Saturday, July 10, 2010


I must confess that I am not a very virtuous person: I do drink. Before you take me amiss, let add post haste: I am not a case that merits a reference to the AA. Not by a long shot!

I do enjoy my tipple – in the right ambience and company. Which means there has to be plenty of ice, conviviality, soda, short eats and water. The crystal glasses, the sparkling decanter, the gleaming cutlery,
the delicate crockery, the starched napkins – all contribute to the ambience. The company of someone who spreads good cheer and can share a laugh is imperative. And the ‘poison’ has to be of my liking. It is quite possible that if the above ingredients are not present, I may even decline a drink. I can possibly do without soda or snacks, but not the others.

One thing I never miss is to read the label on the bottle. It is a very interesting pastime, for it tells you the origin of the name, the history of the distillers etc. Believe me, some of the names are so romantic and some have history behind them.

Take the popular ‘Royal Salute’
whisky for instance. This leading prestige Scotch whisky was launched on the 2nd June in 1953 by Chivas Brothers in tribute to Queen Elizabeth II on the day of her coronation. The bottle was decorated with her royal crest and hence the name.

The ubiquitous brand most Indians are familiar with would be Vat 69, thanks to the Hindi films where villains like Pran and Prem Nath would be seen pouring a drink off a green bottle. How the brand got its name is interesting. In 1882, William Sanderson prepared one hundred casks of blended whisky and hired a panel of experts to taste them. The batch from the vat with number 69 was judged to be the best tasting one and thus the famous blend got its name.

Recall ‘Black & White’,
featuring two terriers, one black and the other white, on the label. Curiously, the labels on the bottles did not carry these pictures for a long time. In fact, the whisky was not even called Black & White! When James Buchanan produced Buchanan Blend, it came to be relied upon for its consistency and quality and he won a contract to supply the House of Commons with whisky. Thus it was called Buchanan's House of Commons Scotch Whisky. It was marketed in a black bottle with a white label and customers simply started referring to Buchanan Blend as ‘that black and white whisky’. Buchanan - an animal lover – then added the black Scottish terrier and the West Highland white terrier to the label and it was adopted as the brand's motif.

Now, to ‘Black Dog’. I was surprised that this name has nothing to do with man’s best friend. Walter Millard, a Scot in British India, traveled to Scotland in 1833 in search of an impeccable whisky. His search ended in blend created by James Mackinlay, if the second generation of the Leith Scotch whisky blending family. Being a keen angler himself, Millard named the whisky Black Dog in honour of his favourite salmon
fishing fly, used in the Spey and Tay rivers of Scotland.

A wife may nurse a grouse against a man for drinking, but that has nothing to do with the name ‘Famous Grouse’. Mathew Gloag who created the blend in 1897, named it after the Red Grouse, Scotland's national game bird.

‘Old Smuggler’ is exactly what the name
says. It is a blended Scotch Whisky with a history that goes back to 1835. Smugglers risked their life and honour to share its taste with their loyal customers and hence the brand name.

The name '100 Pipers' was taken from the one hundred pipers who proceeded Scotland's legendary hero, Bonnie Prince Charlie, into battle. It is said that the pipers used to entertain the generals relaxing with the bubbly in the dusk after the day’s battle. The producers assure you that after a couple of drinks, you can hear the distant strains of the pipers’ music! This is something I cannot testify, as I have never been able to reach that level of inebriation!

Then we have the ‘Cutty Sark’ whose main office in Glasgow is less than ten miles from the birthplace of the famous River Clyde-built clipper ship of the same name. Interestingly, the word means ‘short underskirt’ and is prominently mentioned in the famous poem ‘Tam o’Shanter’ by Robert Burns.

The glen series of whiskies – Glenlivet, Glenfraclas, Glen Elgin, Glenrothes, … – are mostly named after the valleys where the distilleries are located. Glenfiddich, which comes in the characteristic triangular bottles, is Gaelic for Valley of the Deer and Glenmorangie is believed to be derived from either gleann mor na sith – Valley of tranquillity or gleann mór innse – Valley of Big Meadows.

Laphroaig, Lagavulin, etc are areas in the Isle of Islay. The former is an area of land at the head of Loch Laphroaig on the south coast. The meaning is unknown but a commonly suggested derivation implies the elements ‘lag’ (Gaelic: hollow), ‘breid’ (Norse: broad) and ‘vik’ (Norse: bay), implying an original Gaelic form something like ‘Lag Bhròdhaig’ (the hollow of Broadbay). The name may be related to a placename on the east coast of Islay, ‘Pròaig’, again suggested as meaning broad bay’.

And there are oddities too - Dimple is known by that name everywhere except in the USA where it is called Pinch. There's something special called - what else? 'Something Special'! One of Seagram's most successful retail blends in the 1970's, one does not get to see much of it lately.

My son reminds me of another brand: With that name for a whiskey, even if you are a teetotaller, and when asked, 'What'll you have?' politely decine the offer for a tipple, a drink can be thrust upon you because you said, 'Kuchh nai'! Trust a Sardarji to come up with such a brilliant idea! If you can't believe this, have a look at the label and see the name of the distillery: Five Rivers International Limited. Those who still remember their school geography will know that 'Punjab' means 'Five Rivers'.

