I went to Jaipur, in the state of Rajasthan, with my family for the Id holidays—what a fantastic trip. We did all the foreign tourist things—seeing old forts and palaces, riding on an elephant, getting ripped off by auto drivers, gawking at all the camels. We also made the most of being able to “pass” as Indians via our dress, improving language skills, and, truth be told, the changes that globalization has wrought in the Indian middle class that allow people like us to pass frequently.
So anyway, I saw this shop on a road in the old city labeled “English Wine and Beer”—guess who had their finger on the camera trigger? I thought it was a clever and unique sign, as a way of both catching the eye of foreign tourists and exploiting the association often made in India between drinking and Westernization. Or at least the India that I know. Rajasthan is pretty conservative, and though it’s not a dry state like its just-as-conservative neighbor Gujarat, I figured the sign implied that sort of critique.
It turned out that I was partly wrong: almost every liquor store we passed on the road had some version of this sign on it, indicating in English and Hindi that it had “English” or “angrezi” wine and beer. When I passed one that said it had both “deshi” and “angrezi” wine and beer, I knew something was up. In this context, deshi (or “desi”) would mean local or even Indian. What to make of this nexus of alcohol and nationality in stable categories—more specifically, a version of nationality that evokes the old colonial connection?
The taxi driver, let’s call him Ram, gave this explanation: “English liquor” refers to whatever is made in factories and is bottled, whereas “deshi liquor” is made locally, with local ingredients. I pushed him a bit. What about Indian beers that are made in factories, like Kingfisher? Would that be deshi or angrezi? Does the split depend on how the product is made or packaged, or whether it’s imported, or what?
The paan-chewing Ram gave me a look, opened the door to spit out some juices, and gave a sense of the new contours of the meaning of angrezi for ordinary Indians in the age of “India Shining.” You see, he said, when the English ruled India they were always running after beer and wine. All the time. All they would do to pass the time was to drink. So that’s how it was before: there were only these prepared angrezi drinks for the English and then the desi ones for us.
Now, things are different in a way, Ram said. Some Indians also drink angrezi wine and beer and make it, just like them. But see how they also give angrezi names to that beer, just like this one, “Kingfisher”? Why do they do that? Because they are part of the English heritage and want to continue those traditions.
Here Ram used a rich word: these Indians are part of the same “angrezi paramparaa.” How can I capture its meaning? A paramparaa in a religious context, for instance, indicates a lineage–a more or less unbroken chain of practices and ideas carried across the generations from teacher to disciple. Ram’s usage of this word—and his smirk indicated that it was a very self-conscious usage—speaks volumes about what he makes of the new India and its elites.
And oh yeah: I had this whole conversation in Hindi. With the guy forcing his words through paan-spit. Immersion works.