Et tu, Kerala? Who would have thought that Malayalis, of all people, would ban booze. It’s terrible, of course, but it does give me an excuse to tell the story of Mr Menon, my favourite Malayali tippler.
In the 1980s, among the curious characters at Burke Meier hostel in Middleton Row, strategically situated next to Calcutta’s watering hole of Park Street, none was more interesting than Mr Menon. He was a dapper little man in his late fifties, with a neatly trimmed white beard. He was an inseparable part of our group, doing his bit diligently to prop up the bars and booze shops of Park Street. He was also a keen participant in our drunken discussions, although nobody knew his real views on any subject, because like many of us, he had a distressing habit of forgetting which side of the argument he was on.
One wintry night, Menon was weaving his way home from one such convivial meeting at around 2 am when he was accosted by a tough guy who wanted his wallet. He gave it up gladly, reflecting that the thug too probably needed a drink and staggered on into the night.
This time, he was stopped by a cop. Now Menon had always been a natty dresser and he was all togged up for the evening in white trousers, white shirt, white shoes and a navy blue blazer. The cop took one look at him and knew that here was a “bhadralok”, albeit a very tipsy one.
Menon, of course, was completely sozzled and asked the cop to direct him to the hostel. The policeman immediately woke up a rickshaw puller and told him to take the sahib home. Halfway through the journey, a thought struck Menon. “By the way”, he told the rickshaw puller, “I have no money.” The rickshaw puller stopped. “No money, sahib?” he queried hesitantly, unsure whether Menon was joking. “But so what if I don’t have money, I have this coat,” said Menon to the rickshaw chap, who grinned broadly and sprang into action again.
Soon, though, doubts assailed Menon. “This coat is only two years old, why should I give it away?” he thought. He suddenly remembered that he had a four-year-old jacket at the hostel. “Why not,” he ruminated cannily, “give that one instead?” The notion that all he had to do was borrow a few rupees from his friends at the hostel never crossed his rum-soaked mind. On arriving home, he went to his room, took out his old coat and gave it to the rickshaw puller. Menon told us the story the next day, saying he went to bed happy, congratulating himself on the excellent bargain.
True, not all drinking stories end well. Drink, some believe, is the curse of the working classes. I would urge them to adopt Oscar Wilde’s perspective. “Work,” said Wilde, “is the curse of the drinking classes.” When we look at the damage sober people do to the world, is it any wonder some of us want to stay drunk?
That is why I have composed a little ditty about Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy and Congress chief VM Sudheeran, to be sung in bars across the state. Here it is: Oommen Chandy/Thinks he’s Gandhi/And Sudheeran, of course, is a bum/If they ban rum, whisky and brandy/ Just wait till the elections come.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint. The views expressed by the author are personal.