Drinking during lockdown

It was around 9.30 pm when the phone call came.

“Dodum sir, police ka danda khake leke aya hain saman ko hum (I was thrashed by the cops but I got the stuff),” the voice on the other end of the line in his Assamese-accented Arunachali Hindi said. I knew instantly who it was (mostly because his number was saved on my phone), and what it was that he had brought (only because it could not be anything else).

By any standards a phone call from your local liquor guy, let us call him ‘Tom’, post-nine pm hardly seems like an urgent one. In a town with just about one lakh people in a state in India’s north-eastern corner during a COVID-induced national lockdown, it feels a tad unnecessary.

Yet, here I am, 11 minutes past three in the morning writing about that very phone call with a shot of what is clearly a knocked down version of a more famous coconut-flavoured rum.

Since the national lockdown began, which now seems like two decades ago, a slow realisation of the things we really need has begun to sink in.

Slowly, we’ve realised that we can live without that pair of Adidas Originals sneakers that a few months back we thought we just ‘had to have’, or that a two-year-old Chinese-branded phone with a 2,000-megapixel phone can take similarly high-resolution photos that the iPhone 48 can and be bought at one-fourth of its price.

And so far, in all honesty, alcohol has not been much of a casualty in Arunachal Pradesh.

When the lockdown was announced to begin on March 25, few paid heed or even cared about how long it would last. Groceries aside, most of us in the state knew that our tippling needs will be taken good care of, and so far it has.

Yes, liquor stores have officially been closed for a month now but who in the state can honestly say that they have been deprived of their need for alcohol. Liquor stores continue to operate, handing out booze to those patiently stalking the side entrance of their stores and signal to their ‘man’ to sneakily sneak out that bottle of whisky or the now over-priced beer cans.

It’s all happening, and we all know it.

‘Tom’ knows it; the driver of that government-issued Toyota Fortuner whom I saw less than a week back buying a large consignment of alcohol for his boss knows it. Who are we kidding?

Around two weeks back at a press conference, I asked our chief secretary if alcohol stores will be allowed to sell their wares.

Not wanting to seem frivolous, I carefully said that this may seem like a trivial question but it was one I wanted to ask.

His response was one that seemed wholly reasonable as he said that it was not a trivial question since the state government does earn a lot of revenue from it.

And he is right.

Arunachal Pradesh has one of the highest documented per capita spending on alcohol across the country. Two years back, the state government earned close to Rs 1,600 crore in revenue from alcohol sales alone. So don’t tell me it’s a matter of less importance.

Until I received that phone call from ‘Tom’, I hadn’t given much thought to how his business will handle the lockdown. By all accounts, I had been told that the liquor warehouses and those with licensed bonds to sell alcohol had enough stock to keep the state’s citizens tipsy for two months at the least.

But with ‘people’s movement’ restricted, it was not going to be an easy task to keep the business flowing, so to speak. That realisation hit me more recently when Tom told me that he’d have to sell cans of beer to me, one of his (I am assuming) favourite patrons, over and above the MRP.

It’s at that moment when it hit me that the lockdown, while necessary, will affect us in ways that we in smaller towns and areas have not even begun to fathom.

Pro-prohibition activists will probably rejoice at the fact that selling alcohol has become more difficult than ever now. They have a reason to celebrate, and in some cases, rightly so. Perhaps they lost someone dear to them to alcohol abuse (meaning someone who would get withdrawal symptoms when not drinking or someone would wake up and rinse their mouth with brandy instead of waiting till the sun sets). Those people have a right to promote anti-alcohol advocacy.

But since the law, in normal times, does not prohibit the sale of alcohol, how do people who have solely sold it for 15 years cope with a sudden ban?

Anti-alcohol activists often argue that those selling alcohol can easily move their trade to some other business. Perhaps they could but does something of that nature happen overnight?

Do you ask someone in the hydropower sector to suddenly shift to the cotton industry? Bad example. Let me try to be more ‘local’.

