Many of you have heard about arrack; a few of you probably have actually tasted the vile stuff. For the others, let me venture a description of the experience. Imagine a badly rotten egg finely beaten up and seasoned with the juice of raw bitter-gourd in vinegar. Now multiply that by five hundred and twenty three and you will begin to get close to the taste and aroma of arrack. I cannot see any sane reason why anyone might want to try this stuff no matter what magic it renders, yet that did not stop many of us from doing just that.
Chalk it down to the audacity of hope (or youth).
Some of us took it in straight to minimize intake volume. Others mixed it up with soda, trying to make it flow smooth and laminar through the gullet. Yet others would quaff it down turbulently and immediately lick through a whole salt mine just to keep their insides from turning outside in revolt. Tarams was where you found the stuff, at the milli-kadai.
My first visit was with a friend, fellow IITian and milli supremo, Dr AJ. (The title is my honorary endowment to his sheer mastery over such matters. Months later he would show me the path to palm-tree toddy.) Now even he had trouble with arrack, which he drank with a constant wide grimace, punctuated by breezy exhalations.
The operative word to describe arrack consumption was “downing”. You didn’t drink arrack and you certainly didn’t sip the sucker; you downed it. Arrack was an amazing social leveler. All indulgers – you, the rickshaw wallah, the mess worker, the sundal vendor – all smelled the same after the show, and acted in precisely the same manner. Which I think truly explains the love-affair the commies have had with their vodka.
The milli-kadai was an experience to remember, but not cherish. You saw the same faces inside, a few of them from inside the campus, but most from the village. It was a dingy damp room with betel-juice spit marks at all corners. At the far end was an enclosed counter with a wire grill. Within, stood a frail man in a perennial white stubble who dished out the stuff in small little cups. You knew that he had low confidence in the (st)ability of his customers, for he always laid the filled cups on the counter, never handing them out.
Another guy dealt with the soda for the few who would waste money on such embellishment. You could buy a whole bottle of soda for forty paise, or get it in five- and ten-paise driblets. We got a whole bottle each time which always encouraged non-buyers to drift close to us and hit us up for freebies. At the door was another man constantly stirring a vat of steaming red brain curry that looked like marinara sauce bubbling impatiently as it waited for its pasta. I couldn’t even get near that stuff.
One evening I will always remember. AJ and I had done the tour at Tarams and decided to enjoy the evening by watching a movie at Vels. It was late evening and after a long walk we located the local theatre. It was a thatched affair with classroom-style wooden benches laid out in rows. A whirring projector, perched on a wooden stool, threw down a long beam on a screen at the front. Enna padam, yah? (What movie?) I asked as I sat down. Shivaji saar, the response came in. It was a black-and-white Shivaji Ganesan production.
Since he spoke no Tamil, AJ appeared to have come in just for the ambiance. His peace, however, was constantly interrupted by the guy next to him who would droop his head on AJ’s shoulders whenever he dozed off, waking up each time to his vigorous jerks and oral reprimands. Soon all would be forgotten and he would lovingly be at it again.
The guy next to me was really into the flick. I recall one scene where the hero had been bound like Prometeus and was getting pummeled like Rocky, by a gang of thugs. The sound effects went dicsh, disch, disch... My neighbor’s agitation rose with each blow. Unable to bear it any longer, he finally jolted me with: Avar thapechuduvara, saar? (Will he escape, sir?)
The milli culture grew fast. It started as the cheap drink of a few desperate hardliners who possessed neither money, inclination, nor posture to travel far for their poison. Soon it won acceptance among others. I seem to recall a Saras party that was based on the stuff. Things got rolling with a bottle or two of Old Monk and quickly yielded to milli as the night progressed and tastebuds regressed.