One place near dad’s house is a wineshop. A place me as a teetotaller had no use for.
Until one day…
I quit drinking a while back. So now, except on the one odd occasion with friends, I rarely frequent drinking joints. But a visit to a wineshop has just not happened – there’s simply no occasion. On that restless evening, i was just riding, to no place in particular. That’s when I noticed it.
I have passed it a million times, but it never registered in my head. Like the post box or the trash basket on service roads – you know they are there but seldom use them. That day, the wineshop on the service road stood out, simply because of the crowds swelling around it.
I realised there were things even I could still do around a wineshop. They were –
No. 1: Find out if they stock non-alcoholic beer.
I parked the bike a little ahead of their neon signboard – Big R wines. I searched for the words ‘SALE – DISCOUNT – FREE’, nothing of that sort. I checked Google calendar – no holiday, no public event, no elections – then why the crowds? Then it registered – 6th Nov., first Saturday of the month – payday. Money + small town + nothing to do + addiction = wineshop!
The crowds at their counter kept swelling. I moved with them, looking, searching, till I found myself also at the counter. What the hell! Why did I do this? What took over? All valid questions with no answers.
McDowells quarter. Antiquity half. Bacardi pint. Ek bottle KF strong. Old monk
Brand names flew across while credit cards, cash, and bottles in all shapes and sizes exchanged hands on either side of the counter.
The man at the counter was staring at me asking, what I wanted. A defining question. Why is a tea-totaller at a wine-shop?
Thinking he hadn’t heard right, he turned his face sideways, getting his ear closer to my mouth.
‘NON-ALCOHOLIC BEER‘, I said, this time surer & louder. He heard it all right. He looked straight at me and grinned, like I had asked him the way to the moon.
No, we don’t stock it, his tone was sympathetic. Still, I felt embarrassed as I sheepishly moved out.
On my way to the bike, I saw the hangers-on, individuals – read freeloaders – waiting for anyone they knew. Then there were the friends, colleagues and groups collected with common cause, all standing back and waiting for that chosen, brave one gone to wrestle with the crowds ahead to return safely with the stuff. My eyes wandered till they hit the tandoori shop.
No. 2: Enter a tandoori shop.
During my drinking days, 99 out of 100 times I’d had meat while drinking. I found it only logical to discover the tandoori shop right next to the wine shop – how convenient!
The menu at the counter said they had kebabs, and tandoori dishes in chicken and cottage cheese – the usual fare. The giant glass case displayed headless meat and square cottage cheese coated with traditional red masala skewered on sticks. The prices were a bit steep but while drinking, budgets did expand miraculously. I put the menu down and moved on.
No 3: Check the selection at the cigarette shop.
Milk and butter, guns and gods, cigarettes and wine – you get the drift. The cigarette seller was strategically located. Not too close to the chaos of the wineshop and yet, not too far. It was just across. Turn your neck a 180 degrees from the wineshop and it fell in your eye-line. Unmissable.
The makeshift shop was on a platform raised with beer cartons piled one on top of the other. Right on top in a wooden box were the cigarettes, tobacco pouches and all sorts of contraband. It was manned by a youngish chap. All a person had to ask. The money was sought and the stuff passed with a slight of hand too fast for someone not observing keenly. The shop was illegal, that’s why it was built that way. In case of a raid, just grab the main box & run. But I bet the chap was paying the local beat cops. The counter looked busy, not like the wineshop but active enough.
The guy looked at me and raised his eyebrows in a what?
Not a man to ask about tobaccoless cigarettes, I quickly shook my head, walked away and made my way towards the snack charts.
No 4: Check out cheap snack carts.
Chakna, tastings, chaks, etc were names snacks were called by across the land. One stall catered exclusively to veg fare – roasted groundnuts, bhel, packaged snacks all lined up. If you took more than two they even gave you the wafer thin plastic bags to carry it in. Your job then was to find your space to drink and munch in some hidden corner, carefully timing that the munchies last through the drinks.
The man there had a small stove operation where he was busy roasting the groundnuts. Before he could raise his head – I asked anda hai? Are there eggs?
He didn’t even look up, just said – that side.
The other cart was loaded with meat – mainly fish and chicken. All kinds of pomfret, bangda, prawns, chicken leg, breast, liver, gizzards were stacked side by side. They had photos of meat made in Chinese and Indian styles. A lady made the food while two guys were busy handling customers. The shop was teeming with people either eating or waiting..
A few bikers were having a drink and eating there, but they hid their drinks in the shadows. It was a busy corner and there was no way for them to pay attention to someone like me.
I saw the cigarette shop chap throw suspicious glances towards me, maybe because I was my mobile the way one holds it to take pictures and because I wasn’t buying anything.
Then I noticed the fifth thing I could do –
No 5 – Chat with omelette seller whose shop was empty.
His counter sporting white eggs stacked one atop the other. The giant pan was spick & span. I checked the items written on a board – boiled eggs, omelette, bhurji, decent prices. But his shop was empty.
The stall was just next to the busy non-veg snacks cart but didn’t have a single customer. The guy at the counter was sitting on a raised plastic stool with his head cradles in one arm, his eyes shut.
He opened his eyes – surprised to see me look at him, he quickly answered –
Sab hai – everything.
I felt sorry for the guy. Even though eggs sold well with wine there were no customers. It didn’t look like anyone was coming there. I took another look at him. he didn’t belong to this place. Just like I didn’t belong here -too naïve for our own goods.
He nodded a yes.
That night I had the omelette for dinner thinking of how my list could grow of things a teetotaller could do outside a wine shop. I realised very quickly the list couldn’t grow – because for that I would have to frequent the wine shop again. And no amount of money or articles could make me do that.