Sparring and surviving

Sparring and surviving

In his final column before his death,Michael looks back at his time in India and the rise of a nation of whisky drinkers

Musings with Michael Jackson | 25 Sep 2007 | Issue 66 | By Michael Jackson

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Loyal to his saffron shorts, our globe-trotting columnist issues a challenge to the Boy from Bangalore. My onetime sparring partner Vijay Mallya. How better to toast half a century of independent India than with a whisky of a similar vintage, and where better to find one than W and M? I reached deep into my cellar for a bottle of fruity, oaky, Dalmore 50-year-old and celebrated India’s survival - and mine. On my first visit to the sub-continent, India’s future was in question and, shortly after I arrived, so was mine.Perhaps I had overdone the tinctures on the plane. I had been ordering doubles. Fair do’s: a single is so small as to be almost invisible. Now I was seeing double. The cab at the front of the line had two drivers. Then I realised that they all did. I suppose it was a case of a driver and an assistant.I was glad of that, and even more pleased, when my turn came, that the crew of my cab sported turbans, albeit at a jaunty, “boy racer” angle. The meant that they were Sikhs: the tough guys of the sub-continent. With them in the driving seat(s?), I felt safer. In theory.The worst violence after partition had long subsided, but a new fault had opened, between the two huge pieces of the sub-continental jigsaw, puzzle, about 1,500 miles apart, that comprised the original Pakistan. The government, in Islamabad had failed to provide adequate assistance to its eastern offshoot during catastrophic floods. The people of East Pakistan were Bengalis. Their country would eventually be reborn as independent Bangladesh.In the meantime, 50,000 refugees a day were crossing the border into the Indian state of Bengal. They were accommodated in refugee camps along the Dum-Dum road as it approached Calcutta.I was working at a field hospital in a refugee camp, and writing magazine pieces. In an inherently chaotic stuation, the Indian state and city governments were organising the camps with astonishingly calm efficiency.There was another danger. Agroup of anarchist terrorists who called themselves Naxalites began to hi-jack vehicles on the Dum-Dum road. They were looking for Americans, whom they snatched and murdered almost daily.However tough my Sikh driver and assistant might have been, they looked terrified when they saw four or five fitlooking young men blocking the road. Two of the young men piled into the bench seat alongside the two drivers. Three more joined me in the back seat, two forming a human vice and a third sitting on me.The screaming in English and Hindi continued for what seemed like two or three hours, towards the end of which we started dropping off the young men. Only when the last had departed did I feel that the likelihood of being murdered had lifted. As the Sikhs calmed down, they dismissed the young men as “thugs”.When they dropped me at my hotel in Calcutta, I was in dire need of a stiff drink. The Indian whisky of the day did not do the trick.I have yet to taste an Indian whisky that I enjoy as much as a generous shot of Cadenhead’s saffronflavoured Raj Gin, wih plenty of ice and Schweppes’ Indian tonic.Perhaps Vijay will provide some spiritual competition. His Kingfisher lager is readily available, but has no distinctively Indian feature.In 1997, Vijay moored his 165 ft yacht Indian Achiever at the Chelsea Piers, in New York. His plan was to acquire a number of American micro-breweries, form them into a group that could benefit from economies of scale, and brew Kingfisher under licence.Vijay did buy a handful of micros but doesn’t seem to have done much with them. Our paths crossed when we found ourselves speaking on the same platform in Portland, Oregon, America’s micro-brewing capital. Vijay made a powerful case for the wisdoms of modern management, brand-building and marketing.I presented the dissident view based on product orientation, market fragmentation and a post-industrial society.I enormously enjoyed our sparring, and Vijay seemed to be having fun. I wonder whether he fancies a return bout. We are maturemen now. We could talk about whisky.
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