I stood in line between two fellow consumers. We maintained an arm’s length between the three of us but once in a while, as we we made our way forward, one of us would get a little too close to the one in front, in anticipation. Months ago, this would have spiraled into an argument – two covered and sanitized mouths exchanging reproach of all kind. Now, the encroachment was met with a toothy grin, a knowing smile. That was the beauty of it all. Teeth were showing again, smiles were being brandished about, people were at ease again.
I had missed the foul odor for months. The cardboard the goods came in, emitted a desultory, musty smell that I had always crinkled my nose at. Not today. Not after so long. I had missed this all. The cacophony of the rowdy gathering, the petty fights between people, the amused crowd around them, one that I had been a part of, for years. This was home.
Poizin Wines had stood the test of the virus. It’s sign proudly glowed against the starlit night, advertising the poison it had to offer. We were in line, waiting to partake of its offerings, all of us bereft of the fluids for months. Fluids poisonous in many human bodies, but essential in many others, including mine. My fingers twitched in expectation. The wait had been long and dry.
My phone rang and I picked it up. It was a friend.
“Have you decided on what to get”, he asked without greeting.
I grinned. “What a wonderful predicament to have, ra”, I said.
Usually we were limited to domestic ware, liquor we downed when we knew there were other fancier bottles to have in the future. On special occasions. Bottles that were shaped sexy, with spice and fine malts.
The time away had taught us valuable lessons. It had made us rethink our priorities. Taste over strength? Finesse over sheer knock-out value? I had been toying with the choices all day ever since the shops had been thrown open. The road ahead was tricky. Do we revel in domestic “hardware” or sniff at and absorb Scottish artistry?
“I haven’t decided yet”, I said, a silly grin on my face.
“Well, better decide quick. And how much longer are you going to take? We’re waiting here”.
“As long as it takes ra, as long as it takes”, I replied sagely and disconnected. I was almost at the front of the line.
Even as I waited, I kept tapping at my wallet to make sure it was there. It was thick but hopefully not for too long. Once I was in, I hoped to empty its contents and transform currency into its liquid form. I was not used to such judicious care but the occasion was momentous and I had to make perfectly sure that my wallet was safe.
As I saw customer after satisfied customer turn away from the store, their arms cradling bottles of alcohol like they were delicate infants, I marveled at the miracle that was unfolding in front of me. I saw old friends shake hands, even hug fiercely. Strangers comparing their buys, each respectful and understanding of the others’ choices. Giant distances were being bridged amid the foul smell of cardboard and hands were being clasped without fear amid the clanging of beer bottles. My eyes welled up for a second. Poizin was bringing a community together.
One of them broke into song.
“Mandu babulam memu mandu babulam,
Mandu kodithe maku meme maha rajulam,
Kallu thaagi gantestham, saara thaagi chindestham,
Mandu anthe dige daaka lokaanne paalistham”
It was finally time. I looked around at the wares in front of me. It seemed that my mind had made a decision after all. With both palms I lifted a bottle of the Old Monk himself and looked him straight in the eye. The old warlord, how many battles had he seen and vanquished? I picked up another one and placed the both of them in my bag. The liquor bag that had seen no use for months. They settled right in, already at home.
At the counter, I was greeted with more smiles.
“Card or cash”, he asked all smiles.
“Hehe. Card”, I gushed laughing.
He cheerfully slid my card across and I carefully typed in the code. A receipt of joy unfurled itself from the folds of the card machine. We both watched in wonder as if we were seeing it happen for the first time.
“Customer copy”, he asked. “No, bhaiya, thank you very much”, I said.
Even as I turned around to leave, he called after me.
“Wait, wait, one minute”.
I looked back in question. I was keen to get home to the waiting friends and the empty glasses clean and ready.
“We are giving away a sample of a Single Malt Scotch for free. For being our faithful patrons”. Saying this, he thrust a tiny bottle of Glenfiddich towards me. I looked up at him with thanks and gleefully pocketed the costly bottle.
As I walked out, past the queue of expectant customers, I saw a few of them look at me. My face broke into a smile as if to reassure them that all will be well.
“I’ve been there, and soon so will you.”
I hailed an auto passing by and got in. I firmly clasped the rod without fear as I got in. Fear was gone, we had conquered it all. I no longer worried about surfaces and what they might contain.
“Anna, what did you get”, he asked, as soon as we were underway.
“Rum, bhaiya”, I said, “Old Monk”.
“Super Anna”, he said winking at me from his rear view mirror.
“I have been driving all day, I have to do as much business as I can to make up for all the lost time”.
I understood and nodded back at him through the mirror.
As he trudged to a stop at my building, I paid him for the ride. En route I had also decided that he probably deserved more. I handed over the tiny bottle of malt whiskey.
“It’s nothing, I got it for free. Just make sure you have it after you go home”. He smiled in thanks and shook my hand.
I turned around on my way up. An intimate conversation with the old monk awaited me.
Write Club Hyderabad – March 2020