Last week I attended a Chinese New Year celebration with some colleagues. The emcee in charge of the Gala’s proceedings provided information about the Year of the Rooster, the rationale for the spectacular and energetic Lions’ Dance and finally, introduced the assembled guests to the Chinese liqueur, moutai. It brought back fond memories of my first sampling this drink, over thirty years ago.
In the 1980s, working for an English bank in Delhi I managed our relations with several foreign missions, including the High Commissions of Canada, Britain, Nigeria, Australia, the Apostolic Nunciature and the Embassy of China. It was possibly in December 1986 or 1987 that the Ambassador of China to India first invited the Regional Manager, the Corporate Banking Head of the bank and me, together with our spouses to a formal dinner reception at his residence. I was already friendly with the Cultural Attaché at the Chinese Embassy and we would occasionally play badminton together. He, and the Head of Chancery welcomed us on arrival and ceremoniously escorted us in, to an anteroom where we were formally introduced to the Chinese Ambassador, his wife and other senior Chinese diplomats and their spouses, dressed in most elegant formal Chinese gowns. Fine scotch and other drinks were served and we spent some time “breaking ice” and getting better acquainted. Language was a barrier, compounded by diffidence on the part of some of the diplomats who were very conscious of their Ambassador’s presence and their own hierarchical standing. After a suitable interval, the Ambassador and his elegant wife led us in to a tastefully appointed dining room. A very large round dining table of solid Huanghuali wood with seating for perhaps twenty guests, dominated the room. Following protocol, we were assigned our place at the table and formally seated, in order of seniority. A tiny gong was then struck for the dinner service to commence.
Liveried staff went around the table pouring green tea, wines and a clear liquid that was served in a small, crystal liqueur glass. In response to my query, the Cultural Attaché told us this latter drink was the popular moutai – a sweetish liquor with over 55% alcohol, distilled from sorghum. The Ambassador stood up and after we rose, proposed a toast to our relationship and throwing his head back, drained the contents of his glass. Each of the men present followed suit, while most of the lady-guests smiled uncertainly and excused themselves, saying they would prefer a wine or a non-alcoholic drink, instead.
It was de rigueur to rise up and toast the guest/host every few minutes. However, as the evening progressed we dispensed with the formality of rising to one’s feet to propose a toast but nevertheless consumed many glasses of this extremely potent liquor, using just about any excuse to extend gratitude and honor to the assemblage! My young friend and badminton companion continued to quietly caution me not to try and match the much older Chinese Ambassador’s drinking prowess as he was known to hold his own, while drinking anyone else under the table! Food was brought out in one course after another. Each dish represented a provincial specialty – Sichuan, Cantonese, Shandong and Hunan etc., and was presented in an order designed to enhance our gourmandizing pleasures.
This special event and other pleasant evenings spent in such august company stand out in memory. However, there are two other associated things that I recall. One, notwithstanding my introductory bout with moutai, that I was able to clearly express my gratitude to our hosts at the end of the meal and accompanied by my wife, walk unaided to my car. Second, a visit next morning from Indian government security officials to question me about my office car being spotted in the Chinese Embassy compound and the reason for my fraternizing with Chinese embassy staff late into the night. Relations between India and China had remained strained after the 1961 war and any contact between nationals of the two countries was therefore not above suspicion.
For some inexplicable reason, I associate the song “Chin-o-Arab hamaaraa” with these memories. Sung by Mukesh from the legendary Raj Kapoor’s 1958 film Phir Subah Hogi, this satirical and at the time very controversial verse was penned by Sahir Ludhianvi and is a parody of Allama Iqbal’s poem “Chin-o-Arab hamaaraa” and “Saare Jahaan se achhaa”. Such confluence of thoughts!