimal the expenditure, female drinking was deemed respectable enough to warrant choices. In its absence, regardless of how extravagant the resulting bill, it was not.

Let’s not even contemplate the topic of the TASMAC adventure, wherein the undercurrent of judgment sensed in prime establishments is more like a riptide.

No wonder then that the news of what the world’s largest alcohol company, Diageo, did earlier this week for its Indian operations has been met with some thinly-disguised consternation. Out of 30 managerial positions at Diageo, 12 have been filled by women – and a further four women have been appointed directors. Additionally, the press reports that the Indian operations of major high-end manufacturers William Grant & Sons, Moet Hennessy and Pernod Ricard are either headed by women, or employ a large percentage of female executives.

“Will a woman really get that?” sulked one very sexist article. That being booze. That being the booze experience.

You know, just like how women don’t get mathematics, or philosophy, or any of those tough, tough things.

What’s ironic is that women here probably know far more about liquor than their male counterparts, because all pleasure that occurs surreptitiously intensifies. Our society is permissive when it comes to men imbibing alcohol. With women, however, it happens differently. Either she is inducted into the enjoyment of liquor by liberal relatives, or she learns how to keep it a secret. This means that she figures out her capacity, how to keep a clear head, what to do if she’s gone overboard, how to conceal the traces. She figures out what she likes and doesn’t, and why. The act of imbibing is not simple for her. I don’t intend to glorify alcohol or gloss over its ill effects, but when it comes to India and alcohol, women have everything it takes to run the show: sharply-honed senses of planning, self-preservation and maverick nonconformism.

Some years ago, I was told about a pink autorickshaw that sold bootlegged liquor. I’ve never been able to verify this, and of course it sounds about as mythical as a women-friendly TASMAC. Still, there’s something about the news that the Indian operations of these beverage enterprises are going to be led largely by women which is almost as delightful a thought as such a vehicle. It may be “just business”, as some might say, but the news is no less than a toast – to all the women out there who by virtue of having to hide, seek, rebel and relish as only the forbidden can be relished learnt not just how to hold their liquor, but how to hold their own.

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.

The Tragic And Talented

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Everybody dies. Of the many ways in which this can happen, the “tragic” death of a pop culture icon – inevitably attributed to a mixture of hedonism, extreme success and existential loneliness – is one of the least interesting, yet paradoxically, probably the most celebrated. When Amy Winehouse died last month, the same tired tropes were trotted out in the media and on public opinion aggregators like Twitter: that it came as a complete shock, that she was the victim of the paparazzi (or of a curse that affects 27-year old musicians) and of course, that her talent had gone to waste.

It’s the last of those statements that makes the least sense. Winehouse was known to the world first and foremost not because of her binge drinking but because of her work – her unmistakable contralto, her ironic (mostly self-penned) lyrics and the visual effects, such as the beehive wig and the winged eye makeup, which she cultivated during her healthier years. The rest of it came afterwards. The increasing disarray in which she appeared in candid photographs, for example, or the fact that she began to be booed offstage by her own fan following were because at one point she had been worth following at all.

So how could it be said that she wasted her talent, when her talent was observed and enjoyed at its height? What if there was little or nothing left in Winehouse, artistically speaking, beyond the body of work she had already produced by the time of her demise? The aftermath of such an event usually results in speculation that borders on the downright panegyrical, perhaps because it may come off as malicious to suggest otherwise. But the truth is, we don’t actually know what Winehouse might have cleaned up to become, or if she had been capable of cleaning up. But it must also be said – she owed no one else anything, but she owed it to herself to find out.

To say an artist has died “before their time” is to say that her or his death came unexpectedly, because of calamity or early disease. Consider just a couple of examples among other musicians. When Jeff Buckley drowned at 30 in 1997, he had only released his seminal Grace album, a work so remarkable that his cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is more famous than the original. When Lhasa de Sela died of breast cancer in 2010, aged just 37, her three luminous multilingual albums were only one facet of a life that spanned richly varied experiences as a traveller, circus performer and human being. Her music was a vital part but not the only vital part of what she did.

Amy Winehouse, however, didn’t die suddenly or unexpectedly. Her own parents have told the press that they had been preparing for her death for four years; her father wrote a graveside eulogy for her in 2007, her mother picked out a cemetery plot in 2008. Make of this bizarre parental admission what you will, but Winehouse herself showed no outward signals of being in love with life – and living in celebrity-obsessed England, where her every move was documented, some semblance of a fighting spirit or joie de vivre would surely have come through if she had. She killed herself slowly with the kind of “reckless deliberation” – an oxymoron in any other case – that can only come from a person motivated by self-destruction.

