Once upon a time, I worked. My boss decided to send me up to the North East state of Assam, famous for tea and rain. The tea is the best in the world. The rain is the most in the world. There is also the unexplained mystery of birds gathering at one particular spot to die by the flock. None of this is germane to the story, which means that it helps build up the story in no way at all.
At this point in the history of Assam, a militant group called the ULFA, was beginning to call the shots. Literally. Arguing for more ownership and value for people from the state for the resources that were taken away by the central government, the United Liberation Front of Assam was a fierce and well-armed secessionist group. Amongst it’s regulations, enforced with guns, was a ban on alcohol within the state.
The capital city, Guwahati, was a mixed bag, as such similarly sized cities in India tend to be. The drippy rain and the heavy tree cover were at odds with my asthma-ridden lungs, which were fresh from a cold-turkey end to my smoking habit barely a year earlier. (That’s another story, altogether..)
In this charming spot, in this charming state of affairs, I did land to take care of installations at 5 branches of the State Bank of India. Some of that back ground may be read here (if you’re really interested). However, this is not a story of any technical issues, computers, software or any such thing. No indeed. This story is about alcohol! So rest easy and read on.
The bank manager responsible for working with me was an Assamese man, well over 6 feet tall and a build to match, a few years older than I. We would meet up at the end of the day to compare notes and we quickly found we shared many interests, chiefly, rock music. He was a die-hard Jimi Hendrix fan and an audiophile. He had spent a couple of years at the bank’s London office and had brought back with him a Fender Stratocaster which he could play with his teeth, just like Jimi! We had much to talk about, music and stereo rigs dominating.
Our story really opens at the end of my first week there. Another fruitless morning had ended that Saturday and I headed back to the main office to meet up with my friend around 1pm.
He saw my woebegone face and said “What you need is a drink!”
Startled, I looked guiltily around his office.
He reassured me and then as an afterthought “You do drink don’t you?”.
I nodded, wondering what was to come. With the office now closed, we headed down the street till we came to a shacky restaurant.
In order to explain that, I have to go back to the “mixed bag” description of the city. The bank head office was a tall multi-storied building with 7 or 8 floors amongst other office buildings. The restaurant was made of wood and had wooden tables and chairs. The entrance to the restaurant was via a large door, opening upwards and held in place by a wooden post. Think of it a double-wide garage door to be found in any North American house. The open door acted as a shade and the sturdy wooden post was well grounded in a post hole but easily removed. We took our seats in the very centre of the restaurant. Over on the left as you walked in was a large counter where the proprietor sat and controlled operations.
Seeing my big and friendly giant sit down, he looked up and then I became witness to the strangest eye signals that ever flashed across a restaurant. Soon a waiter was dispatched to our table. The BFG asked him what was available quickly because it was getting on for 1:30 in the afternoon now. The waiter offered fried, spicy okra. Of course, thanks to me that was immediately brought forth.
The restaurant owner himself brought over two tall stainless steel tumblers and a jug of water. The tumblers must have been at least eight inches tall and upto a height of six inches were full of whisky.
The BFG tersely said “Aristocrat, ok?”
I was already starting to go numb at the thought that I was drinking alcohol and thus living very dangerously. I spooned some of the okra into my mouth and washed it down with a delicate sip. To my horror, my companion was taking the “it’s water in the tumbler” subterfuge quite seriously.
Binnie’s Aristocrat Whisky is a low-mid range IMFL, a part of the quaintly named government category of alcoholic product; Indian Made Foreign Liquor. As whiskys go, it’s a shade above rot-gut.
As he finished his first glass, the okra was not working for him. So he called the manager over and asked him what else he had.
“How about I fry some liver?”, the restauranteur asked.
“Brilliant! Bring two big plates of that!”, the BFG was ecstatic.
Bear in my mind I was still predominantly vegetarian at that point in my life and had had liver on toast unknowingly with my dad on one of his road trips. I had no idea what to expect. I quickly spooned the rest of the okra onto my plate, conscious of the fact that my companion was flashing eyebrow signals again and could not care less for the okra.
We did not order any bread or rice. It was a high protein lunch mixed with alcohol.
Well, my dears, the liver was excellent! Spicy as hell, fried on a tava or griddle, with tomatoes and onions and anyway by now with 18 inches of Aristocrat Whisky inside me I was starting to worry about other things. Mainly, that when I walked out of the restaurant to the BFG’s car to pick up his stereo amp that had gone in for repairs and then head over to his house for some music, I MUST NOT RUN INTO THAT POST IN THE MIDDLE.
I am here now to tell the tale; the guys with guns did not find out that I was breaking the rules.
That evening I lay in my bed in my room at the Hotel Nandan, which had, in some mistaken belief in it’s artistic ability, painted all the walls a luscious chocolate brown. My bed spun around on a horizontal plane, the walls rotated on a vertical plane and I lay there wide eyed at the wonder of it all.
When the phone rang it was my colleagues 20 miles away working on the beast for the Brahmaputra River Board asking if I wanted to come over and share some beer with them. I shuddered at the thought, declined politely, citing a headache and went back to my little nightmare.
Oh – what? I missed a detail? Oh, the post? Did I run into it?