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Captain John Barleycorn

On a bar in India.

For a brief period of my life, I lived in India, where I was supposed to be studying Sanskrit on a fellowship from my undergraduate institution. I was not a very good student, being disaffected in various ways after four years of college and still a very immature person. My teachers—somewhat unusually for an Indian Sanskrit program, all the teachers were women—were kind and patient, despite my poor performance and general haplessness. My memories of the time are grim and somewhat shamefaced.

Any account of that time must, however, recognize that I had an excellent regular bar—one of the best bars I have frequented in either hemisphere. It was called, entirely inscrutably, Cactus Beer Bar; it had palm trees on the menu and pseudo-French murals in the second story dining room. (The first story barroom, in which I am not sure I ever drank, had a melange of reggae-themed and tiki decor, none of which did much to dispel the mystery of the name.) A silent television played Indian soccer, which a few serious-faced men in striped polo shirts would watch broodingly.

It was very dark, and it served Indian beer—Kingfisher, Kangaro, the disingenuously named London Pilsner—all of it cheaper than water, and cold, delivered to your table with those windowpane-patterned English-style pint glasses. As the evening wore on and it grew late—as tended to happen at Cactus—you could buy mini-packs of “Honeydew Smooth” Gold Flake cigarettes, a brand all but extinct outside the subcontinent. We could never discover the extent of the “kitchen,” although on the rare occasions when we ordered food we could hear a microwave chirping behind the curtain.

Ordering food was a bad miss, anyway; the thinking man’s move, after softening up the digestion with five or six preliminary London Pilsners, was to close your first tab and stagger over to the nearby public park, where a justly famous vada pav cart was open to all hours. After fifteen minutes in line clutching your damp paper ticket among the various other denizens of the Indian night—autorick drivers, youths on holiday—you’d be served two hot dumplings on Portuguese buns. Thus fortified, you could stride manfully back to Cactus to get on with the evening’s business.

Restaurants and bars were very much distinct. My preferred dinner haunt was an inn named, somewhat generically, Sneha; it had excellent Punjabi food, the familiar Indian cuisine for Americans, and it was walking distance from the gloomy doctor’s apartment where I lived with an old friend. The thought of ordering beer from the genial, dignified, and immaculately white-shirted restaurateur who managed the house even now fills me with dread; it just wasn’t done. Go somewhere else.

There were other bars. The city I lived in was a college town, so most of the bars were Americanized in various unwelcome ways—loud music, obnoxious gimmicks, pushy students. The night Donald Trump won the election, a handful of my fellow students and I watched the initial exit polls in an appalling place called “Hippie@Heart,” which was covered with tie-dye and pictures of Jimi Hendrix. Its redeeming feature was that it served beer in “towers,” which was a double pitcher with a spigot on the bottom. Not bad.

The part of India where I lived was not a heavy-drinking place, and the high tax on hard liquor discouraged your merely recreational drinker from pursuing anything more spiritous than Kingfisher. I went to a package store only once in my time there—an upsetting experience. A ragged crew of drunks, eyes red, teeth rotted with paan, stood outside the entrance, begging anyone who passed to buy them something, anything to drink. Modern Americans can be sniffy about the temperance movement because they have never seen what real public alcoholism looks like.

The city was not large by Indian standards, but it was still the proud capital of a defunct empire and the teeming center of a metropolitan area of five million souls. You could find venues for any leisure activity you wanted there, although maybe not in their highest forms. There was a European-style club that we went to a few times—the Blue Frog, I believe it was called—and the experiences were so dreadful that I will pass over them in silence.

Truly nothing could compare to Cactus. Nobody went there to seem American or European; the servers barely had enough English to take your beer order. The essence of the thing was that it was quiet and male, filled with smoke, a place that was both public and private at the same time. In short, it was a good bar.

People like hearing about foreign lands and strange doings, but I am afraid most of my own voyages have been on amber seas with John Barleycorn as captain. Good bars everywhere are similar. But now I am a family man, and rarely go out.