It was late evening on weekends before Diwali this year and post dinner I thought of watching television before my bedtime. While browsing through various channels I just came across a movie “The Darkest Hour”. I was lucky enough that movie was yet to start and it was still not too late for me to spare another two hours for this movie. I am not a big fan of movies in general, but this one was an exceptional and never wanted to miss. Winston Churchill is one of the legendary figures from history for whom I have a great respect, for his exemplary leadership shown during World War two. This movie has captured the essence of leadership quality under duress very well. But I was bit overwhelmed with his drinking habit which is well captured in this movie. He was asked by then King George VI that how he manages to drink during the day time for which he replied “through practice”. Winston Churchill’s quote on drinking throws more light on this matter “I’ve gotten more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
I thought to pen down my thoughts on liquor and history associated with it after watching this movie. In South East Asia the word most often used to describe alcohol is Sharab. The word ‘Sharab’ is derived from the Persian ‘aab’ for water, ‘sharr’ for mischief, hence, the water of mischief. Mankind’s tryst with Alcohol is as old as human history. A complex array of customs, attitudes, beliefs, and values surround the use or avoidance of alcohol. In few of the cultures liquor is consider as a taboo and for few it is very much part of their culture.
France is known for their Wine and Champagne. It is part of French and Italian culture to have wine with their food. French vineyards are one of the finest in the world. Russia is well known for its Vodka. Beer is big part of drinking culture in many European countries. The Ocktoberfest which is held annually in Munich, Bavaria, Germany is around 16-day long beer folk festival celebrated with more than million people from around the world attend this event every year. England and Ireland are known for their pubs, Irish pub has existed for roughly a millennium. Quote from George Bernard Shaw summarize the Western Culture approach appropriately “Alcohol is the anaesthesia by which we endure the operation of life”.
One of our neighbouring countries where consumption of alcohol is a taboo has got a distillery known as Muree Brewery established since 1860 and in the year 2015, it produced 10 million litres of beer, along with hundreds of tons of single malt whisky, vodka and brandy. In the year 2013 it was named by Forbes as one of the Asia’s best 200 companies. I wonder where this stock of liquor ends up.
There are historical references which I could retrieve from internet on Emperors, Maharajas and famous poets indulging into usage of Alcohol. Alexander the great, who conquered most of the known world in his time, was famous for his constant drunkenness. Alcohol had long been consumed by the Mughals in India. The First Mughal emperor Babur referred to his periodic bouts of abstinence followed by drinking alcohol in the Baburnama: “The New Year, the spring, the wine and the beloved make one happy. Enjoy them Babur! For the world is not to be enjoyed a second time”. By the time of Jehangir’s reign, rampant alcoholism was the leading cause of death within the nobility. Emperor Jehangir himself, was a hearty consumer of alcohol and drank well and long. Emperor Shahjahan who built iconic Taj Mahal was a moderate drinker. Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s brandy was specially prepared by a Hungarian, Dr Honigberger. In the 1830s, Ranjit Singh suffered from numerous health complications as well as a stroke, which some historical records attribute to alcoholism and a failing liver. One of the greatest Urdu Poet of India Mirza Ghalib was also fond of expensive liquor. Ghalib managed to get his share of regular alcohol in spite being under financial debt. When he’d be told by his devout friends that the prayers of an alcohol-drinker would not be accepted, for which he replied: “Jis ke paas sharab ho, usey kis cheeze ke liye dua karne ki zaroot hai? (When a man has liquor, what else does he need to pray for}”. One of the best columnists, writer, novelist of India late Khushwant Singh was known for his love for Premium Scotch Whiskey. Celebrities, Politician and famous personalities from different walk of life would gather at his Sajjan Singh residence for whiskey session in the evening. He even once commented to his guest “I like my moustache soaking in whiskey”. Khushwant Singh’s love for whiskey reminds me of a quote from famous American writer Mark Twain who is also considered as the father of American Literature “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough”.
Liquor is not considered as any kind of taboo within our family. But we have not indulged in any kind of binge drinking habit and neither any of our near family members are tipplers either. Based on the rise in the disposable income we have observed that our standard of liquor also got promoted accordingly. During my childhood my dad use to have collection of Red Knight whiskey and by the time we were in the college he upgraded to brand Peter Scot whiskey. After his retirement with more frequent visit of family members from abroad he shifted from Indian made foreign liquor to premium scotch whiskey. Summers in India are awfully hot and mercury for few days goes beyond forty degrees centigrade making beer the choice of drink. My late beloved mother gave me a nice lesson that I should not rush through my scotch whiskey and sip it very slowly. My maternal grandfather late Sardar Himmat Singh Bakshi had served in British India during first world war, has witnessed action in Europe during war, afterward has worked in Kuwait and his globetrotting kept his mature perspective way ahead of his time. Our family were not aghast when I had my first drink with my elders within family. I in general have my scotch whiskey on weekends and confine it to not more than a single or two small pegs with soda and ice. But certainly, do relish family time together especially with my dad talking about national and international topics on politics, history and state of economy at leisure. My dad still subscribe Economist magazine published from England which has helped us to form better understanding of international politics along with state of world’s economic, but unfortunately after pandemic the delivery by post has stopped.
India is land of lot of contradiction, delusion, and catch 22 scenarios. Indian society in general is conservative, inclined towards spirituality and culturally doesn’t promote liquor. But if we look into the statistics alcohol consumption in India has been on steady rise, may be the key attributable factor is rising levels of disposable income and one of the key sources of recreation, social lubricant and peer pressure among growing urban population. Lately I have observed consumption of alcohol within female population of affluent upper middle class has gone up significantly. My personal opinion is one should avoid alcohol as far as possible. I must have come with an idea umpteen number of times to be teetotaller and become vegetarian myself. Abysmal state of health of people suffering from heart, blood pressure and liver diseases can be attributed to their habit of alcohol consumption. I am not sure if prohibition, preventive controls or drinking in moderation is the solution to counter the vice of alcoholism. But for the overall good of one self, for the well-being of family and society in large it should be avoided as far as possible.
Written by – Yogi Bhogi Sardar