Drinking in the northern part of India, where I have spent the past decade of my life, is a national sport. You drink with friends and acquaintances at house parties, you drink with journalists you’ve met for the first time over heated debates at rundown bars, you absolutely must drink at weddings, and you drink both to celebrate and mourn. I was once invited to a funeral dinner where the good late sir’s favourite alcoholic beverage was part of the menu. Naturally, a book as breezy and compulsively readable as House Spirit appealed to me instantly.
The idea is simple – a bunch of writers, mostly men, come together to write a series of pieces on the act of drinking. Memories are allowed to collide and haunt; stories, poems, and essays arranged in no particular order are laid out with immense candour, wit and heart, but never a hint of judgement. Sometimes the dam breaks, sometimes the reader smiles for the rest of the day after finishing a piece. The mood seamlessly veers from sardonic humour to foreboding and gloom. Like it happens in my favourite poem in the book, Manohar Shetty’s “Ten Feet Tall” that has the lines –
I know how it felt to be ten feet tall,
Lurching about like a leaning,
Beaming Tower of Pisa. Now sober,
I remain mostly quiet,
Content with a lime and soda,
And then the same poem ends with –
I know how it felt to be ten feet tall
And to wake up crunched into a doll,
My head unscrewed from my neck,
My fingers digging and clawing myself
Out from a ditch ten feet tall.
The shift in tone is a staggering achievement.
You don’t have to be an alcoholic, I am not and I have been trying to convince everyone for some years now, to savour and adore the writing here. The list of authors contributing in this volume – from Jeet Thayil, Siddharth Chowdhury, Anjum Hasan to Adil Jussawalla, Mayank Shekhar, and Amit Chaudhuri among other popular names – is delectable enough for any reader to take a shot at it. Pun unintended. Even better would be if you gather all your friends on a Friday evening and take turns to read out some of the pieces. Like drinking, reading can also be a social practice sometimes. Make sure it’s a BYOB party though: Bring Your Own Books. Writers can do with all the love, but they need copies to sell too!