Cheers to Chennai: A City that Drinks to Death


Cheers to Chennai: A City that Drinks to Death

Illustration: Mudit Ganguly

“You call this a party?”

When my driver Prakash said this, I was on my knees in a puddle of rum.

“Yeah, I know,” I said, holding an animal part that looked like it had been chewed by a baby T-Rex. “A bit of a mess, isn’t it?”

Prakash surveyed the aftermath of the night before. Our guests: A bunch of friends who’ve miraculously attained functional adulthood, landed jobs, bought cars and houses, and produced children – all without ever being potty-trained.

He opened the door of the guest loo, did a very good job of not recoiling, and gave me a look of sympathetic disdain.

My wife stood at a distance. She was considerate, I had to give it to her. The horsewhip she used on me with clinical precision after any such do was held behind her so Prakash wouldn’t see it.

“Nonsense saar, this is nothing,” he said. “Want to see real party? I’ll show you.”


The day comes soon enough. And not by way of a birthday, wedding or coming-of-age ceremony of some hapless child, as I’d expected. It is a funeral.

Prakash is on the phone. Apparently, his neighbourhood “uncle”, Painter Pandi, has passed on. He needed leave, and I was welcome to partake in the festivities.

Mokkai party you have, saar!” There is no missing the sarcasm. “Come, see how it’s done.”

A 20-minute auto ride later, I reach the tip of Thondan Kuppam, a thriving lower-income-nurtured ecosystem, that sits smack dab in the middle of two localities, boasting rates of ₹17,000 per square feet. A tiny arch – the mandatory welcome sign of any such neighbourhood – sports festoons of multi-coloured paper triangles.

A couple of young men in dangerously low-waisted jeans are tying a 4×6 hoarding in place. On it is a high definition extreme close up of a sunken cheeked gentleman, flanked by life-size pictures of Ajith and Vijay, the reigning first-name-only superstars of Tamil filmdom.

A clipart image – an imitation Ravi Varma girl in a bustier – pours rose petals over the unnamed gent. Headline and body copy in every shade and font possible occupy whatever real estate remains on the poster. Unfortunately, it is in Tamil, a language – in the tradition of all provincial goltis – I have refrained from learning to read or write.

Below it stands a beaming Prakash.

“What does it say here?” I ask, pointing to the hoarding.

Prakash reads the text carefully.

It says Pandi was equal to Rajaraja in vision, Karnan in generosity, Mother Teresa in compassion, and Lance Armstrong in cycling. They also think he should have been given a doctorate.

“Wow,” I say, “This gent, Pandi, what did he do?”

“Painter,” Prakash replies.

“What type?” I say. “Impressionist? Post-modern?”

“Wall. Nameplate. Signboard,” he says.

“Was he well known?” I say.

“Yes… at the TASMAC shop.”

Soon, I’m seated on a crowded bench outside the tiny dwelling of the departed painter. The decked-to-the-hilt protagonist is placed on a chair and securely tied up. Judging by his grin and the glittery one rupee coin pasted on his forehead, he isn’t planning on leaving anytime soon.

Around him, about two dozen women are beating their bosoms and wailing oppari-style by turn, making sure there are five wailers at any given time. Interspersed within the wails are weepy paeans to those Pandian qualities not covered by the hoarding.

The power centre of the proceedings is a makeshift bar, manned deftly by Prakash and his team. A group of men stand arms-extended, like refugees awaiting airdropped food packets. Plastic cups are filled with liquor of an unknown vintage, suctioned by recipients with minimum fuss and returned to the bar for refills in a tireless loop.

Every now and then, when there’s a minor lull, a few men join the chorus of wailers for a few seconds before returning to the job at hand. Three percussionists beat a rhythmic tattoo on their sleek one-sided death drums, without pause. A policeman, taking his first sip of the farewell alcohol, sits on a plastic chair and watches the traffic on the street come to a standstill.

As the first same-sex non-gay couple decides to take to the floor (the middle of a narrow street), their lungi edges between their clenched teeth, their pelvises out for maximum impact, Prakash brings me a plastic cup.

Without a lungi, I know I’d be as effective as a ballet dancer without a tutu. But I’m sick of being the wallflower.

A fly, probably dead the moment it touched the surface, lies belly-up in the dark brown liquid. The odour shouts out that the alcohol content of the three fingers of liquid would equal what I drink in a week. Noticing my misgivings, Prakash gets me another glass. This one is fly-free.

“Have, saar,” he says. “Otherwise they’ll feel bad.”

I’d already refused one of the men a dance and don’t want to take any more chances. The tiny sip goes down like a fire-coated Tyson punch to the liver.

After my second glass, all the men are on the road, including myself. We are following an open-top tempo, on which Pandi is seated, taking a ride to that big bar in the sky. A man, especially assigned for the job, tears a rose garland to shreds and throws petals in the painter’s wake.

Without a lungi, I know I’d be as effective as a ballet dancer without a tutu. But I’m sick of being the wallflower. I accept the request of a Mr Sangumani (carpenter by profession) and dance as impolitely as my Vidya Vihar morning shloka-chanting education permits me. In my mind, I have a hitched-up lungi. I have to admit, what the liquor lacked in bouquet, it more than made up in body. But Prakash is being a dry blanket and giving me smaller offerings than the others.

A snow-white BMW crawls by on the main road that we have pretty much occupied entirely by now. I don’t like it that the driver honked. Sonofagun, who does he think he is? Doesn’t he know that Painter Pandi of Thondan Kuppam was dead and we were in mourning?

I give a hip bump to the passing car. Sangumani gives me a slobbery kiss on my cheek. He had told me a second ago that he was my best friend and would never leave my side. I had responded with an enthusiastic, but platonic, thumbs up.

The window of the BMW slides down noiselessly to reveal the bulldog-like face of Mrs Mahadevan, my mother-in-law’s snotty friend from their IAS days.

Sangumani vomits. I offer Mrs Mahadevan a sip. She rolls up the window.

On my reluctant way back in a prepaid auto, I wonder why my trips to five-star hotels to celebrate the 50th birthday of a fellow who should’ve been born still, or the 20th anniversary of a couple that should’ve ended each other’s misery on their wedding night with the kitchen knife set they’d got as a gift, were so much less fun.

I also figured why Prakash wanted a two-day leave. I would need a week.