It begins when you stay in a hostel. Drinking beer, I mean. There is no research data available, and none is necessary, but eight out of ten taste their first beer when they stay in the hostel. I am also one of those eight!
Drinking beer at your hostel is one thing and drinking it at a pub is another. These are two separate but immensely enjoyable experiences. At the hostel, you have to pool money. Almost everybody is on the verge of bankruptcy or at least believes so. Some earn a fat cheque as a summer trainee these days and I guess the situation would have changed, but that was not the case in my days.
Beer comes attractively packed in these days of consumerism, but when we were in college which was some forty years ago, socialism prevailed – beer of all brands was packed in brown glass bottles or sometimes in colourless glass bottles. Beer drinkers firmly believed that the one in colourless glass bottles deteriorates quickly so many avoided buying those bottles. And empty beer bottles were sold to a ‘Bhangarwala’ to recover a fraction of the wealth spent.
There were no pubs in the seventies and eighties. ‘Durga’ had just opened in Dombivali which was my favourite place to go. Like the colour of beer bottles, one did not have much choice of restaurants where one could sit quietly in drink his glass of beer. Durga owner used to play loud music making conversations difficult. Beer and conversations flow together well. In that aspect Iranis understood their customers well, they rarely played music. They also sold beer cheaper than any Shetty restaurant probably because their restaurants were not air-conditioned. While Durga and other Shetty restaurants smelt of spicy chicken dishes, the aroma in Irani restaurants was of omelettes. And beer drinkers sometimes explored philosophical issues more complex than ‘what came first – egg or chicken.’ [The wise answer to that conundrum ‘Whatever you ordered first’ was thought of while sitting and sipping beer in an Irani restaurant].
Pubs remained a subject of curiosity. It took great courage for me to enter one in London some seventeen years ago. I say great courage because I entered alone, and did not know the ways of an English pub. It was crowded and the man behind the bar did not pay much attention to me. He kept one eye on the TV screen. The noise was high, many patrons were standing with their mug of beer. There was not much discussion, the noise was the result of the excitement caused while watching the English football game. I know Chelsea was playing, I do not remember the opponent. When the ball was taken near the goal post, there was silence. You have to witness that moment to understand the meaning of ‘pregnant’ silence. There was tension in the air. Then there were loud shouts of frustration or joy depending on whether goal was scored or not.
Some fifteen years later, I decided to spend time with my son and his family who then had just shifted to Wimbledon. As you go toward the Wimbledon station, you notice Alexandra. It’s a pub. I resolved to enter this pub, but never did. You don’t go there without a company, right?
This is where the social media stepped in. I took a quick pic of the pub as I walked to the Station. And posted it on FB saying I intend to go there before leaving for India. Nikhil called up. I know him since his TISS days. We fixed up meeting at 4 pm.
Take this from me. If you have not met somebody for a long time, the right venue is for meeting him is a pub. I mean, you open out in a nano-second. Discussion flows like beer. The age gap was obvious, but it too gets bridged after a while. We looked at the bar. There were too many option available. Pub owners obviously do not know that if you allow too many choices to customer, he gets confused. I did. But Nikhil, my well informed friend on London pubs, helped. He ordered for me Wimbledon Common Pale Ale. [‘Named after Wimbledon’s historic Common, this pale ale is burnished gold in colour with a bright sparkle. The aroma has spicy orange notes with a light malt fruitiness.’] The barman pulled a lever to fill the glasses. It looked as if he was taking out water from a deep well. The Pale Ale was good. These beers are low in alcohol content. That’s a good justification to give to your wife who labels every alcoholic drink as ‘Daru.’ Nikhil later suggested we taste Guinness dark. We did. I am not the person who mixes his drink, but one must experiment, I told myself.
There was no music. The TV played IPL live! Not English football games. The customers were not young, all above 55 with the exception of Nikhil. Everything changes with time. Perhaps old men enjoy their beer at 4 pm in British summer with bright daylight outside. I guess the youth prefers the cover of darkness. That will never change.
Vivek S Patwardhan