Once upon a time when I was a truant college goer in Calcutta, and had a healthy appetite for misadventures, I had slunk away from one of those stuffy History of English Literature lectures and accompanied a bunch of delinquent friends to Olypub, a then undiscovered destination. Before my first visit to the grimy, perennially crowded, stink-infused watering hole, I’d only heard about its ‘atmosphere’ from older cousins and seniors.
Although the memories from the visit have faded a bit, what remains clear as light is the Kalmegh-like taste of the lowly 19-rupee Kalyani Black Label that most of us ordered for lack of pennies in our barely adult pockets. The encounter with Kalyani hadn’t gone according to plan and turned me off beer for a long time to come. For most of those early years of bacchanalia, I stuck to the trusty Old Monk. But more than the booze, what stayed with me was the image of a tube-lit den in the middle of an oppressive summer afternoon, and the boisterous cheer of friends celebrating a veritable rite of passage.
It’s this spirit of cheer, celebration, and company that forms the cornerstone of mankind’s relationship with booze, the beginning of which could be traced back to the fermentation of fruits and grains gathered from the forest floor thousands of years ago. The drinking party, though versatile in its form and structure, has been around since the beginning of civilisation and remained susceptible to run wild and turn excessive. The early Greeks viewed teetotallers with suspicion and served alcohol in kraters—large urns, into which guests dipped and filled their goblets.
Like all living relationships, our alliance with the tipple has also evolved. In these times of global being the new local, our booze and the bars that we frequent have come to reflect our lives, our tastes and mostly, our journeys. Today, we drink alone, with friends, sometimes in sorrow, compulsively in joy, and mostly to unwind. These days though I blame the dispiriting European winter.
It’s been a while since Oly stopped being a destination. My world expanded beyond the confines of Calcutta’s streets, and I discovered new pit stops on my drinking map when travelling. On a visit to the lush Bratislava countryside, my husband and I chugged homegrown Slovak beer with a bunch of friendly strangers sitting in a pub for cyclists in the middle of nowhere. The orange sun hung low in the sky, and the country music played on a high behind us.
In Paris, an old friend and I stopped for a wine break at Café des 2 Moulins, where Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie was employed, as we tired after walking through the jumble of cafés, ateliers, and the heady buzz of Montmartre. We settled amidst the scatter of tables and scarlet chairs on the sloping pavement that autumn evening, pretending to be locals sipping on wine and planning our next expedition. And everything seemed well with the world.
On a visit to Oxford a few years ago, when greeted with a taste of the classic English weather, we found our group of five ducking into pubs often, to shelter ourselves from the incessant November rain and warm our hearts with as many neat whiskies we could hold. We hated the weather. We complained bitterly. We’d almost turned English. But the whisky kept us fortified and going, and pretty much salvaged the weekend.
In Brussels, a trusted friend introduced us to his local haunt, the wondrous Délirium Café, which serves upto 2,000 different kinds of brews. The cavernous pub with an overwhelming beer list charmed us instantly and this past summer, we found ourselves returning to its noisy refuge of thrumming music, shattering glasses, retro posters, and loud bands of revellers three days in a row. We shouted over the tables to hear and to be heard, and called for more rounds to stretch the merry moments.
Apart from being an enabler of social bonds and instant entertainment, alcohol can come in magically handy in taking out the sting from a long workday, as it can also elevate one’s reading or film-watching experience on a leisurely weekend. Nothing motivates me more than the image of big, fat beads of moisture resting on pitchers of chilled beer that I think of emptying during the last mile of a gruelling summer hike.
Be it culture, literature, art, or music, alcohol consumption has played a crucial role in creating our social ties. It has lifted many a heavy spirit on a difficult day, comforted those with broken hearts, and brought joy to countless dull parties. And for that alone we should be raising a toast to our long love affair with the brilliant brew. Cheers!
Debashree Majumdar is a failed skier and enthusiastic hiker. When travelling, she seeks out the hum of old neighbourhoods and the noise of bazaars. She is a freelance writer-editor and currently lives in Geneva.