Passing by a confusingly congested market in the heart of old Delhi, a sudden unexpected and pleasurably familiar waft of its delicate scent carried my senses off to an imaginary heaven. For a fraction of a second I was, what Kishore Kumar sang ‘bheed ke beech akela’. It was just the fragrance of it that did it for me and I had to trace its roots, for when it arrives in ones thoughts, cravings for it spring up multifold, all involuntary!
There I was trying to identify old kitaab khanas for my research and this unforeseen urgency led me, like a seductress, to leave my own work mid-way and get hijacked without a word said or thought.
Wading a total of twenty gullies or more, with the memory of an aroma in my mind, I was prepared to spend the rest of my evening there, tolerating the severe winter chill.
My cold nose poked into every little shop asking ‘Kahaan milegi bhaiyya?’, only to get strange looks and at the most a flash of their paan-stained teeth in mockery. The last aazaan of the day had been rendered in a rather besuraa voice and scores of devout Muslims were pouring out of the Jama Masjid. ‘One of them might surely head that way’, I thought and followed a few of them, trying to be very inconspicuous. The market kept bustling ruthlessly and they got lost into the crowds at some point.
When princess Jahan Ara designed this encampment in her father’s name, in such a way that its little canals would be lit with natural moonlight I am sure she didn’t have a sense of what she was in for, centuries later. All sorts of thoughts crept in. Maybe she sat in a little balcony observing the market below as she sipped in hot ale poured in a goblet from a samovar. May be it was not ale but what I was searching for. No! It couldn’t have been that way; else she would have made sure every second shop sold it.
The little pool that reflected moonlight once, made way to a ghantaghar which was damaged and demolished later.
Would any of those construction workers have had some of it, as they toiled away? May be someone would have carried some of it all the way from southern lands to show others how it was an effective energy-booster. My silent search that began around sunset was growing into desperation by ten o clock.
Treading uncomfortably from the Lahori Darwaza side, my tired and aching feet reached the other end near the Gurudwara at Chowk Kotwali, before I realized. Would the poet Mirza Ghalib have had some of it while walking through these lanes as he thought endless couplets in his deewan? He wasn’t that fortunate either; else somewhere in all the thousands of his poems and ghazals, he would have expressed his love for it. He wrote endlessly about his love for mangoes. If only he knew what he was missing! Tired and exasperated as it was getting close to mid-night, I realized I hadn’t as much had my dinner in search of this wickedly exotic drink. Shops began shutting one by one and sellers were winding up their wares as I made a sad exit from each of the gullies. I never felt this cheated by something I loved so much.
That night I went to bed a little later than my usual time. Proust started his master piece with how sleep seemed to alter one’s surroundings. But here was a different case of compulsive insomnia he might have skipped. Thoughts of how the Sufis carried it all the way to the Indian coasts flooded my mind. How a fist full of beans could change one’s life forever! When they first brewed it, what was it like? What did the first sip feel like as it flowed down ones throat? What were the first emotions it brought forth and how were they pronounced? That single drift of breeze, that night at the crowded market, marked a moment of heavenly bliss I wouldn’t forget in a long time to come.
Far away from my regular habitat, the only thought I had on my mind – ‘Oh south Indian filter kaapi, there should be more of you in this world’, at the risk of sounding like a regional chauvinist. Some things in life are irreplaceable.
Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic with interest in cultural history, performing arts and literature. He loves to spend his time listening to classical music, playing scrabble and sipping wine discussing boring things like philosophy and post-modernism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org