Saturday, June 23, 2007

This Above all
Joyful blend of music & wine
Khushwant SinghKhushwant Singh

EVERY morning when I get up I find lines of some old Hindi film song or a ghazal going round and round my head. I am puzzled because I can’t recall when I had heard them and why after years they re-emerged in my memory. One morning it was the opening lines of a ghazal sung by Mehdi Hassan:

Phool hee phool khil utthey meyrey paimaaney mein

Aap kya aaye bahaar aa gayee meyrey maikhaney mein

(Flowers and blossoms burst into this goblet of mine

With you spring burst into my tavern serving wine)

I was not sure if I had got the words right. I often mix them up. I assumed they must be from Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Syeda Hameed of the Planning Commission, who is my Urdu mentor, helped me and corrected the name of the poet as Ghulam Tabassum.

However, I was able to discover what had dug out the ghazal in celebration of drinking buried in my memory. The evening before I received from my friend Amir Tuteja a clipping of an interview given by the author of a recently published book to a staffer of The Washington Post. The staffer, Peter Carlson, had called on Barbara Holland, an 80-year grandmother with silver-white cropped hair whose 15th book The Joy of Drinking had hit the market. Carlson arrived at her cottage in the hills on a cold, foggy winter evening in an icy drizzle coming down. He was let in the warm sitting room with a log fire burning in the grate and thick with cigarette smoke. Her words of welcome were, "Do you want to stay outside and get pneumonia or come in and get lung cancer?" He had taken a bottle of red wine as a gift which he presented to her. She uncorked it, filled two wine glasses, and said "cheers" and took a sip. She lit another cigarette and said: "I have only two hobbies. This is one, smoking cigarettes, and this is the other," as she took another gulp of the wine. She is a chain smoker and a chain drinker. "Booze is the social glue of the human race," she wrote. It was only after leading a nomadic existence and living on wild animals that humans settled down to tilling the land, making wines and beers and becoming civilised. She had researched her subject thoroughly. She gave names of American presidents who were hard drinkers. George Washington made his own whiskey. John Adams started his day with a large tankard of hard cider. The founding fathers of the US, who drafted the Constitution, took a day off and went on a binge. The amount of alcohol the founding fathers consumed in 24 hours makes impressive reading — "54 bottles of Medeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of port, eight of hard cider and seven bowls of Punch". And so was born the prosperous and powerful democracy of the world. Hitherto unknown is the fact that Queen Victoria had a tumbler full of mixed red wine and Scotch in equal proportions every day. It was a heady mix fit for the Empress of India.

Holland is not fussy about what she drinks as long as it is alcoholic. She sneers at wine and whiskey. Snobs who talk about vintages and whether a no single malt should or should not be taken neat are show-offs.

Needless to say Holland has no time for health buffs who take to drinking ice tea instead of whiskey, spend hours in gyms exercising, go jogging or take long walks. She finds them selfcentered and unsocial — in short, deadly bores. She believes in partying, drinking and singing. The article ends in her favourite song::

"I had a little hen and she had a wooden leg.

And every time she cackled

She would lay a wooden egg

She was the best little hen

that we had on the farm,

And another little drink

wouldn’t do us any harm."

Having read the lively interview, my mind was full of admiration for the gutsy, old Barbara Holland. What she had written kept fermenting inside me through the night and emerged in the early hours of the dawn as exultation for the joys of drinking: phool hee phool khil utthey meyrey paimaaney mein.

As Others Saw Us : English

Peter Mundy came to India in 1627 AD. He travelled extensively through central India from Surat to Agra through Gujarat and Rajasthan. On his way back to Surat in 1632, he noticed many people addicted to opium. He noted in his diary : "There were many fields of poppy of which they make opium, called here afeem. People use this for many purposes. The seed thereof they put on their bread, I mean of white poppy. Of the husks they make a kind of beverage called poste. Steeping them in water a while, and squeezing and straining out the liquor, they drink it, which does inebriate. In the like manner they use cannabis called bhang, working the same effect. Commonly they will call a drunken fellow either afeemee, postee or bhangee, although mutwallee is the right name of a drunkard."

(From beyond the Three Seas, edited by Michael H. Fisher — Random House)


Teacher: Boys, can anyone of you tell the name of the organisation that is headed by Osama Bin Laden?

The entire class shouts: Al Qaida, Sir.

Teacher in response, Right. And what is the organisation headed by President Bush called?

A lone voice : Be-Qaida, Sir.

(Contributed by H.P. Mitra, Kolkata)