Indian bar captures flavor of British Raj

September 19, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III

NEW DELHI - His Highness the Maharajah of Orchha, GCSI, GCIE, watched over me as I had my first martini cocktail in India the other day.

He was a grand figure with a magnificent turban, festooned with feathers, a rich beard sweeping from his face, and a gold-trimmed uniform with a chest covered with decorations. The maharajah appeared to have gotten along well with the British who ruled this land - or thought they did - for more than a century.

Of course, his highness was with me only in spirit. He is long gone, but his photograph happened to be on the wall, just over my shoulder, the other day at the bar in Delhi's Imperial Hotel. The bar and the whole hotel attempt to re-create the era of the Raj in India, and it's a success. Certainly, the Imperial is beyond the means of just about anyone living in New Delhi, or anyone else in India. But if you can afford it, this is the place to stay.

The gleaming marbled lobbies are scented with jasmine. Small fountains gurgle in colorful alcoves. The staff is impeccably outfitted and awfully polite. The walls of the lobby and The Patiala Peg Bar and The 1911 are full of illustrations depicting the days of the Raj, from paintings of Queen Victoria to busts of King George V and his queen, Mary. Medals from the various campaigns fought in India and elsewhere are displayed in gilt frames. On one wall a single medal is framed; it is the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military honor. It stands as a reminder that thousands of Indians died for the British Empire in the two great wars.

The ambience of the Patiala Peg Bar, with deep leather seats and soft lighting and a large portrait of Lord Kitchener, is enhanced by a splendid legend from the days of the Raj. It holds that the Maharajah Bhupinder Singh, the powerful ruler of Patiala, challenged a force of Irishmen serving in an elite unit under the British viceroy to a tent-pegging contest. To make a long story short, the maharajah's men got the Irishmen drunk the night before the contest, replaced the tent pegs the "Viceroy's Pride" would go after with much smaller, more difficult versions, and the Indians won the day.

This is said to have been the source of a measure of alcohol known as a peg, 30 milliliters, or about an ounce. At the Patiala Peg Bar, a peg of good gin goes for about $8.50. They're still punishing foreigners.

The Imperial was built in 1931, 17 years before the British left India. It is a whitewashed building with a neat geometry that reflects a hint of the art-deco period in which it opened.

Set on more than three acres of lush grounds surrounded by towering royal palms, the Imperial is a quiet enclave in the cacophony of New Delhi's exhausting daily experience. The least expensive room is advertised at $300 a night. The most expensive, the Royal Imperial Suite, goes for $2,250.

In a land where earnings of anything more than $1 a day place an Indian above the official poverty line, one is not likely to meet an average citizen at The Imperial, though it is a fine place to have a quiet conversation. And it is a fine place to have a martini.

The Imperial has succumbed to the unhappy trend of listing all sorts of drinks as martinis - it offers an Apple Martini, a Cajun Martini and a Melon Martini. But the barmen know what the real thing is.

Vipin Sherma is a proud mixologist. He mixes his martinis at approximately 9-to-1 gin (Bombay Gin, of course). They come in a normal martini glass, not the sort of fish bowl that's popular in America. The other barman has the odd name of Rishi Neoge, "I'm the only one in the directory. Can you believe that? Cheers."

I ask Neoge if he can make a martini, which he mixes up very proudly and asks what I think. A touch too much vermouth. "Too much vermouth?" Neoge frowns. "It must need more gin," which he adds to the glass. "Cheers."

Cheers, indeed. I wonder if His Highness the Maharajah of Orchha, GCSI, GCIE, ever had a martini. It seems unlikely.

The late Philip Myers, an acquaintance in Baltimore, once told me he believed that the martini was actually invented in India by a British officer in the Indian army celebrating the arrival of the state-of-the-art Martini-Henry 450 caliber rifle. This rifle, standard British gear from 1871 to 1888, was often celebrated in the poetry and ballads of Rudyard Kipling.

In his poem of advice to the young British soldier, Kipling wrote,

"When 'arf of your bullets fly wide in the ditch,

Don't call your Martini a cross-eyed old bitch;

She's human as you are - you treat her as sich,

An' she'll fight for the young British soldier.

Fight, fight, fight for the soldier."

He could have been describing the martini cocktail.

Myers said the drink was named after the rifle because the British officer celebrating the arrival of the Martini-Henry had gin but not enough of it to go 'round. So he mixed the gin with some fortified wine and - amid loud huzzahs - decided to name the concoction The Martini.

Serious students of the cocktail's history would say this is pure bull. But in this land where the bull is a sacred creature, it seems credible enough.

Cheers!

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