Friday, July 17, 2015

Petrichor and Angostura

In the first half of the 1970s, I was posted in Calcutta. After trying out a few lodging houses, hostels and paying guest arrangements, I moved into the Chowringhee YMCA in Calcutta where I stayed for well over three years. It was on a hot Saturday evening in April 1973, when the city was reeling under the sweltering heat of the summer of Calcutta that I checked in.
Dark clouds had occupied the skies, promising imminent rains. I was afraid the suitcase with my belongings would get drenched, but I was lucky: it started drizzling only after I got out of the cab with my belongings.
As the young Mr Russell, the Assistant Secretary at the reception, went through the admission formalities, I waited in the lounge with the high ceiling, admiring the portraits of the past leaders of the YMCA movement worldwide.
It was pouring by the time I was through. The nor’westers had cooled down the atmosphere, bringing immense relief. “Room No 5, Mr Rajagopalan,” announced Mr Russell matter-of-factly. As if as an afterthought, he added, in clipped accent, “Salim Ustad will show you the room. Mr Salivati will be your roommate. Have a good day!”
As I thanked him and withdrew, Salim Ustad, the bearer to whom the block my room was in was assigned, carried my suitcase and took me to my room through the broad corridor abutting the billiards room. It overlooked the inner courtyard. Stopping in front of the door which was ajar, he knocked deferentially. “Come on in,” a gruff voice responded from within.
There was nobody in the room. The door to the washroom was open, but there was none there either. ‘Who’s that?” the voice came from beyond another door which creaked open. It was a balcony and seated on a cane chair with a magazine in his hand and a glass beside him was Ramu, the man who would be my roommate.
Introductions over, he offered me a drink which I promptly declined, more out of politeness – I was meeting him for the first time – than any other reason. Ramu did not press. “Have your way, but there’s nothing like OMR and petrichor on a day like this,” he said. That was the first time I was hearing the word, but guessed that petrichor must be one of those potions like angostura, tabasco, orange bitters or grenadine added to hard liquor for flavor.
How wrong I was! Petrichor, I learnt later, is the pleasant smell that wafts in as the first drops of rain hit the parched earth baked dry after a long period of warm, dry weather. That was the only time I have seen the word used. In a conversation. Months later, he told me that he loved vellichor, adding that for a wordsmith, there is nothing more distinctive than the smell of old books, redolent of dust and decayed hopes.
Ramu was always like that: a great one for quaint words. He used to like Tuesdays because the jentacular (breakfast) menu had porridge and french toast, his favourite. On Saturdays, he would say he missed the nudinustertian (day before yesterday’s) dinner because it was all ghaas-poos. He referred to the new team of cubs reporting to him at The Statesman as Yarborough. A keen bridge-player would know that it is a hand of thirteen card with no honours – cards above 9. Weekends sometimes were drab because he was cash-strapped and the tittynope (small quantity left over) of OMR in the bottle was too little.
Ha, we are back to OMR. Ramu used to describe it as the single malt of rums. "I love scotch, but it is way too expensive. This is the next best," he'd say. He was the self-appointed President of COMRADE – short for the Comity of OMR Aficionados, Drinkers and Epicures. Each has his own recipe for making his poison with OMR: with varying proportions of coke, soda, water, ice, etc. My favourite is OMR with a dash of lime, a lot of ice cubes and a little soda.
I read the other day that the market of OMR – variously called Buzurg Baba (Patiala) Muthumuni (Kerala) and Buddha Saadhu (Mumbai) – has been shrinking and it is facing the threat of being withdrawn from the market. It will indeed be a sad day if it happens.
Note: On reviewing this piece, I thought that this reads like a pot-pourri of two odes – one to Ramu and the other to OMR. I felt I should rewrite it, but on second thoughts, it is just as well: for, who can separate Ramu from OMR?