September 2011

On the Need for Good Scotch

Tonight, the person I miss most is my father.

You’re lucky if you live far away from home and on the night before one of your many transatlantic journeys, you get to speak to your father and say–“I’d like to keep that bottle of Caol Ila.” You’re luckier still if he looks at you, nods, and helps you roll it into two scarves and one college sweatshirt.

No more is said, but there’s a lifetime of words communicated in that simple act of a bottle being passed from father to daughter.

One shapely glass baton filled with pale gold. Always poured over two cubes of ice, into lead crystal. The receptacle is important: I was taught that it was alright to be a bum with every type of alcohol except good whiskey. For drinking good whiskey at home, especially single malts, I was taught to find real lead crystal, or go without. It is one of the few traditions I honor, because in every glass of scotch is my father saying- here, take.

Your next few years will be some fantastic mixed with guttural lows. You will embarrass yourself. You will say the wrong thing and miss opportunities. You will get robbed and tell ill-constructed lies. You will choose the wrong people, the wrong situation, and the wrong underwear for the wrong job interview. You will be too far away to run back home. There is no fairy godmother, no charm to place under your pillow at night. Your mother will be upset, and there will a birthday, maybe several, when she will not call. For all these times, let me pour you this drink.

He never had what I have now. Never had the luxury of sitting on a quiet summer night out on a dark balcony at age twenty-six, sipping his parent’s twelve year old single malt out of a scotch glass that has a small, clear sticker that says ‘Made in Czechoslovakia” on its side. It’s a glass I acquired two years ago, a thank you present after helping David move back to Los Angeles. My old man laughed when I told him the story over Skype, reducing me in an instant to a child playing dress-up. “Things come to you easily, you’re blessed.” He says this without malice or regret, and makes me think of him crossing South Indian state lines on a scooter many years ago. He was a thread salesman then, working for J & P Coats, saving up to marry my mother. It was 1974 and my father was twenty-six.

He’s a great man, and a self-made one. Everything he is now, he chose to be– Picking and choosing from observations and teaching himself how to drink, what to drive, which job offer to take, the right length for a tailored trouser leg. This is the man who bought CDs out of the discount section while my brother and I were still children, picking up bands he had never listened to nor had ever cared to. I asked him why years later, while volunteering to organize the family’s music collection after we had moved back to India. I asked him why he picked up Gershwin and Bad Brains when he had never played either, and he said, “I thought you or your brother might be interested in them some day”. I hate and love him for this, and for the following set of maxims he’s delivered to us verbally ever since we can remember:

King makers are more important than kings.

Sometimes you have to push, sometimes you have to pull.

Carry people with you.

Sip your scotch. Respect is earned the longer you make a bottle last.

My father never had the patience to type luxury of typing out his thoughts either. He has a lovely block script he uses in all official letters and forms, but depends on oral tradition when it comes to his children. Though I’ve stopped faking exams to get out of the hour-long check-in phone conversations with my father, they still play a poor second fiddle to actually sitting and talking with him.

I delete forwarded emails from him everyday. He used to leave god-awful comments on my facebook pictures when I was still on there and asks me to explain the point of twitter every other week, but I miss the experience of holding face to face conversation with him so goddamn much. I imagine the talks we’d have in person now, him just a little more mellow, me just a little older. I recall all his ticks: the way he starts to cough if he gets into a really hearty, good laugh. The way he closes his eyes if he’s listening to his favourite records. The way he doesn’t care about any Pink Floyd album other than Dark Side of the Moon. The way I can always tell when he’s too busy planning a response to listen to me. The way he never believes me when I tell him I’ve quit smoking.

He’s no saint, my father. He picked up cheap luggage from a relative who bought them off the street in Chennai for my first flight into the US post 9/11, despite my protests. He didn’t apologize either, when I called him five months later in tears, telling him I threw the cases down three flights of stairs to open them since the locks were jammed stuck. He has reacted badly to every boyfriend I’ve ever told him about. He stares blankly when I speak about disfranchisement and my mother, and says things like “but she has never said anything to me.” He insists women cannot have successful families and successful careers at the same time, and once advised me to become a dentist because it meant good money. But he’s my old man. The one who taught me how to hustle. Close to seven years have passed since I last lived at home, and time seems to be passing faster than ever before.

It’s incredibly presumptuous, and maybe a little conceited to speak of mortality where I am right now. I’ve been relatively lucky in death. The ones I have lost have come back to me some other way. I’ve no debilitating drug habit, or illness. I don’t drive. I’m on the wrong end of my mid-twenties, and I have yet to do my Big Thing. My parents are getting older, but whose aren’t?

I miss him everyday. A whimsical decision to accept a two year study scholarship has turned into too long. I miss his smell, that father smell, Old Spice and sweat and tea and on some evenings, good whiskey. I miss the sound his chappals make. The way he ties his lungi effortlessly. The way he cools his tea.

I miss my mother too, but my mother does not drink. When we speak on the phone, my parents and I, my mother always asks if I’m eating right and exercising, if I’m getting enough sleep and if I’m happy. I do my best to tell her the truth, trying to remember that as a woman, mother and parent she is more than capable of handling whatever I might have to say. But I stop short of telling her the worst of it. But they’ve both known: all the times I didn’t take their calls, or when I was late with emails. My mother leaves it to my father to call me back. She’s put her entire faith in this man, which is why I cannot see this as abandonment, even when I’ve wanted to. The times I haven’t picked up his calls, I’ve sat with my father’s scotch. Small sips. Small sips. Across oceans and through the ether, there’s my father’s voice reaching out. Like Charon’s scull across the darkest waters, I close my eyes and I can feel his warm grasp.

A glass of this scotch reminds me of this, all of this.

Two doubles are enough.

Salt doesn’t hurt an Islay whiskey. The current distillery, built between 1972 and 1974 in the same location as the original, overlooks the sea.

I’ll need a new bottle by the year’s end, at which time

I think I’ll go home.