Want to smoke a quality cigar? Head to R A Baliga & Sons at Princess Street in Fort Kochi.
Baliga's little shop has been there since October 1910, yes, from the days of the British Raj. "My grandfather started the shop to cater to the officials and 5000-odd British troops stationed in Kochi who took many puffs till the fag end of their stay here," says A.S. Baliga, present owner of the shop.
On well painted racks are cigar boxes of various hues and sizes. "We have over 12 varieties," says Baliga with a proud smile.
Habana cigars are blended and hand-rolled. And they are qualitatively better than the machine-rolled ones, taking any smoker to new heights. Packaged in square wooden caskets, these come in boxes of 25 or 50.
The cigars come in two sizes. "One can smoke the king-size ones, almost palm-length, the way foreigners do over a couple of drinks and snacks for one and- a-half hours, while the smaller ones are for those who want a quick smoke that lasts for 15 to 20 minutes," Baliga explains.
Ramachandra Baliga started the cigar business which expanded to tobacco, snuff and beedi leaves after his successors took over. "In Fort Kochi, our shop is probably the only one of the old lot," he says. That makes it antique - 97 years and still running!
The cigars in Baliga's shop are from Cuba. "No other country makes cigars the way Cuba does," he says.
The brand names are fancy: London Calling, Royal Crown and My Lord to name a few. Ironically, that's the only thing that's English. The names have come down the years, as the first customers were Britishers.
It's another story that cigars found in Britain are exported from India. It's probably owing to the US-Castro political standoff that Britishers can't enjoy a Cuban cigar.
So who are Baliga's customers? Baliga smiles, "Foreigners, who else? I don't have to advertise anywhere here." Foreigners know exactly whom to approach as Baliga is listed in several foreign tourist guides.
"When they come, they take away a couple of boxes. They try them out and buy what they like."
The life of a cigar is six months. But it can last even a year if it's not taken out of its box.
"Indian tobacco is very strong, so not many can smoke it. It's something like toddy or gin," he says, drawing a comparison.
Recently, Baliga was felicitated by the Konkani Bhasha Prachar Sabha for being the only member of the community to have done business in the same shop for so many years.
"I had many Anglo-Indian friends here. While some left decades ago in search of greener pastures, many left recently when the land prices started sky-rocketing. I'm the only Konkani left here in British Kochi," he says.
He asks, "Do you read French?" "If yes, I can show you some of the comments written by visitors to this shop." Baliga takes out a book from the drawer and opens it meticulously. Look here, this is written by a Britisher, and this by a German. There are French and Swiss visitors too.
One thing is obvious: at least 70 percent of his buyers do not know English. So how does he communicate with them? "I have been in this business for so many years that I can sense what people want from their very expression," he says.
Call A S Baliga on 9446865756.