Finding Feni


Finding Feni

Illustration: Palak Bansal / Arré

It’s 9 o’clock on a Saturday night, that’s when the regular uncles stumble in. There’s an old man seated next to me, not making love to his gin and tonic. Instead, his hands are shaky and he seems to be drinking Limca. Now usually I wouldn’t pay much attention to a drunk at a bar; it’s like walking through Kamathipura and gawking at the excessive display of flesh on sale. I would’ve ignored the oldie too, but what immediately catches my attention is the Limca, and an awkward bulge in the man’s trousers.

As soon as the waiter’s back is turned, Uncle Alkie, who might as well be my own Uncle Philip, whips out a quarter filled with a clear liquid, and then proceeds to pour himself a stiff drink, a half quarter to be precise, and then tops it off with Limca. An all too familiar scent hits my nose: It smells like summer vacation, my alcoholic grandfather, and sick leave.

Feni has been my family’s firewater for as long as I can remember. During the summers in Goa, my grand-aunt, who ran an illicit feni operation, produced some of the finest, albeit illegal, firewater. Proof of this was the fishermen who were willing to part with a sizeable part of their catch in exchange for a bottle or three of her famous five-year vatted cashew feni. She once bartered a kodso (keg) of the stuff for a fat sow that we feasted on until the pigs came home. If feni were cryptocurrency, my grand-aunt would probably be doing shots with Warren Buffet.

My favourite thing to do is offer people a shot of “tequila”, and then see if they can tell the difference.

Old age has slowed the woman down, but she still has a bottle of the good stuff stashed away under the rafters for when she has company. An expat friend, who has won numerous awards for mixology, literally begged her for a bottle, but was turned away because the old bird wasn’t lured by the wad of money he offered. “Give me fish, give me a suckling pig, money cannot buy this feni,” was her argument. Johnnie Walker, Jack Daniel’s, and the Scotsman named Glenn something could go fuck themselves.

From being the aqua vitae of the working class, feni is now seeing a surge in the hipster community. Like spiced pumpkin latte. It is being exported to the US and Canada, where it’s turned into fancy tropical cocktails, garnished with fruit. Tell my grand-aunt this and she’d probably laugh – fruit is something you feed the pigs, or make more alcohol out of. Give her some feni in a glass, with a squeeze of lime, pinch of salt, side of Limca, and maybe a slit green chilli, and she’d be delighted.

Perception is a bitch, innit.

Sadly, people don’t get parties started with, “Hey let’s all do shots of feni”. Feni is despised by urbane India with a hatred reserved for warm beer and cold tandoori rotis. I’ve been shouted at for suggesting feni, when the topic of shots arises. People look at me funny when I tell them I mix up margaritas with cashew feni. I keep a bottle of quality feni handy at all times, actually I keep it in a bottle of Patrón XO. My favourite thing to do is offer people a shot of “tequila”, and then see if they can tell the difference. Here’s the thing, four out of 10 people can’t tell the first shot apart. Three shots later, they might as well be drinking paint thinner, and it wouldn’t make a difference.

Perception is a bitch, innit.

Which is why when the waiter discovers the feni being tipped into the Limca, he’s outraged. He yells about how one can’t just sneak alcohol into the bar, and how if one did so, it should not have been country liquor. “Desi tharra” is what he calls it. The old man, who has until now trying to pacify the waiter, cocks an eyebrow and says the most mac thing ever. “Aye what men bas(h)tard… this is not desi tharra men, fucker. This is kaju feni… from Goa it is. If I can’t drink here then fuck you men bas(h)tard. I’m going, give my bill, and put this remaining Limca in your bum.” It is at this point that he is pushed out of the door.