Magandeep Singh shares interesting vignettes of the untold story of alcohol in India

Nov 05, 2017, 08:59 IST | Jane Borges

In a new book, Delhi-based sommelier Magandeep Singh shares fascinating vignettes of the untold story of alcohol in India. Excerpts from an interview

What was the impetus to write a book on the history of alcohol in India?
It was the culmination of the many times that I, while travelling, have been asked whether Indians drink alcohol and, if they do, is there anything else besides cheap whiskey available in the country? Also, every time I hold presentations on wine and spirits, I realise that there are so many interesting anecdotes that dot our rich heady past. Why not delve into them a bit more and compile them. I am sure many still remain waiting to be unearthed.

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

With limited material available on the subject, how difficult was it to research this book?
The research was long, yes. I had to comb through the accounts of ancient travellers, find as many translations of Indian ancient texts available and then scan them for references to alcohol. These books don't have indexes, so, it was all down to me and my post-its, reading and markings. Then came the compilation stage, where I put all the
collected data down on a timeline. This chronological sequencing was important to be able to weave a story, fill the gaps with intelligent guesses where needed, and basically bring it all together.

India has had a long love-hate relationship with alcohol. From Mughal emperor Akbar banning it to the prohibition in the 20th century, there has always been resistance towards it. Why do you think this is?
Well Akbar banned it, but his own son let it flow, and how! The point of my book is precisely this - prohibition is an extreme form of control; it never works. To bring a certain civility to any exercise or indulgence, one needs to educate oneself on it, embrace it, respect it, and that is where awareness and control comes from. Outright prohibition leads to ignorance, which is the root of all abuse.

Magandeep Singh
Magandeep Singh

Have you had the chance to try any of the indigenous spirits mentioned in the book?
I wish I could have tried all. Most that I have tried were done through friends. The trouble is two-fold: these alcohols aren't allowed to leave their regions (they aren't even manufactured commercially). And, many of them don't fare well over long distances. So, either drink them at source or, well, wait for someone to tell you how awesome it was,
or not!

There's a lengthy chapter on India's tryst with wine. Do you think local wine brands have set remarkably high standards?
India's future holds a lot of good wine in it. Also, good beers, whiskies and gins. In short, we shall raise the level of what we drink by moving towards quality. And that is a big step toward bringing civility to the way alcohol is consumed and perceived, but it also adds to our already rich heritage, a legacy we can leave behind as a continuity to the treasure trove of cuisines that are already synonymous with India.

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'He who drinks soma will be impervious to fire'

Here, the author writes of som, the first alcoholic drink to find mention in Rig Veda in 1700 BC

The juice of the soma plant is considered an intoxicant, delivering an euphoric high. It sounds very similar to the Incan ayahuasca, a plant-based drink which has hallucinogenic properties (thanks to dimethyltryptamine, or DMT).

...Of what we can gather from textual descriptions, soma had long stalks, tawny in colour and 15 leaves (although the Vedas record this plant as being leafless). Some point out that it was possibly a creeper (somalatha is a candidate for this, still found in the Himalayas) with a bulb but it couldn't have been the source of the juice as it is toxic to humans and, strangely enough, white ants.

How one found that out will perhaps remain the bigger mystery. The secreted juice was almost milky in nature and obtained by the pressing (and even pounding) of the stalks and stems. It was common to mix this with milk and honey. Although it grew commonly and widely in the Himalayan reaches, nobody knows where it came from or where it was native to. But it was known to be big on the trade circuit; so it could have just as easily arrived in someone's backpack and then found its root here with much commercial success, which then would have further boosted its popularity as a commodity on the trade route. What does remain are entire strings of songs (well, prayers more correctly) offering apologies to the gods for the loss of this plant and its marvelous elixir.

...Sushruta recorded in his famous medical compendium, the Samhita, that he who drinks soma will not age and will be impervious to fire, poison or weapon attack. He can master all the Vedas and will find success wherever he goes. Furthermore, it could imbue the drinker with the energy of a 1000 elephants!

...But the trouble was that one really had to prepare to drink soma — not before imbibing it, but for the period which followed right after. A drinker was prescribed an unusually long ritual, which dictated what he was supposed to do to counter its effects as well as explained what the person would feel for each day after consuming soma. From building a house with three chambers and living in each progressively to throwing up worms from all orifices, having fixed meals and drinks at predetermined times of the day, it was almost 120 days before the person was stable enough to be reintroduced into
society again.

Excerpted with permission from The Indian Spirit by Magandeep Singh (Penguin-Viking, 2017)

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