Out of the bottle

Palash Krishna Mehrotra Photo courtesy Parikhit Pal.   | Photo Credit: 09dmc Palash Krishna2

The sheer scale of what Speaking Tiger’s new anthology, “House Spirit: Drinking in India”, takes on is massive, and there is really no way in which Palash Krishna Mehrotra, the book’s editor, could have covered every aspect of the multi-faceted relationship Indians have with alcohol. So, in three parts (essays, stories and poems), he does the next best thing and gives us a book that offers to both introduce us and summarise this relationship. From first drinks to last ones, from dingy thekas to expensive bars, from drinking in movies to drinking at home, “House Spirit” becomes an opportunity for confessions and celebrations, all bottled up and served chilled.

Excerpts from an interview with its editor:

Where did the idea of the book come from?

Renuka Chatterjee, Speaking Tiger’s consulting editor, called me with the idea. I had done an anthology before, “Recess”, which was on two hundred years of Indian school experience. And then, I have a reputation for drinking. So she asked me if I’d be interested and I said yes immediately.

And in its early days, was the shape of the idea the same as what it looks like now, in the book?

To begin with, I just had the word alcohol, and I thought you could do various things with it. You could get an Indian writer to write about alcohol, but then an Indian writer could write about drinking abroad also. For example, Soumya Bhattacharya wanted to write about drinking in Paris. But when I decided to keep the book focussed on drinking in India, he wrote about prohibition in Gujarat instead.

Also, initially, Renuka had thought of including just fiction, but I thought having poems and essays as well as fiction would be fun, and since it’s an anthology, you can be free to do that.

In terms of choosing what would make the book, were you driven by content or name? And did you have specific aspects you wanted specific authors to cover?

Yes and no. An anthology is an exercise in the editor’s taste, and that goes through changes as the book shapes up. Some writers back out, so then you think of other names. And I was completely driven by the idea of including people whose writing I had read and found attractive. This gives you a lot of confidence in your writer and what he or she was going to bring to the table. So in that way I was completely name-driven rather than thinking of the content I wanted. Once the writer agreed, a lot of times they’d already have something in their head they’d want to write on. So sometimes we’d meet and discuss it further, but not always. Like with Jeet Thayil, when I approached him, he already had an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, and he asked if it works.

Essentially I didn’t ask people to write about a particular subject. I let them figure it out on their own. But then there were certain things I wanted to include in the book and I wanted certain people to write on those issues. For example, I turned to Mayank Shekhar and Sidharth Bhatia and told them what I had in mind. And then there was Abhinav Kumar, who is a policeman and he can write. I discovered him while I was keeping an eye out for people whose writing I liked and enjoyed. Including Kumar would mean having both his writing and the policeman’s perspective on board, which is what happens with his piece on thekas.

Ultimately, I wanted the book to be entertaining, informative and readable.

There’s a pretty fair balance of established and new names in the book…

Yes, that was very intentional, to mix new and established names. An anthology gives you the opportunity to do this. So while there are names like Adil Jussawala and Manohar Shetty, there are also relatively new names like Mayank Tiwari and Arunabh Saikia. These aren’t people who have published books or written extensively, but who write well and are very readable. I could have easily gone to three other established names, but the choice was between having a brand-name anthology or giving people a chance and seeing how it translated. And in this case, this is what gives the book a unique flavour. There was also the added benefit of seeing people surprise themselves writing for this book. It gave them the chance to write about an experience they’d had, that they hadn’t got an opportunity to write about. For example, Jairaj Singh’s essay style piece on drinking at Delhi’s popular Defence Colony bar, 4S.

Speaking of balance, the gender one is pretty skewed, with only two women, Anjum Hasan and Kanika Gahlaut, in a group of 26 authors…this does reflect, in a way, the male dominated space that drinking can be, especially in small town India.

Originally, I asked seven women authors to write, and if they had said yes this question wouldn’t be asked. But each of them, Advaita Kala, Divya Guha, Eunice de Souza, Meenal Baghel and others, said no, for some reason or the other. I wanted women to be in the anthology, but also, as the anthology went on, I realised that it is mainly men who do the drinking in small town bars, who frequent dingy thekas and jostle and push for their bottles, and who are behind the counter, selling, and in front of it, buying. So in a way, I think the anthology reflects how society in India is, where, generally speaking, the drinking has become a male preserve. While you’ll find women drinking mostly in expensive bars of Hauz Khas Village, buying alcohol from malls. So, maybe in a way, more concentration on that would have given the book an urban upper class flavour.

Having said that there are stories that show the other side of things. Arunabh Saikia goes to meet Delhi’s oldest bootlegger in Majnu ka Tila and that’s a 90-year-old woman. Sumanta Banerjee’s piece is about the first tavern in Calcutta, which was run by a woman. So in the otherwise male drinking environment there are women too, and male authors are writing about them. Siddhartha Bhatia has written about the perception of women drinking in movies, and the change over the ages. He brings it right to contemporary times, to Deepika Padukone in Cocktail.

While a lot of ground is covered in the story, in terms of stages and aspects of drinking, a big part of it is woven into your introduction. Could you talk about writing it?

A part of the introduction is written when the pieces are in, and they begin to form their own pattern. You see common threads emerging. Like in this case, you see how Gautam Bhatia, Amit Chaudhuri and Pavan Kumar Jain, all talk about having their first drink. There are different social constructs, expectations etc, so in case of Amit, he looks at being the only non-drinker at a party, where people look at you like there is something wrong with you if you don’t drink. Pavan, who passed away in 2013, before the book was published, wrote about beginning to drink when you come from a conservative Jain family that looks at alcohol as evil and taboo. Then there are pieces on quitting drink— Manohar Shetty quits on his own, Vijay Nambisan has his rehab diaries. The book emerged to have very honest experiential accounts, on all the stages of drinking, about hiding and drinking, not drinking at home, pieces about the bars you seek instead, prohibition era Bombay and more. I wove in this part after the pieces came.

But I also wanted to talk about certain other things on my own, like whiskey snobbery in India, and how no one wants to admit that they drink Indian whiskey, even though these whiskeys are the blockbusters — Imperial Blue, McDowell’s, Officer’s Choice. They are part of the Indian drinking experience, since we are big whiskey drinkers. I included a tongue-in-cheek section on this. Then there was a section on finding alcohol on dry days, in Delhi’s Jal Vihar area. And another on how drinking at home is taboo in most households in India. I wanted to talk about every day drinking, not fancy drinking in expensive places — of small town India as well as urban India. This book is then for everyone. You don’t have to be a drinker to enjoy this party.

And of course, it comes just at the time when the party seems to be winding up, what with debates around prohibition, and big States experimenting with liquor bans…

Anthologies take a long time, especially ones where you commission stories. People deliver after two, three years and it takes longer to put it together. Five years ago, when the anthology was commissioned, prohibition wasn’t in the air, hadn’t become as big as it is now. But it did become big somewhere along the way, so accidentally the book ended up coming at a very timely moment.

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Printable version | Oct 29, 2020 9:37:48 AM |

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