At the midnight temple

Indian notebook 5

We were prepared for most things. We carried a formidable medicine chest, barely used. Our digestive systems behaved. The one thing we were not prepared for was the price of alcohol or even, on several occasions, its complete absence from hotels.  

We did not appreciate that, until recently, Kerala was a dry state. Now, you can get a drink at most hotels, but none of the inland hotels at which we stayed counted as hotels for some reason. They were resorts, and resorts can’t sell alcohol.

If you are staying at a coastal hotel in Kerala, or at any hotel in Rajasthan, you can find wine and beer, or even a cocktail menu. That brings the next problem: the price. A bottle of wine in an Indian hotel costs £25-30. When you are used to buying your wine in a Calais warehouse or a French supermarket at £3 a bottle for a decent Côtes du Rhône, that is a lot of money, and you’re not even getting a Côtes du Rhône. You’re getting Sula, an Indian wine. Not at all bad, but not worth £30 a bottle, especially when everything else on your holiday, including the food, is at about a third of the UK price. Beer is better, but not by much.

The alternative (in Kerala) is to find a government liquor store, or (in Rajasthan) an English Wine Shop, as they are quaintly called. What a reputation we have acquired. This is delicately referred to as ‘visiting the midnight temple’.

Midnight temples in Kerala are about the most sordid retail outlets imaginable. It’s as if the government wants to draw attention to the depravity of what you’re doing. A long queue of dubious-looking people shuffles gradually up to a prison grille and makes a furtive purchase. You can join the premium queue instead, which is shorter and more expensive, but no less humiliating. And you are still paying £10 a bottle.

You may enquire whether I am such an alky that I can’t go for 3 weeks without a drink. Actually, I can do that, and sometimes do. But I’d rather not do it on holiday, and the killer fact was that I knew it was available. If I had been in a totally dry country, I’d have stuck to fruit juice and thought no more about it. But, knowing I could get a bottle of wine, no matter how expensive or how demeaning the process, made it impossible not to try.

Once back at the hotel, we could not of course enjoy our purchase with a meal. So the pair of us, and a friend who came with us for the trip, sat on an endless series of hotel balconies and raised glasses to each other. This was what the Raj must have been like, except that then it was gin, and the quantities a hundredfold greater.

In Kasaragod – a town we had been warned was home to assorted crime syndicates – we visited the hotel bar. The lighting ran to about 5 watts. Male faces sat in darkness, staring at my two female companions. Women in that bar would have been unknown. It could have been uncomfortable, but fortunately the T20 cricket was on the TV and that soon became more interesting. Especially as India was winning. Again.

Cricket was played on scrubland everywhere in northern India, but less so in Kerala. There, it was mainly football and volleyball. I was astonished to be told emphatically by our guide that India does not have a national football team. It turns out that they do. Quite a lot of fact-checking has been required to write these pieces.

We tried to adapt to local customs. My wife was in constant demand for selfies with Indian families. Everyone wanted a picture of the woman with blonde hair. We learned that when anyone said ‘yes’ to a question, they were usually being polite and the correct answer might have been ‘no’. So, as I suspected at the time, Kapil Dev does not come from Mandawa.

One of our New Year resolutions had been to stop tipping, with a few exceptions. On arrival in India, we soon realised that the whole country would need to be an exception. Tips are expected everywhere, and it is impossible to begrudge them.

Everywhere we went, we found friendliness and humour. When we stopped in the middle of nowhere to be shown a cashew mango tree, a man came out of his house, introduced us to his family, and insisted we sample all the fruits from his garden. His daughter is about to go to Canada to study. The 21st century is alive and well, even in parts of rural India.

In my more reflective moments, I think that life is a balance between order and chaos, and that both are equally essential. Arguably, western civilisation has overdone the order. That accusation could not be levelled at India. Everything is jumbled up, in the cities especially. Everyone lives cheek by jowl because there is no other choice. The concept of personal space cannot exist. But, however chaotic it may appear, there is a counterbalancing order somewhere beneath, and the balance works. Stuck in the densest traffic jam in Jaipur, with each vehicle a millimetre from the next, and many on the wrong side of the road, the knot calmly untangled itself. There was one argument, but no rage.

International consumer relations strategies have arrived in India. At almost every hotel, and sometimes after each meal, we were asked to fill out a customer satisfaction form. Many of these required us to state our birthdays and wedding anniversary, amidst a plethora of other information, presumably for the purpose of future email marketing.

We were asked to rate our experience, usually on a five-point scale. At one hotel, the scale ranged from five-star (‘Wow’) to one-star (‘Very good’). When, at another hotel, we rated the table service as four-star because it had been overly quick, the staff were so mortified that we stuck to five-star for everything after that. The owners of Indian hotels must think they achieve complete customer satisfaction, and actually they’re not far wrong.

Just one final story to conclude this account of a magnificent holiday in an extraordinary country.

About 20 years ago, I made the mistake of putting a power drill through the little finger of my left hand, leaving me with a deformed finger. The only time this causes me a problem is when I am finger-printed at immigration. The last time I visited the USA, immigration officials viewed my finger as a security threat. My hand was seized and forcibly twisted until the finger made some sort of impression. In India, the immigration official smiled sweetly and spent several minutes filling out a full A4 form to explain to his superiors why he had been unable to take a print.