Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Drink with Tulleeho - With Ananth, author of Play With Me, India's first erotic novel

“Pink Lips Pink Lips” trills Yo Yo Sunny Leone, and because we live in India, she doesn’t go on to mention which pair she’s referring to. I’d suggested that Ananth and I meet at Cocktails and Dreams Speakeasy in Gurgaon’s Sector 15A market, one of the few places in the greater NCR region, where you can get great cocktails. Dot at 6 pm, Ananth walked in, in his hand, a copy of his book “Play With Me”, recently published by Penguin Books. Ananth orders a Dirty Martini, and I a Clover Club. 


Cocktails and Dreams

As we well know in India the sexual revolution although it’s alive and kicking, is largely behind closed doors, with popular culture of TV, Bollywood and Indian fiction, completely passing it by. There have been a couple of volumes of short erotic fiction I point out to Ananth, With short stories, “you’re only saddling the horse, you’re not taking it to water”, is Ananth’s quick riposte, clearly eager to remain secure in his position of the author of India’s first erotic novel. And erotic it is, I can confirm.

Play with Me checks in at a slim 246 pages, and is every man’s sodden dream. Sid is a talented partner in Alpha, a boutique photo shop cum creative agency and into this sea of testosterone, swims Cara, a drop dead gorgeous intern, fresh of the boat from New York, attracted to Alpha by Sid’s work (btw, Ananth is no mean amateur photographer himself and one wonders if there’s any self actualisation happening here). No surprises, Sid and Cara began to get it on, in every way possible, and then some, with the sex flying off the pages.

Our cocktails speedily arrive. My Clover Club is lip smacking, a turn of the 19th century (into the 20th) drink, with a pleasing mix of Gin, lemon juice, raspberry puree and egg white. The egg white giving the drink it’s texture and frothiness. Ananth has ordered his Dirty Martini, with vodka and after a first sip, pronounces it as perfect. 

The Clover Club

He’s particular about his cocktails, and tells me about the bar at the Taj Vivanta in Gurgaon, which is a favourite of his, which gets the Espresso Martini just right. It can swing either way he tells me, depending on the kind of coffee, the sweetness levels, etc. Ananth is also particular about how his dark rum Mojitos are made. He also likes flavoured Martinis, Apple Cinnamon, Espresso & Green Apple.

Play With Me is populated with a set of sharply etched characters, from Sid to Cara, to Aanya, Natasha and Roy. More beans I shall not spill. A few days after having finished Play With Me, the character, which stands out the sharpest, however is Cara, and I’m intrigued to know from Ananth that if Bollywood did come calling, who’d be his pick from the current lot to play her.

“It’s important to get her right”, says Ananth in between cautious sips of his Martini, “because she’s so comfortable in her skin”, and yet “completely in control, she’s not apologetic, she’s not guilty, she’s completely aware of the men around her and the effect she has on them”. Nargis Fakhri is his verdict, for as it turns out on further reading of the book, more reasons than one. 

Nargis Fakhri

I point out to Ananth, an error I noticed in the e-book I purchased, which talked of Cara’s breasts fitting neatly into a Champagne flute, whereas I assume he meant a Champagne Saucer! He’s aware of the error, and indicates that it’s been changed, but maybe it hadn’t been done yet on the e-book. Says he, “it does look strange, we’re not in a fairy tale, that would be quite a breast, you can suck on it if not anything else, it will be a teat, not a tit”. Rumour has it that Marie Antoinette’s breasts (her left one if you’re curious) were used for the first mould of the champagne saucer, so Cara is clearly in interesting company.

Kate Moss – Got a Champagne Saucer made in the mold of her breast to celebrate 25 years in the fasion industry

Marie Antoinette

Sid’s favourite choice of spirit is rum, and no surprises, so it is for Ananth also. He had his first shot of Old Monk in 1993 at the start of his career which began with working for Landmark in Chennai. His dad and his brother were both whisky drinkers, but he never liked the taste of whisky, he just stuck to rum. Rum, ice and a bit of Coke, with the combination of ice and Coke flexible. “If it’s a long evening, I’ll start with more rum, if it’s a short evening, I’ll start with more Coke.”

