James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Learning Grace in Defeat, With Mahjong and Beer

Learning Grace in Defeat, With Mahjong and Beer

Dansberg Beer in Gangtok, India

It’s the first day it hasn’t rained since I’ve arrived. The air is chilly and I’m on my second game of mahjong. The mahjong table is set up on a balcony overlooking the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.

I’d been taught how to play the day before, but didn’t remember a thing (the game was sandwiched between the post-lunch slump and pre-dinner beers). Still, being the competitive sort that I am (read: I have given people the silent treatment over lost games of Monopoly), I persevere, clacking mahjong tiles together, making sequences like one does in a game of cards. All I know up until this point is that there are three suits: sticks, dots, and characters. And also some wind directions and dragons, but I’ll figure those out as we go.

I’m visiting friends in the hill station of Gangtok, and they’re showing me Indian hospitality by stuffing me with food. Breakfast was followed by Temi tea and cookies, and momos were on the menu for lunch. Sikkim, I’m told, is an organic state now: everything from my tea to my side-serving of ferns (though calling them such doesn’t do them justice) is organic. Which is really great for me, because I’ve secretly always wanted to be one of those women who says they’re eating organic right now.

I’ve also been introduced to dallé, a chili the size of a cherry that’s pickled to perfection with ginger, garlic, lemon juice, and spices. It is the ultimate accompaniment to everything (I had it with my eggs, too), but a strangely masochistic choice of condiment; tears are inevitable after a few pieces.

Learning to play mahjong had been on my bucket list for some time, ever since Rachel Evan Wood’s character on True Blood was seen playing it. It sounded like something cultured people did, or the sort of people who only ate organic did. The way the translucent green melded into the plastic white of the mahjong tiles reminded me of those gummy frog candies with opaque white bellies.

A round later, there’s a chilled, half-empty Dansberg—the local brew—beside me. I’ve yet to call out “mahjong” (a privilege reserved for winners) and I still haven’t quite figured out the point system. After I lose the fourth round, I blame it on the distracting view of Kanchenjunga, which is typically shrouded in clouds.

It’s not a game for everyone, my friend tells me. Especially not the way it used to be played by the older generation in Sikkim. Bets were placed, fortunes lost. I nod. Things could be worse.

Still, the beer makes my losses palatable, and the view doesn’t hurt either.

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