An actual sign from Agra. Cheeld indeed...
My train to Delhi from Agra was ninety minutes late, my companion and I decided that beer was needed. We had visited the Taj Mahal, yet Agra being a provincial backwater, there was nothing to keep us there.
At Cantt station I asked directions to the nearest bar, I was given strange looks, encouraged to take taxis to locations I did not wish to visit, was touted hotels, haircuts, prostitutes, drugs, parathas, jalebi and all the other distractions and diversions that Indian men will use to part the tourist from his money. Eventually, and reluctantly on the part of the touts, I was directed to the bar.
The heat was 38C, sweat poured from every pore relentlessly. Exhaust fumes clogged up my throat making it difficult to breathe. I trudged from Agra Cantt station through the forecourt and out onto a busy main road, rubbish was piled everywhere, cows, rats, pigs and goats gorged on a feast of waste meat, vegetables, discarded plastic and faeces, both human and animal. Auto-rickshaws, taxis, buses, bicycles and bullock carts made the going heavy, the small bag I was carrying already seeming like a foolish and unnecessary burden, even over a distance of under half a mile. The Economists say India is catching up with the west, on this evidence, the money is not being distributed evenly.
The bar was on my left, the bar was on my left? I was looking to my left, yet, there was no bar in sight. I was about to understand that the concept of a bar, like many things, is subjective. I was confronted with a row of shop houses constructed from corrugated iron, each one populated by a different vendor. One man making roti, another selling curry from an old, stained, worn and charred cauldron on a wood fired stove. A girl was selling jelabi, another selling spices - cumin, fenugreek, nutmeg, chilli, piled high in hessian sacks - a man touted sugar cane juice from a stall, old men carved wooden trinkets, the place was doing a roaring trade. There was certainly a community here, but, it appeared, no bar.
A man approached me and I made him aware of my predicament, namely, a lack of available alcohol and, more importantly, a place to sit down and escape the madness. It was not to be.
He pointed my companion and I in the direction of the shop houses saying "beer this way, good beer, this way!", I exchanged glances with my friend, dubious expressions in our eyes, and followed. He led us toward the shop-house ghetto at the side of the road, as we approached it became apparent that dividing the shop houses from the road was an open sewer, which we would have to cross. The concept of this was unbelievable, food was being prepared, cooked and served within six feet of a cess pit of such utter filth and squalor that disease was sure to be not just possible, but rife. As we crossed the sewer by way of a couple of wooden boards lazily laid out across the open trench I succumbed, I retched at the stench, the combination of the shit, rotten food, heat, spice and exhaust fumes was too intoxicating to bear for a western stomach, the Indians not seeming to mind. They were used to it.
The night previously I'd been sat in the 1911 bar of the Imperial hotel in Delhi, I paid the equivalent of £10 for a pint of Stella. The wood panelled bar was full of executives, models, Bollywood actresses promoting their latest films and upmarket new-money holiday makers from Russia and the Ukraine. Their selection of whisky was award winning. Brandy was £250 for a 30 ml glass and the wine list didn't even give the prices. I'd paid £120 for dinner at their restaurant and been given a complimentary taxi home by a Sikh cab driver whose ornate turban alone probably cost more than the average Indian annual salary.
The word contrast is not sufficient.
The Indian man led us between two carts - one selling roti, the other curry, clearly both men profiting from one another's trade - nobody would buy curry without bread in India. We ambled between the carts and saw the bar, this consisted of a wooden bench set at a right angle against a counter, behind which stood a fridge stocked with Kingfisher beer. Our new found guide du jour smiled proudly and announced "beer - best beer in India!", without irony, he meant it. We gave him 50 rupees and sent him on his way.
I sat on the bench and surveyed the scene, to my left the open sewer, a foot away and stinking, to my right the beer counter. Immediately in front the roti guy and curry guy were industriously working, having briefly stopped to stare at the westerners invading their little corner of madness. Behind, a jelabi girl, young, pretty, with sparkling eyes and a bright red sari with gold embroidery stood, full of life, exchanging glances and banter with the other vendors. She was stunningly beautiful.
I looked around.
The place was poor, dirt poor, not one of the people around had any money, they were living hand to mouth.
I looked around.
I saw smiles, the flicker of humour from twitched upper lips and raised eyebrows, the rolling of eyes and the nodding of heads, arms raised in flamboyant exuberance. I realised, they were taking the piss right out of us. I immediately saw why. What were two white guys , to Indian eyes, decadent and foolish, doing crossing an open sewer and sitting down for beer in their slum? Both parties were incredulous; us, because of the alien nature of their existence, and them, for the same reasons. We'd crossed worlds. It was exhilarating.
A conversation quickly began, I started it:
"Two Kingfisher please?"
"Not a problem sir!"
"Four hundred rupees sir!"
"But they are only one hundred each?"
"You are rich sir!"
This was, after all, India.
Promptly, the beers were handed over. The beer was ice cold, delicious, contrasting perfectly against the heat and the fumes. I nailed half the 600ml bottle in one go. The Indian men and the jelabi girl were keen to know why we'd visited their slum, we explained it was purely for beer, they seemed startled, their eyes suggesting that perhaps a deeper motive was at play. I quickly allayed their fears. They told us about their life in the slum, selling beer and curry and jelabi, their hopes for the future: marriage, the purchase one day of a car, a house made of bricks and mortar, team India continuing to be the greatest cricket side on Earth. Hopes and dreams. They were funny, happy and playful, they tried to pair my companion and I off with the local alcoholic hooker - whose beer we eventually paid for - and despite the chilling nature of their poverty, they were not desperate, there was hope and there was life. There was humanity.
There were also flies. Thousands of them. We were in 38C heat, a foot away from an open sewer, with a cauldron of hot curry and piles of rotting vegetable matter covering every surface. Flies were everywhere. The flies did not once land on us, presumably as the other distractions were too attractive in comparison with human sweat. In itself, this was an incredible experience.
Amongst the flies and the sewer and the filth, I drank two large Kingfisher beers with the bar tenders, the curry guy, the roti guy, some street kids, the jelabi girl and the alcoholic hooker. They accepted me. They were courteous, kind, friendly, engaging, intelligent and proud. They were handsome and pretty, they were beautiful and human, they took the piss, they were filthy and dirty and lovely and ugly, they were just like you and I.
I downed my beer, bade them farewell, slung my bag over my shoulder and stumbled out into the Agra road, satiated and serene, surrounded by madness. I headed off in the direction of the station.
Around a minute into my walk, I laughed involuntarily and shook my head, it had been, in my life, the finest drink.