One of the first advertisement slogans I recall having seen was ‘Don’t be vague, Say Haig’. And the most striking visual I can recall in an ad was the one where a man is entertaining his boss. It’s very subtle: he pours a large drink for himself, but when it comes to the boss, he is a bit miserly, large enough, but not as large. The dilemma of the man is writ on his face: pour a large and keep the boss happy, but that leaves hi with a depleted stock of the amber liquid!

How can I conclude this piece without referring to the etymology of the word ‘whisky’? Americans spell the word as ‘whiskey’. The word comes from usquebaugh, which English borrowed from Gaelic (Irish uisce beatha and Scottish uisge beatha), meaning ‘water of life’, the same thing as the Latin aqua vītae which had been applied to distilled drinks since early 14th century. Readers are requested not to confuse this with Shivambu, the beverage India’s one-time Prime Minister Morarji Desai advocated as the water of life for its medicinal value.

There’s a sher I cannot resist the temptation to quote, with apologies to those who do not understand Hindi:

Mein peeta nahin…
Mein peeta nahin hun…
Jab bhi mein peeta
Peeta hun whisky
Kabhi uski, kabhi iski.

I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me. -
Winston Churchill

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Part of my childhood was spent in Calicut in Malabar where my father had a middle-level job in the Central Government. He was what is described these days as a Class III (Or, is it Class II?) employee. Were talking of the 1950’s when the take-home pay was meagre. With more than half a dozen mouths to feed, all he could afford was a two-room block. Ours was one in a row of seven such blocks, each sharing a wall with the neighbour’s.


We had one luxury: as it was at one end, it had three sides open; five of the remaining six had only two sides open. This, however, was not an unmixed blessing: the windows opened to a marshy area. In the rainy season, water hyacinths grew and mosquitoes bred there in abundance. It was home to a few water snakes and thousands of frogs which would croak all night.


In summer, it would become a marshland. In stark contrast to the sea of green and bluish purple that it was in the monsoon, it would turn a dull brown and grey, as the succulent hyacinths dried up.


Electricity was meant only for providing light – no fans! - in the nights. Kerosene oil was in short supply most of the time and cooking gas was unheard of.


Firewood was the only fuel even in affluent households. In the villages, they used to collect dried palm-fronds, but town-dwellers had no access to it. The saw mill town of Feroke being close by, saw dust which was available in plenty was the major fuel used. Vendors would visits residential areas come every Sunday to take orders. They would effect delivery during the course of the week – each locality had a specific day. The cart laden with huge jute bags containing saw dust would come to our area every Tuesday with its three-man strong crew – the heftier among them pulling it and the weaker two pushing it from behind. After parking the cart in front of the fourth block, the ‘puller’ would take a breather – he would climb onto the cart, lie down on the bags and take a nap while the ‘pushers’ would deliver the goods, carrying the bags on their back.


For obvious reasons, saw dust could only be stored in the open. This posed a grave problem in the rainy season: a lot of the inventory would get washed away. Therefore people would switch to firewood which was more expensive. That is when Gopi would be in great demand.


Well-built and muscular, he would push his handcart in the morning to the timber-yard, buy logs in bulk, pull the heavily laden cart back, selling it at retail prices to housewives who would request him to hew it for them. He would do that – for a price, of course – and move on. He had his regulars: those who would patronise him whether it was rainy season or not. Households like ours would entertain him only during the monsoons, but he never used to grudge that.


Gopi had a very bad stammer – in fact, I have never seen the person with as bad a speech defect as his. You ask him the price of a cwt of timber and his facial muscles would go into contortions in the strain he underwent to give a response, but not a word would come out for a long time. We kids would watch him open-mouthed as he struggled to get his answer out. In retrospect, I think the fact that we were watching him possibly made him even more nervous. And finally, when you gave up all hope, ‘the word’ would issue out. And he would beam, happy that his endeavour had borne fruit.


His was a one-man show – he pulled the log-laden cart alone and hewed the logs himself with none to help him. The muscles in his calf and thighs were firm and well-formed. The way his sinewy limbs moved rhythmically was a treat to the eyes. Our bedroom window provided us a ringside seat to watch the muscles move up and down as he heaved the axe to split the logs in the open space next to our block.


You could set your clock every morning when Gopi passed by, pushing the cart. Rain or shine, bare-chested, and clad in a lungi with a towel for a headgear that doubled as a wipe for the sweat, he passed by, pushing the cart every morning.


In the evening, you would see him amble along in a new avatar – a fresh well-starched and ironed shirt, sparkling white crisp dhoti, a cigarette dangling from his lips below his moustache like the one Bhagat Singh had. He would spend a couple of hours with his friends and return by dusk.


Sunday was the day out for his family. In the evening, he would be accompanied by his wife, with two kids in tow, all smartly turned out. They would spens time in the beach or Mananchira Maidan, or watch a movie or the circus, and return home in time for dinner.


