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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Tag Archives: Passage to India

The Gin:  Cadenhead’s Old RajDry Gin

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The Book:  A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

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THE GIN

In the glass there is a slight yellow tinge. On the nose, a strong alcoholic spice. Circling the palate, it’s modestly oily, with an intriguing botanical mix, shaped by a lemon tartness. Saffron shines through, but doesn’t overpower. Forceful yet sophisticated. (55% abv)

Old Raj comes in two strengths—46% and this imperial 55%. Its name is derived from the British Raj, the British rule of the Indian subcontinent up to its independence in 1947, made unabashedly clear by the label and packaging. Gin and tonic (which contains quinine, a preventative against malaria) became the Raj’s drink of choice, As Winston Churchill famously said “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

Besides juniper, the foundation botanical of all gin, Old Raj is made with orange and lemon peel, coriander seed, angelica root, orris root, cassia bark, almond power, and the star of the show—saffron. As any cook knows, saffron (delicate threads plucked from crocus flowers) is uncommon and costly. Old Raj uses it sparingly (said to be added personally by the company’s chairman!), for economic reasons perhaps, but equally to keep the flavour subtle.

It works very well. Saffron is the last minute addition. The other botanicals are each macerated in a mixture of alcohol and water for 36 hours, then distilled separately in a small pot still, before being combined with neutral grain spirit. Only then is the saffron added.

Old Raj was introduced in 1972 by Wm Cadenhead, an independent whisky bottler based in Campbeltown, Scotland. The company is far better known for its whiskies, but nonetheless Old Raj has developed an enviable reputation. The Empire would have been proud.

THE BOOK

A Passage to India was published in 1924. Racial tension was high throughout the country and the movement to independence constantly in the political forefront, though it would take more than two decades for British politicians to finally come to terms with it. The book opens and closes with debate on the issue, framed as a question—whether it is possible for Indians and Englishmen to be true friends. It is the complicated, uneasy relationship between a young Indian physician Aziz and the older British college headmaster Fielding that defines the debate.

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Two women, Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore arrive from England for a visit to the fictional Indian city of Chandrapore. The young lady comes with the vague notion of marrying the stiffly colonial Ronny Heaslop, Mrs. Moore’s son by a second marriage, and a city magistrate. It’s a precarious pairing, however, especially when the Heaslop’s prejudices show themselves. The women want to experience the “real India”, and not through the rigid lens offered them by the magistrate. Mrs. Moore, while exploring a mosque, encounters Dr. Aziz, and after an initial misunderstanding, extends an open hand of friendship. Her experience eventually draws Miss Quested into the circle when they both encounter Aziz at a tea party. The magistrate, needless to say, is not impressed.

When Aziz invites the women on an expedition to explore a set of notable caves outside the city, the story takes a dramatic turn, bringing the issue of the racial divide to a head. Inside one of the dark caves Miss Quested thinks herself the intended victim of sexual assault, and comes to the abrupt conclusion that it must have been Aziz. The young doctor is arrested and charged. A trial ensues. Of course lines are drawn, friendships tested, the societal prejudices, and those of the court system, are thrust into the open. In a broader sense, it is the British Raj which is on trial.

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E.M. Forster, inspired by a period of six months he spent in India in 1912-13, and then a year in 1922, drew out the writing of the novel over the course of 11 years. Through that time he was struggling with the unrequited love he felt for Masood, a young Indian man he had gone to the country to visit. He had explored caves such as those depicted in the novel on the day after he left Masood, following, biographers speculate, his friend’s rejection of him. That may well account for why it took Forster so long to complete the book. He rewrote the episode in the cave and its aftermath several times, finally deciding to leave what actually happened there inconclusive.

When it was published, its astute depiction of colonial India was highly praised. Stylistically, the book excels. It has come to be thought of by many critics as finer even than Howard’s End or A Room with a View, and one of the great literary works of the 20th century.

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