Sasha & The Maharaja – Steven Darian – India 1961

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons & James Mollison

I was teaching at Kabul University, way back in 1961. It was a peaceful country then––you could go camping anywhere & not worry about a thing.

We had decided to drive from Kabul to Delhi, in my Volkswagen bug. And as any traveler knows, unexpected things await you on the journey.

The first day, we crossed the Khyber Pass. Rounding a hillock, we came up on a huge sprawling fort, with the words in two-foot-high letters carved into its mud-brick walls: KHYBER RIFLES. The car twisted on through the mountains. Every now and then, there appeared a plaque of soldiers long-departed, who fought and died here: Swat Regiment 1893. Chitral Battalion 1884! The air was heavy with the ghosts of ancient warriors. We reached the Pak side, and checked into the Oberoi Hotel in Peshawar, on the Afghan-Pak border.

There we met Sasha; manager of the hotel. Fat, irresistible. With beetle brows and a courtly Viennese accent. And with stories you would never forget. My favorite was about him while managing an Oberoi in Delhi during the partition of 1947.
Evidently, Sasha had a reputation in Delhi, as someone who could hold his liquor. One day he was sitting in his office when the door opened and in came a man in white padded jacket, with gold braid and buttons. He introduced himself as the Maharajah of Saripur. “I have heard you are the best drinker in Delhi,” said the maharaja. “I enjoy a good viskey now unt zen,” Sasha answered modestly. “No, no, no,” insisted the maharaja. “I have been told you can drink more than any man and still stand up.” “No. Not really,” Sasha demurred.

Now in order to understand this guy, you need a short briefing on maharajas. Before the British took over around 1800, they had it all: palaces, elephants, dancing girls. The next 150 years, the Brits gradually undercut their power. And after independence, the Indian government pensioned them off with a very modest purse. So they were left with very little to do, and not much money to do it with. Naturally, they couldn’t do any work. And after the polo ponies and the sapphires ran out, about all they could do…was drink.

Courtesy Creative
Commons & Digrajsingh

“Yes,” the maharaja pressed on. “Your reputation is too well-established. I have come here especially to challenge you to a drinking contest.” “But I must attend to my work,” Sasha protested. “This is Sunday morning. You are working the rest of the day?” “No.” “Then it is settled. I will return in an hour and we will start. We will play for 5,000 rupees.” As soon as the maharaja left, Sasha rushed into the kitchen. “Schnell, schnell,” he shouted to the kitchen man, “bring me a bottle of olive oil. Kvik!” The kitchen man returned with the olive oil, and Sasha proceeded to drink it, an ounce at a time. “If you are going to drink a lot,” he explained to us, “it will help to coat your stomach.”

After an hour, the maharaja returned, with his retainer. The name of the game–– was cognac. They sat at a small mahogany table in the conference room: Sasha and the maharaja. The servant sat in a cane chair in the corner. Sasha poured the first glass. They toasted, and tossed it down. The maharaja poured the second. And so it went.

The first bottle disappeared in about 20 minutes. The second in about 30. The maharaja in about an hour and a half. Towards the end of the third bottle, the maharaja had begun to fade: his eyes went in and out of focus, he started sloshing his drink. Finally, he passed out under the table. Sasha turned to the servant: “I guess viy have von zee bet,” he said. The servant was frantic. Together they pulled the maharaja out from under the table and dragged him to his car. And that was the end of it. Or so Sasha thought.

Nearly six months later, Sasha was inspecting the salad in the kitchen, when a voice behind him said: “If I knew you had drunk that olive oil, I never would have paid you the wager.” Sasha wheeled around. There was the maharaja, in his white jacket, with one of the buttons missing, and the gold braid fraying badly.


Steven Darian has been a Fulbright scholar to India, Uzbekistan, & Ukraine. This––along with his many other tales––appear in his book The Wanderer: Travels & Adventures Beyond the Pale.
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