As we drove towards Sanquelim, Raju asked Ajay to take over the wheel nine kilometres off the town as we neared a bar in a village on our way back home. I looked out the window to see if this bar had a name. It did. In the dim light I barely made out WHITE HOUSE painted in white letters on the wall beside a STD phone booth. In the distance, only the letters OUSE were visible in the shadows thrown by two dim bulbs.
Most bars in Goa are found in residential neighbourhoods. Often a room in the house is converted into a bar. A separate entrance leads past a counter near the entrance, and a door at the back connects to the rest of the house. Women running bars is not a rarity in Goa. Two rows of benches and tables on either side of the room make up the seating arrangement under dim yellow bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Raju opened the door and stepped out of the car for his customary dose of feni for the night. I watch the bulbs glow in the dark, marking silhouettes of the owner at the counter, of the bottles on the shelves to the back of the shop, and in crates, of the white plastic chairs outside, and of Raju. I find the atmosphere surreal, but I cannot imagine Goan bars fitted with anything other than these dim yellow bulbs for it would simply kill their character. Better still if they were to operate out of brick structures held together in mud covered walls painted red or blue, or left to themselves like some village bars out in the countryside, the red laterite bricks exposed to the elements. “White House is an unlikely name for a bar,” I say aloud as Raju walks up to the counter to ask for a quarter of Cashew feni, and soda. Feni is also made from coconuts, extracted from toddy collected by toddy-tappers. Cashew feni is distilled in a bhatti, a setup made up of two pots. The design is not very different from that in use over the centuries. In the hills around Goa, it is not uncommon to come across local distillation units set up under thatched roofs that're dismantled once the feni is extracted from cashews. The larger of the two pots is called bhann and holds cashew juice boiled using firewood. The bhann functions as a boiler, evaporating the juice during distillation, and is connected by a conduit to a smaller pot called launni which collects the concentrated liquid passing through the conduit after distillation. Cold water is poured over the launni to maintain constant temperature.
Some people favour Feni as much for its overpowering smell as for its famed 'kick' which seasoned drinkers say lasts a long time if taken one too many. The smell remains long after the hangover. On a bus ride from Panjim to Ponda many years ago, a fellow passenger, smelling strongly of feni though he did not appear to be drunk, told me that drinkers not familiar with feni underestimate its strength to knock a guy cold if had one too many. "Most other drinks are mellow compared to this one," he said in Konkani. "I've seen truck drivers on out-station trucks passing through Goa miss their schedules after a night out with feni in a local bar. The next time around they're more careful." Out in the countryside, bars in days long past were not named. Those opening shop now are named. It’s a pastime with me to read signboards outside shops and bars in Goa. Often the choice of names have little to do with the business dispensed from these outlets. “The other day, I saw a bar named Climate Change,” Ajay adds from the driver’s seat. A stray thought flits in my mind and I smile to myself.
Given the turmoil we’re seeing in the Middle East, and more being threatened by America in response to Iran’s standoff in the nuclear issue, I wonder if a healthy swig of feni cannot bring about a change in climate in the 'White House’. Just a thought, nothing more!