The Sting in the Tale
The story is set in the tea plantations of North Bengal (Dooars) India.
Ajit and Pratap were young Assistant Managers working on neighbouring tea plantations. Both were bachelors, which left them with not much to do at the close of day. Their options for the evening were limited: they could drive to the nearest suburban town and watch an outdated Hindi movie (and get bitten raw by bugs – not an appealing prospect), or visit other bachelors and down some pegs of their favourite libation. The best scenario was to be invited to drinks and dinner by a young married couple: a lady brought that certain warmth to the company.
However, those invitations were sadly like the proverbial blue moon. Weekends were fine, for one usually took part in sports at the Planters Club, danced like wolves, got slurring drunk and flirted outrageously.
Ajit and Pratap did their normal share of merry-making on weekends - it was the evenings after work that were like being marooned on a lonely island. Of the options available to bachelors, Ajit and Pratap chose to add company to the lonely island and so visited each other every second day. The evenings were then pleasant. Ajit had a radiogram and a collection of long playing records, which made it an obvious choice to meet at his bungalow. Pratap would drive across with his bottle of whisky and they would drink and argue until dinnertime. Dinner was unerringly Western fare, starting with a soup and going through to a desert. They would end the evening with their usual postprandial peg of sherry and cigars.
Saturdays were movie nights when one saw an outdated English film and afterwards gathered at the bar to discuss and argue on any subject on hand. When married planters left with their memsahibs, conversations became more colourful: talents of bachelor friends and their prowess with the opposite sex were loudly debated, derided or ridiculed, swear words became more the norm than the exception.
Sundays were recuperating and nursing-hangover-mornings. By lunchtime, there would be a gathering at the club to down that hair-of-the-dog peg, usually pink gins or beer. The vigorous types would sweat it out on the tennis court or the golf course and beer afterwards. But soon one felt the weekend slip away and it was back home to face the grind at 6 AM the next morning.
This pleasant way of enjoying long (otherwise lonely) evenings became a routine treasured by both friends; and if one of them postponed these evening get-togethers, the other would banteringly ask whether the errant partner was finding the present company boring or had found solace in the arms of one of the local bazaar women.
The planting community looks forward to the onset of cold weather; the climate then is pleasant and work at a minimum. All picking of tea leaves is over; the factories are dismantled for the yearly overhaul, and club activities reach their peak. This is the festive season: a season of parties, fetes and club sport championships (tennis, golf and some indoor games). It is a season when planters travel far and wide to other districts to join in the revelries offered. A club-hosted dinner is part of the function. Each club also has its yearly do then, replete with a live band, to enliven the occasion.
Ajit and Pratap awaited this season of revelry – like parched amphibians do to the onset of the monsoons. Teenage daughters of planters would be back on cold-weather vacations to liven club evenings. The mood change of the friends was discernable; their banter was easier and lighter and drinking a bit heavier. Their prized bottle of sherry too appeared to take on a joviality of its own, for it emptied its self faster and quicker. This concerned the two friends for the sherry was imported and considerably more expensive than the local whisky. They questioned the night watchman as to how the level of their favourite tipple was dwindling so alarmingly, but he straight-facedly claimed to be a teetotaller. The house bearer too claimed ignorance but admitted that when he did have an occasional drink, it was always haria / lau pani – the local country hooch
The two young executives were not happy with the excuses they were being fed by the servants and over the following weeks hatched a plan to expose the culprit. They conspired to almost finish the sherry that night and fill it up to the half way mark with their own urine. They rubbed their hands in glee in anticipation, for this would surely expose the secret toper.
When next they met they eagerly checked the adulteratedbottle of sherry: the level had gone down by a good peg and a half. The friends were stunned. “Let’s not say anything yet,” they decided. “Let us see what happens tomorrow.”
The following night the bottle was a further large peg down.
“Impossible!” said Ajit. “Do you mean some idiot can’t tell the difference between Old Sack sherry and our piss?”
This called for a thorough investigation. The servants were lined up in the sitting room, but questions as to how their cherished sherry was dwindling received no answers or admissions.
“Come on,” bellowed Ajit. “Own up or the lot of you will be sacked from bungalow work and relegated to field work.”
The servants were shaken and nonplussed; they shifted uncomfortably and looked at each other accusingly. The kitchen help quaveringly piped up in a small voice, “Sahib, I… I have seen the cook opening the drink cabinet. Perhaps he should be questioned.”
The cook was summarily fetched. Like the others, he claimed he did not drink.
“Who then has been drinking my sherry?” Ajit flashed the bottle for all to see. “We haven’t had a drink from this bottle in the last two nights and yet it is short by two or three large pegs?”
He glared at them fiercely to hide a chuckle that was rising in his throat; for who ever admitted to this dastardly felony would soon be throwing up on the lawn outside when he learned he had been drinking his and Pratap’s urine.
The gathered employees looked goggle-eyed at the offending bottle.
“But, Sir,” stammered the cook looking, bewildered. “I… I mean that is the sherry drink, Sir, a peg of which I put in your honor’s soup every night.”
Jeff Tikari hails from India and has worked on the tea plantations of northern India for twenty years, and on coffee and tea plantations in Papua New Guinea for fifteen years. He now lives on the outskirts of Delhi, where he runs a Homeopathic clinic and does all his writing from there. His first book on spiritualism and philosophy: ‘The Future Intelligence” was published in 2000. He has since published short articles in magazines around India and in the UK, and has self-published a book, "Masala Tales & Random Thoughts".
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