Even as President Obi Wan Kenobi is here in town while we went through our rigmarole of rationalising the shutdown of downtown Mumbai and Delhi at the height of family Diwali shopping by telling ourselves ‘Atithi devo bhava, ghar ka log can get screwed’, my mind was elsewhere. Like Obi Wan, who must still be obsessing about the Republicans making major gains in Tuesday’s mid-term polls, I, too, have latched on to something more acute and — as jobless Americans will appreciate — more local: we don’t have enough ‘locals’. Locals, as in the neighbourhood institutions where you can have a few drinks with family, mates or neighbourhood folks before trotting home for dinner.
The concept of the ‘local’ isn’t really alien to us. The ones that serve me well are Chona’s at Khan Market and Taste of China near my office in Connaught Place. But these aren’t near my home — or, for that matter, near anybody’s home. If there are regulars, there are regular customers, hardly people who would continue to come here if their office shifted to Gurgaon or Noida or if and when they retired.
In Britain, they invented the ‘pub’ or the ‘public house’. This is not a place where alcoholic beverages are served only to folks with some value added tax to burn and who tank up before hitting the floor or snog chambers. Neither is it the dim-lit ‘resto-bars’ inhabited by shady businessmen, nail polish-remover addicts or people who just want to be seen drinking (especially expensive whisky or wine). The pub is a large room with a bar and seating arrangements strewn around in pretty much the same way they are in our living rooms if they were big enough. The primary purpose of a public house is to make you feel at home before you go home, a happy half-way house that gives the nuclear family a joint family air with nibbles and sips thrown in.
The local is not a bar. In fact, there’s nothing that makes it mandatory for a local public house to serve alcoholic beverages. But as everyone who’s been to a party knows, it helps to have the funny stuff on the menu. After a beer or a gin or a whisky or two, Mr Chaturvedi of B 52 may actually turn out to be a rather interesting bloke. In a local, it’s usually people of a neighbourhood who meet each other frequently. Even if they don’t decide to mingle, the very presence of neighbours a couple of tables away can bring about a communal feeling.
The local is definitely not a lounge. It’s an extension of your living room, not your bedroom. Youngsters come here to join their parents much before they start getting embarrassed about hanging out with cretinous above-30 people. In the familiar and familial surroundings of a local, they learn that social drinking, like going to a relative’s or to a local temple, is a social activity, not a psychotropic one. With Papaji at the bar and Uncleji from C Block three tables away, getting sloshed isn’t a preferred option at all.
And the local is not a restaurant. The latter involves family or friends ‘going out’. The pub is, to labour a point, half-way between ‘going out’ and ‘staying in’ with the eating-drinking experience being mere add-ons and social lubricants. The closest we have to the pub is the club (not to be confused with what, half a generation ago, was called the nightclub). It is a tight, family-community scenario here: husbands and wives and their kids in all their permutations-combinations. The problem with these places — whether Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, Kolkata’s CCFC (Calcutta Cricket & Football Club) or Bangalore’s, well, Bangalore Club — is that these are posh islands. You have to be a member (or a guest of a member) to drop in, as if it’s the RSS.
So, what do you say, Sheila Dikshitji? Turn Delhi into a modern, middle-class, family-caring city? Balasahebji? I know you know a warm beer can bring families closer. Vijay Mallyaji? A touch of the common touch now that you’re going to hit 55 next month? Mamataji? A dash of Tabasco for a truly people’s drink? Oh, don’t you see? It’s all about getting families together and neighbourhoods back again. Happy Diwali!