The idea of the self-annihilating genius is a dangerous one. What is true is that mess and chaos are often intrinsic to art – at the risk of romanticizing it, a nod must still be given to the correlation between beauty and heartbreak. What is also true is that many great artists manage to extend their lives and works over a long trajectory while waging a constant struggle against their inner demons and external hardships. To raise a shot of tequila to Frida Kahlo on her birthday is to celebrate the life she fought tooth and nail to embrace despite physical ailments over which she had no control. To leave vodka bottles in memorial shrines outside Winehouse’s London house – as fans have done – is hardly a salute to triumph and passionate engagement. It’s a mockery of what was actually wasted: the choice to live and to give.

None of this is said with ill-will. Winehouse had real talent, she was unusual and she had a devil-may-care attitude which at first was deeply attractive (setting her apart from those who contrive their public images) but later revealed itself to be a complete lack of self-possession. If she managed to clean up her act without losing the essence of her gifts, she would likely have blossomed. The tragedy is not that she couldn’t fulfill her potential because she died. The tragedy is that she died because she lived not in pursuit of creation, but in pursuit of tragedy itself.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.

The Venus Flytrap: A Toast To Sobriety

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This is how we know that the financial crisis has finally hit home: pretty soon, there are going to be multitudes more homeless on the streets of Tamil Nadu. As tends to happen in times of crisis, they will come almost exclusively from one minority: in this unfortunate case, bootleggers. Whereas the impoverished masses generally seek solace in drink, these former Sultans of Smirnoff, these de-crowned Jesuses of Jose Cuervo, traditionally find salvation in dryness. The state’s, that is. But those days are over. Tamil Nadu is letting liquor loose.

As per honoured cultural customs, alcohol can only be procured via four avenues: from the government-run TASMACs, duty-free at the airport for those lucky jetsetters, overpriced in bars (that must by law be attached to twenty rooms – independence is always evil), or from our buddies the bootleggers. But now that imported liquor will become available in the TASMACs and rumours of even more relaxed laws swirl around town like the olive in a martini, those customs are soon to be a thing of the past. Goodbye innocence, hello mass inebriation.

Since all social problems are inconceivable without the presence of an intoxicating substance (such as gulab jamun, frequently found at traumatic events like weddings), we can expect a huge surge in crime and moral decline. It is well-documented that elephants never rampage, students never fail exams, trains never get derailed and women are never abandoned without alcohol being involved somehow.

The fact that one of history’s most famous teetotalers was Adolf Hitler, and some of history’s most famous leading lushes included Winston Churchill, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (the latter two were also a whiskey distiller and a wine-grower, respectively), should be regarded only as mere coincidence and a purposeful distortion of data.

Let’s not forget that extremely dangerous side effect of liquor consumption: honesty. Can you imagine how bleak a future without hypocrisy, self-censorship, underhanded insults and duplicity will be? It may lead to a breakdown of all communication. We’ll all have to hike out somewhere far from civilization, grow out dreadlocks, get high and ponder our navels and the origin of the universe. Unlike anything ascribed in our holy and historical traditions, of course. If things get really apocalyptic, we may even begin to take up that celebrity-endorsed foreign import, yoga.

And a word on the health consequences. Alcohol may have been proven to protect against cardiovascular disease and extend the lives of moderate drinkers, but more importantly by far, it is also known to cause sterility, impotence and lack of libido. We are definitely better off without any impediments to our ongoing social experiments, such as trouncing China in the quest to fit the most number of malnourished babies into a single square kilometre as possible, and getting our most unpleasant relatives married off and out of the range of our rifle scopes.

Finally, on a most sobering note, we can only imagine what will happen to the house rules that prevent men from entering dens of sin in slippers. As everybody knows, there is nothing more uncontrollably titillating, or more of an invitation to collapse into anarchy, than the sight of the male toes. Today it’s tequila instead of homegrown toddy. Tomorrow, it will be a pageant of protruding pinkies and podiatric cleavage. Oh impressionable, corruptible, guilelessly gullible people of the post-prohibition era – how will we ever survive such an onslaught?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.