For the young boy that I was, Gopi was the paragon of virtues a man ought to possess – a self-reliant man making an honest living by working hard during the weekdays, relaxing with friends in the evenings and enjoying the bliss of family life in weekends. He was very matter-of-fact and would professional in whatever he did. Have I really been able to lead a life that emulated his? I wonder.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Two Gardners

There were two Gardners who impressed me when I was young. Both influenced me, but for very different reasons. Both lived long, both had a variety of interests and both had authored dozens of books, though neither could stake claim to much formal education in the subject they are well-known for.

One was Erle Stanley Gardner (July 17, 1889 – March 11, 1970), the American lawyer and author of detective stories. Who has not heard of ‘The Case of the …’ series? For some curious reason, he had several pseudonyms other than the more popular A.A. Fair, some of them being Kyle Corning, Charles M Green, Carleton Kendrake, Charles J Kenny, Les Tillray and Robert Parr. He created many different unforgettable characters like the ingenious Lester Leith, a ‘gentleman thief’, Ken Corning, a crusading lawyer and Perry Mason, the lawyer and crime-solver who featured in more than eighty novels he wrote.

Gardner’s formal study of law school lasted approximately one month, for he was suspended from school when his interest in boxing became a distraction. Later he became a self-taught attorney and passed the state bar exam in 1911. Innovative and restless in his nature, Gardner was bored by the routine of legal practice, the only part of which he enjoyed was trial work and the development of trial strategy. His other interests were travel, history, and forensic science.

This Gardner made many of my long and tedious train journeys short and interesting; they had more entertainment value that edification. His namesake, Martin Gardner (October 21, 1914 – May 22, 2010), was of the cerebral kind. I first I came across him in the puzzle column of the Scientific American in the United States Information Service Library (USIS), Trivandrum which was closed down, thanks to the communists here and whose immaculate white building on the Main Road was razed down, thanks to the rapacious real estate lobby.

Later, my colleague and friend Dr C V Ram Mohan gifted me a book of puzzles, mostly mathematical ones, authored by Martin Gardner. Apart from teasing brains with math puzzles for a quarter century, Gardner wrote books on topics as diverse as magic and philosophy. He wrote fiction, poetry, literary and film criticism. He was so prolific and wide-ranging in his interests that critics speculated that there just had to be more than one of him! Gardner used to say that his life was not all that interesting, really. ‘It’s lived mainly inside my brain,’ he said.

The owner of a questioning mind, his was a leading voice in refuting pseudoscientific theories, from ESP to flying saucers. Who, but Gardner, could have taken his hero Lewis Carroll to task in ‘Annotated Alice’ (1960) for writing of a ‘golden afternoon’ in the first line of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, for, he had found that the day, July 4, 1862, was, in fact, ‘cool and rather wet’?

His was a clarifying intelligence: he said his talent was asking good questions and transmitting the answers clearly and crisply. His puzzles were often mathematical. What is special about the number 8,549,176,320? As Gardner explained, the number is the ten natural integers arranged in English alphabetical order. Though his mathematical writings intrigued a generation of mathematicians, he had not studied the subject formally beyond school.

His fans included names as celebrated and diverse ass W H Auden (Poet), Douglas Hofstadter (Cognitive scientist), Vladimir Nabokov (Of the Lolita fame), Arthur C Clarke (The Sci-Fi man), Jacob Bronowski (Polymath), Stephen Jay Gould (Evolutionary biologist) and Carl Sagan (Astronomer). Nabokov referred to him in his novel ‘Ada’ as ‘an invented philosopher’. An asteroid is named after Gardner.

‘Martin Gardner is one of the great intellects produced in this country in the 20th century,’ said the Douglas Hofstadter whose seminal work ‘Metamagical Themas’ (Anagram of Mathematical Games) has left me astounded. Incidentally, he was Gardner’s successor at the Scientific American in said Gardner achieved elegant results by drawing on fields from logic to the philosophy of science to literature. He conveyed ‘the magical quality of mathematics,’ Dr. Hofstadter said.

Gardner rejected speculative metaphysics because it could not be proved logically or empirically. He debunked pseudoscience and said he found no reason to believe in anything religious except a human desire to avoid ‘deep-seated despair’; so, he said, he believed in God. Stephen Jay Gould described Gardner as ‘the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surround us’.

Coming as it does from someone who had done the puzzle column in the Scientific American for twentyfive years from 1956, Gardner was self-effacingly transparent when he said, ‘The number of puzzles I’ve invented you can count on your fingers.’ Gardner admitted that to keep just ahead of his monthly deadline, he used to rush out to secondhand bookstores scouring for books about math puzzles, an approach he used for years. Not for nothing that Adam Gopnik wrote of him in The New York Times Book Review in 1999 that Gardner had ‘an old-fashioned, almost 19th century kind of mind – self-educated, opinionated, cranky and utterly unafraid of embarrassment.’

For all his success in refuting those who take advantage of people’s gullibility, he sometimes could not help having fun with it himself. In one Scientific American column, he wrote that dwelling in pyramids could increase everything from intelligence to sexual prowess. Perhaps that was what he meant when he said, ‘I just play all the time and am fortunate enough to get paid for it.’ I’m sure not many of us enjoy that privilege.