Ananth prefers dark rum, “but if I’m going to have more than one, I prefer the white, and that’s because of my constitution. 2 pegs of dark rum play hell with my body when I get up in the morning v/s the white.” Old Monk and Old Cask are both favourite rums of his, and so are Bacardi and Captain Morgan. He also likes Gosling and Sailor Jerry, from the UK, and of course, Ron Zacapa.  I recommend to him a great rum bar in Notting Hill called Trailer Happiness, and Ananth promises to look out for it on his upcoming trip to London. 

Trailer Happiness

Ananth claims not to have any favourite bars, he’s more a restaurant guy, food and alcohol in that order, with Conversation completing the sandwich. He does have a preference, however for bars which are really high up, and comments favourably on a bar on the 32nd floor in Tokyo, from where you can see the whole city. The thing about a lot of bars in London and New York (and also in Cocktails & Dreams) is that the music doesn’t intrude, “you can’t even talk to each other, I’m not a fan of places which are loud for the sake of  being loud.”

How about making out in bars?, I ask him, maybe it can be a plot line for his next book. Says Ananth, with the off the cuff humour which has come to characterise our chat, “It can be wet and wild. Maybe we could call it the Extra Large Club”.

Play with me, also features an ad agency head honcho called Chandramukhi Chaurasia, who Ananth claims is entirely a figment of his imagination, she’s pictured as moving through a party, trailed by a flunky holding her glass (with a 12yo Macallan Single Malt Whisky). Says Ananth,  “when I thought about someone who works in an ad agency I thought about what he / she might drink, and I felt as the chairperson (fictional) of JWT, she couldn’t be seen asking for a dark rum. My brother likes the Macallan 12yo, so I chose that for her”.

I asked Ananth if he’d been inspired by someone he’d come across to write the above scene, and he commented he’d never seen anyone like her. Once at a party, however Ananth politely enquired from a mini celeb, if she’d like a refill for her drink, and she replied, “sure, but not in the same glass please”, a reply which left Ananth gobsmacked, considering he didn’t even know the lady in question. Says he, “you remember these things, and whether you write or not, you remember them.. when people say writing is a solitary sport, at least it’s not for me, it’s not like I went away and sat in a room, you do have to write alone, but the moment I decided to take on this assignment to write, I started becoming more and more aware in a lot of ways, of what people do, of what people say, of what they mean, because ultimately you’re writing about people, there is no greater plot, I’m not writing Star Wars, so I started noticing many things slowly.“

Play with Me’s first print run of 7000 copies has all been shipped out, and it’s success is no surprise, for it’s set in a very new India, brash, confident, brand conscious, sexually aware, and with very little inhibitions to get what they want. A milieu, which speaks to the thousands of twenty and thirty somethings around us, and makes me wish I were born 10 years earlier than I was. As Ananth says, “it’s a story about pleasure, what pleasure can do to love and what love can do to pleasure”. Although I know it’s hard to get past the sex, it’s made me look at the youth I see around me in a new light, as I see little reason as to why characters like Sid, Cara and Natasha are not just flights of fantasy, but probably Rahul, Smita and Noelie in your workplace.

If you think Ananth’s shot his bolt, you’re mistaken. Book # 2 of what promises to be India’s own 50 shades, is already being plotted. Called Think With Me, Ananth wants to raise the bar on sensuality, and that’s going to get me for one, clicking on Buy.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Letter from Dubai: Tales from the Sand - by Ulric Nijs

Tales from the Sand…

So… Here I am; Ulric (Brand Ambassador for Tigre Blanc vodka, Jose Cuervo and a couple of other brands) in the United Arab Emirates and Asian sub-continent. I am blessed with working in one of the most rapidly growing metropolis of our age: Dubai. My line of work is pretty eclectic; as our nightlife universe is on a constant growth, it can sometimes be hard to keep up with the various prestigious establishments that are opening on a weekly basis, and, sometimes, closing even faster! What it means, however, is that I am constantly exposed to an influx of drink creativity and ‘wannabe-ism’ that is prevalent in an all-rapidly evolving megalopolis, I therefore have a certain amount of skepticism when exposed to a new drink menu, and my retorts can be as bitter as a shot of room temperature Cynar (a remarkably complex & wildly bitter, artichoke-based Italian aperitif!).

