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I Am A Stranger Here Myself: An Unreliable Memoir

I Am A Stranger Here Myself: An Unreliable Memoir
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Full-time bon vivant Bhaichand Patel recalls his jetsetting days as a UN diplomat

Bhaichand Patel
December 13 , 2019
05 Min Read

UN employees were entitled to six weeks of leave annually, plus return airfare for the whole family to the home country every two years. When you include travel on official business you end up seeing a lot of the world. I have been to exotic places like Tahiti and Samoa in the Pacific and Malawi and Ethiopia in Africa. I must have circled the globe at least a dozen times, travelling west from New York to Fiji and, still going west to India with a stop in Europe.

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In the quiet university town of Cluj in Romania my hosts thoughtfully left a bottle of palinca, a local plum brandy, in my hotel room. It was basically a poor man’s drink but I liked its hearty taste. When I needed another bottle, I went down to the local store. To my astonishment, the lady behind the counter grabbed hold of a grubby plastic bottle that previously held mineral water and filled it up from a ten-gallon cylinder. I was charged the equivalent of less than two hundred rupees. Tasty and heady but the moonshine could have rotted my guts.

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Hedonistic tendencies took me one year to Ibiza, an idyllic Spanish isle in the Mediterranean that has the gentlest of climates. I sometimes think, in whimsical moments, how nice it would be to spend the rest of my life in a place like that rather than in polluted Delhi. But the truth, of course, is I would die of boredom. After a night at the tavern I allowed myself to do something different. I decided to try out the nudist beach. At my age, with my girth and other shortcomings I must have been a sight to behold but getting nude on a beach is not all that difficult with a couple of beers under the belt. The trick is to let it all hang out. If you get too excited, try to focus your eyes on distant windsurfers on the blue, blue sea. My more immediate concern was for the German ladies playing a boisterous game of volleyball in the buff. I was afraid they would do themselves some injury.

One day on the beach a woman from the American Midwest told me a sad story. She was born during the Second World War in an affluent home while the man her mother was married to was away with the troops in Europe. Her mother became pregnant through a lover and when she was born she was given away for adoption so that the husband wouldn’t find out on his return. The poor woman had a miserable childhood. She did not tell me if she ever met her biological mother and it was not my business to ask.

The sea in Ibiza is of an incredible blue and life is very pleasant among the olive, fig and almond trees. This speck in the Mediterranean is invaded every summer by a multinational force of party animals and sun seekers from mainland Europe. Most of them stay in the cheap hotels and get drunk on lager. The working- class lads from England’s Midlands and other parts like to throw up and get into fights. As one of the residents told me, even soccer hooligans need a vacation.

Ibiza is the mother of all party islands. It has the reputation of having the best clubs, boasts the largest disco in the world on the outskirts of the main town. It can hold ten thousand people and still have room to spare. The place throbs with tech music and the young and old party from sundown to sunrise. The business in drugs is estimated in hundreds of million dollars annually. But we won’t go into that.

I thought it was the water from Scotland’s wells and springs that gave Scotch whisky its unique character. The whisky has often been imitated but never equalled. The water does play a vital role but there is more to it than just that, as I found out on a visit to Speyside. I left my visit to Scotland late. I should have gone when I studied in London but then money was always in short supply. This land of tartan kilts, haggis and whisky is quite different from its southern neighbour. It is friendlier, remote but not isolated and spectacularly beautiful.

The people in Scotland have been producing and drinking malt whiskies for centuries. In the rest of the world it is a recent craze. The first single malt bottle was sold in London only in 1965. Until then, everyone outside Scotland drank only blended whisky. The Scots thought the robust flavour of the malt whisky would be too much for foreigners unless it was softened by mixing it with whisky made from other grains. Nowadays, both kinds of whisky thrive together, though blended continues to outsell malts by a wide margin.

I stayed two nights at Archiestown Hotel in Speyside. It was more of an inn than a hotel with only eleven rooms. I had a superb dinner of Angus beef and afterwards we retired to the lounge with the couple who own the hotel for an impromptu party. Someone introduced himself to me, rather shyly, as being born in Poona and educated at Lawrence School in Lovedale. This was at a time when it was meant exclusively for children of British army officers. We were all slightly high and it was a rousing night. We exchanged ribald jokes and flirted with local lasses. Someone, in an expensive mood, ordered a bottle of Lochan Ora, a delicious but elusive whisky-based liqueur. We drank till the wee hours.

Next morning, I had a breakfast of kedgeree, a traditional British dish from its colonial past. It is their version of our khichdi. It is made with rice, curry powder, pieces of smoked haddock and topped with a fried egg. Delicious. As the world knows, give a Gujarati khichdi, or something resembling it, and he is in high heaven!

Extracted from ‘I Am A Stranger Here Myself: An Unreliable Memoir’ (HarperCollins; INR 699)


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