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The India that is not Bharat...

April 20, 2012 12:43 IST

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

A battle for a glass of red wine ends happily when an Air India traveller magnanimously accepts whiskey instead, reports B S Prakash.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh


Six years ago, when I was the Indian consul general in San Francisco, I had written a column on Rediff.com called Protocol for Alcohol.

It has been so long ago that I may please be forgiven if I recall the context briefly.

I had asked an affluent visiting businessman to accompany me to one of those Californian cocktail parties. The waitress, going around asking "Red or white," had been nonplussed when my friend had replied, "Black, actually."

Being a good Indian whiskey guzzler like me, he was indicating his preference for Black Label Johnny Walker and his disdain for the mere Red Label.

Sizing up the situation and the bewildered look of the waitress, I had clarified to my guest that the girl had been asking about wines, red or white, and that in the chic ambience of San Francisco, asking for whiskey was almost like demanding tharra, the fiery booze of my youth which burnt your innards. And so on.

The column had brought unexpected responses.

A newly started wine magazine from one of the prestigious Indian hotel brands asked me to write a regular feature on Californian wines, mistaking me for a wine connoisseur.

Some whiskey lovers commended my friend's straightforward approach and said he was a true Indian, true to our heritage as a whiskey-drinking nation which consumes more Black Label than has been produced, thanks to the recycling of the bottles with the indigenous distillation.

Some, maybe from the Ambani household, commented that the preferred drink of rich Indians was Blue Label now and not Black.

The majority of readers responded on Rediff, soundly abusing me as a snob, an elitist with no connection to the Real India that is Bharat, where people had no water to drink, let alone wine or whiskey. Quite a few demanded I should be sacked or recalled for being such an obnoxious representative of India.

All of which was pretty much the standard stuff.

India changes, specially the India that is not Bharat, if you pardon the use of the cliche again.

When I was in India recently for the BRICS summit, I was not surprised to see the elegant ladies at parties in Vasant Vihar in New Delhi, asking for Cabernet or Pinot Noir and the waiters producing the red dulcet liquid without batting an eyelid.

It seemed that we had moved on and, except in the army messes or the red bastion of Jawaharlal Nehru University, no one -- not even journalists -- drank XXX rum any more.

Still, I was not prepared for the conversation I heard as I took the Air India flight from Delhi to Dubai on my way back to Brazil.

I was travelling by business class and, after a while, I asked for red wine with my meal. The air hostess, quite young by Air India standards (she was only in her mid-fifties) efficiently countered, "No more red wine, Sir. Only white or whiskey."

She clearly came from the martial classes that have defended our Western borders for decades. She also had back-slapping camaraderie with her colleagues and guests alike, which is so characteristic of the region.

I was quite pleased with the "Sir" and not too disappointed with the "no more" red wine, though I had not had any.

Experience has taught me that anything is possible on an Air India flight. Considering the Maharaja has been a pauper for a while now, one should grab what one gets.

The air hostess moved on to serve the rows behind me.

Soon, I hear raised voices -- the assertive voice of the air hostess and the even more abrasive tone of the passenger behind me. I should note that most of the conversation was in Hindi shading into Punjabi, but I will have to render it in English, thus losing some of the colour and flavour.

"I told you, no more red wine," the air hostess was telling him, apparently not for the first time.

"But I had only one glass so far. How can I eat my food?" he retorted.

He was luckier than me since, at some stage, he had already imbibed a glass... maybe as the plane was taking off?

"What can we do? We were only given two bottles on this flight. Have some white wine if you want it," the hostess was now telling him, with as much courtesy as she was capable of.

"Can't you see that I am having matar paneer (a dish made of cottage cheese and peas)? How can I have that with white wine? Red food goes with red wine."

"Aise kuch nahin hai (There's nothing like that). Anyway, I can give you beer," she made her ultimate offer.

At which point, the person who was seated next to the red wine enthusiast entered the fray. He was a sophisticated gourmet, it appeared.

"Look, Madam," he began respectfully, perhaps a little fearful of the battle axe hostess. "What bhaisaheb here is saying is true. Red wine goes with red meat: mutton, chicken... White wine is for fish. In any case, we are travelling business class. Kaise ho sakta hai (How can this happen)? It is like inviting someone to your home for dinner. If he asks for an extra roti, can you say atta khatam ho gaya (the dough is over)."

My mind started reeling with all the elements of his wondrous speech.

He had shown solidarity with his co-passenger. At the same time, he had made it difficult for the hostess to snap back by addressing her as "Madam."

He had enunciated the principle of what wine goes with what food accurately, but by extrapolation was justifying that matar paneer was like mutton.

Finally, he was appealing to the innate Indian hospitality norm in which an athithi (guest) is to be treated no less than a God could not be denied the extra roti, even if the host had run out of dough.

I strained my ears to hear what came next.

"Just because it is the national carrier, you make fun of us like this," the air hostess said, almost in tears. Her sense of being a hostess had been touched by the reference to the rotis.

"No, No, Madam, do not feel bad," said the passenger, now alarmed at having hurt her feelings.

"We take this flight because it is Air India, though there are so many options for Dubai. We are also proud Indians and that is why I was feeling bad. But nothing personal. Koi baat nahin (It's all right). You should not feel bad," he comforted her.

As another cliche goes: We are like that only.

Finally, the mollified hostess brought whiskey and, in a spirit of reconciliation, they accepted it saying they could make this gastronomic sacrifice for the sake of the national carrier and the national flag.

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador to Brazil and can be reached at ambassador@indianembassy.org.br

You can read more columns by Ambassador B S Prakash here.

B S Prakash