It was in the late 90s when my first tryst with alcohol happened. A 20-something and a teetotaller in Delhi then, I climbed a fleet of pan-stained stairs to reach the terrace of a building. Accompanying me were my friends — a peer group that most parents consider their child's enemy no. 1 — and there I was on a rooftop, holding a bottle of beer that I prayed would make me a man.
Alas. The bravado of carrying alcohol all the way up in broad daylight in a buzzing local shopping complex soon gave way to trepidation. "Papa ko pata lagega toh kya sochenge? (What will my father think when he comes to know?)". But there was my friend exhorting me to climb the mountain of fear. "Arey pee na, beer hee toh hai (Drink man, it’s just beer)."
So I drank. And then? I puked, but without the "nectar" having really gone inside. It tasted awful. "Tum log ye peete ho? (You guys drink this?)," I chided my friends. And so the evening ended in a whimper with a bad taste in my mouth, literally. I wasn’t going to taste another drop of alcohol for the next six months.
And well, it was just six months and no more as the boy moved to another town — Dhenkanal in Odisha — for the first time ever away from his parents.
Dhenkanal is a two-hour drive from Cuttack. It was a princely state and K P Singh Deo, minister of information and broadcasting in the P V Narasimha Rao government, was its Raja. As it happens in India and in this case justifiably so, Deo had got an institute set up for students keen to pursue a course in English journalism.
Also Read: Kapil Mohan, man behind the success of Old Monk, passes away at 88
It was a newfound independence in many, many personal ways. It was an eye-opener for a Delhiite with all his public school prejudices. For a Delhiite and also a Mumbaikar, the world in India beyond the two cities isn't the same. So there I was with equally, if not more, bright students from Odisha, West Bengal, Punjab, Bihar, Assam and north east. It was time to be one of them and also stand out — the typical struggles of the youth then and today’s.
I soon made friends. The evenings were the best time. The course barely needed any effort. Journalism can’t be taught. It was now time to give the horror of that fateful evening on the terrace a second chance. After all, Bacchus too needed to be worshipped.
But there was a hitch here too. Every time you walked to the local liquor store, you didn’t need your mother to make you feel criminal — the very exterior of it made you feel like one. Forget walking into it — those made their Delhi/Mumbai entry barely a decade ago and we are talking of 1999 in Dhenkanal – there was no chance of you even standing outside it for any longer than you had to. It had an iron grill and one had to put his hand inside dangling the note in exchange for the injurious substance.
And so again, one evening, when the sun had set, I walked up to that place what was soon going to be our temple. The nerves at such occasions make you forget most things. Anyhow, it was going to be a great leap — from puking beer 6 months earlier to becoming “ye toh expert hai” in the hardest of hard liquors — Old Monk. It wasn’t a tough choice. It had to be Old Monk, everybody around drank it. That it came from Mohan Meakin was inconsequential. My first beer — if I can so call it since the experience was so (un)forgettable — also came from the same company.
The affair started and then blossomed. Soon, I was keeping a stock in my lohey ki almaari (an iron cabinet).
My identification with Old Monk became so strong that when the ‘big boys’ — I wasn’t on the greatest of terms with them — were on the lookout for the guy who had complained to the authorities about liquor, they didn’t suspect me since “ye toh khud apne paas rakhta hai (This guy himself keeps a stock)".
The Old Monk became a friend, a companion over which endless discussions about Tim Sebastian-inspired ‘Hard Talks’ happened in the evenings. It provided that succour every time there was a fight with the girl in Delhi.
Nothing else ignited creativity and feelings as much as the 180 ml bottle filled with that dark brown liquid. That it came cheap helped but was hardly a factor in it becoming the first port of call most evenings. Holding it was pure magical and it fit or rather hid in the jeans pocket ever so quietly, smoothly. In the cabinet too, it lay between the shirts so unobtrusively, at peace with the world.
All empirical evidence will surely tell you that smokers have more friends than non-smokers. Though Old Monk didn’t achieve a similar feat for me, it did help make friends with the Delhi girls in Dhenkanal. They found it hard to get their quota and so I soon became their courier. We are still good friends.
The love affair continued after I came back to Delhi and then also spent time in Pune for an MBA. Old Monk was the thinner that erased all paints of caste and religion, it was the glue that joined us all – whichever newspaper I went to. Much later, I also learned about the ‘classiness’ of the unique 700 ml bottle though never bought it.
As years passed, my bank balance rose and taste ‘developed’, and Old Monk gave way to beers and wines. But there was and can’t ever be a contempt for Old Monk and its aficionados.
After he died on January 6, aged 88, Kapil Mohan has been widely recognised as the man behind the iconic brand. I never met him. But as Mohan mixes with the Gods, all I can say is, “Thank you Sir, I have had the time of my life.”