Ulric Nijs

However, after about 20 years traveling the world as a bartender and cocktail designer, I also think that I have the right to be! Not quite a given-right, but certainly starting to be a well earned one!
So, as I stroll around “my” city, I cannot help forming some sort of opinions about the various “wins & fails” of these outlets popping up in my work environment. I also feel –and it is perhaps slightly arrogant of me- that these opinions can be beneficial to my fellow epicurean, and thus lead to a better drinking experience in the long run; not because “I” know better, but simply, because my job has been a catalytic environment to these potential pitfalls that plagues the quests for good drinks!
What will follow on these pages is not “moan-fest”, but rather a primer of drinking etiquette in an ever-changing nightlife environment. I do have to be honest though; these words are very much aimed at people looking for a real drinking experience, rather than a quick alcohol-infused buzz… Always consider your environment!

The first word of the primer is “Creativity”. Creativity is the feeding ideal behind any ambitious chef and/or bartender (I do not dare using the oft-abused “mixologist” term), yet it is a certainly a double-edged sword! In the hands of a connoisseur, it will leads to many delights; in the hand of an amateur, it will be more likely be a disaster.  Let me expand and draw from my recent experience…
As I grow older, my palate has changed considerably; the “Negroni” which I once thought undrinkable, has become a staple daily drink. I love the way the botanicals and dryness of the gin marries with the vermouth and bitter-sweet Campari… It is not a difficult drink to realize; equal measures of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth; stirred harmoniously, and served as you desire. Furthermore, there are not too many variations possible on the drink: 1) The gin, 2) the vermouth 3) the drinking vessel (straight up, on the rocks or lengthened!).

Yet, this simple drink seems to stump many of the new establishments I visit on a regular basis! Worst of all, with the recent “classic cocktail” revival AND the gin explosion that we are witnessing, this drink has been well documented and supported by starred bartenders all over the world!  Yet, in spite of the above, this simple drink is often dismissed towards more exotic drinks. I understand it doesn’t have to appear on the menu, but it certainly should be common knowledge, yet it isn’t! The ingredients may be, but the rest is forgotten.

How does this tie up with my “drinking primer”? Simple… When you walk into a new establishment, and as you glance over the creative cocktail selection that may be highlighted on the menu… Don’t rush into them!
Consider the environment. You wouldn’t expect a Vesper to be properly made in an Irish pub would you?

If the environment is conclusive, order a “classic” cocktail before any others… The Negroni is my acid test… For other, it is the Mai-Tai or the Mojito. Order your “go-to” cocktail, NOT the signature.
If –and ONLY if- your first drink is well prepared and up to YOUR standards, then move along to one of the signature drinks on offer and be prepared to be delighted!

Why should you be using this methodology? Simple… Would you trust a 10-years old child at the wheel of a super-car?

Certainly not!

The age-old saying “walk before you run” is definitely applicable in the drinking world; these classics not only teach the basic methodologies, but also prepare your host (I much prefer this term to that of “mixologist”) towards more colorful concoctions through the basic rule of substitution.

The basic message of these words are pretty simple really… the relationship between a bartender and his guests is akin to that of the provider and his dependents; i.e. there must be a foundation of trust between the two parties involved; and if this trust is established, then feel free to wander in a weird, wacky and wonderful world of mixology… If you bartender knows his/her classic, you are automatically in good hands! However, if you get a blank look upon ordering an old-fashioned; then one should not expect a positive drinking experience.

On this happy note, I would love to leave you with a great quote from Troy Patterson (free lance writer for Slate.com):

“There's nothing you can do to gin that's worse than what it can do to you.”

Cheers – sipping a Negroni!

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