Say there’s this aunty next door who has been married to this good-for-nothing-constantly-playing-rummy-or-carrom husband for the past 20 years. The only way that she has been able to earn enough money to provide her children with formal education has been through twice a month trips to Dimapur, loading up five-XL black airbags of gaudy clothes and shoes to be sold at villages and small towns, and making the night-super bus ride a living hell for her co-passengers.

Are you going to tell her to till the farm, earn the same amount of money by selling cabbages and local patta as she did selling those god-awful clothes?

No, you’ll give her time; perhaps train her in some other vocation so she can settle into a new trade. In the meantime, what about those clothes manufacturers, the shipping people who bring those clothes in, the wholesalers who paid for those clothes?

It’s easy to make a judgement or even make a judgement call by subtracting the collateral impact of things.

Unfortunately, events in this global economy do not take place in isolation.

As another set of examples, what happens to those in the gig economy where freelance work and short-term contracts is the norm? How are those who are dependent on events in times of social distancing supposed to take care of themselves and their families since it is considered non-essential?

Travel is not necessarily considered ‘essential’ (although I would disagree) and is probably not advisable at this juncture. Even if the scenario does improve in the near future, will it still be advisable to travel? What happens to the tourism sector and places dependent on it to run its local economy?

To ensure that the pandemic and the resultant lockdown do not bring about unforeseen damages, governments around the world will have to ultimately provide economic stimulus packages for sectors considered non-essential.

And in an era of WhatsApp forwards, Twitter re-tweets, and Facebook shares that reach a massive audience, will journalism still be considered a non-essential service? I am not sure. But till the time Tom keeps my ethanol needs satiated, I will keep writing.

Scenes of the night

Kasablanka Bar, Aalo, West Siang, Arunachal Pradesh, India, November 23, ten minutes to 9 PM, two young couples dancing to crappy Bollywood music and flickering disco lights and annoying bar underlight,
A group of five men from the plains on the first couch smiling, some looking around condescendingly, one possibly the “host” for the night probably a telecom employee, they settle on Heineken, I order my second peg for I don’t have much of the night left because I forgot to take down the hotel receptionist’s number,
Stupid,
‘Alcohol will help,’ I lie to myself one more night, convincing no one,
The night may end up long but I must be careful for it was outside this bar where a murder happened last year in March when,
the man who owns the hotel and the bar came in defense of his brother and shot dead the man who had fought with him earlier that night,
the man who was also his friend,
Dead,
A young woman walks in cautiously into the bar inquiring to another woman manning the bar about something and after a moment another woman patron with beautifully tied hair and a stunning body rushes out quickly as if to attend to a call and returns in a jiffy while I try to subtly check her out but the light from my phone screen where I am typing this betrays me as she catches a glance of me looking in her direction,
‘Damn you, phone’
I settle on four ice cubes and a mild cigarette,
‘Mild,’ I think, what makes a cigarette mild really, I wonder
What’s the gimmick, I wonder
I wonder why I didn’t follow up on what happened to that murder as my mind repeatedly wavers to that night when
the woman from before walks to the bar with a man she’s been dancing with for a couple of shots that she struggles with taking in at least three sips defeating the purpose of ‘shots’ before walking back to join their friends and to loud conversations that have to be had and had only in bars that fills up with the sound of loud Punjabi music that most people in the room here do not understand fully-well but incidentally enough the lone Sardar from the earlier group of five men from the plains isn’t exactly jumping with excitement as I had thought which is interrupted by a phone call from an old friend that I use as an opportunity to take a piss to return to the sound of the couple of couples echoing the hooting part of the song that’s been playing for that is probably the only part of the song that they know and now the bar door is open
with one man peering into the guest list for some reason who takes out a plastic zip lock bag with some khaini and disappears and the waiter brings me my third glass and instead of ice some iced water in a weird container that leaves me as clueless as what to do when I hear Anu Malik sing “Unchi hain building” and the waiter tells me that the weird jar has ice cubes and shoves in a pair of tongs before quickly walking back to fix the bill for customers leaving for he realises that attending to me with care is futile for I will leave no big tip, clearly he has no clue because hurting my ego will get him exactly that and someone in another table breaks a glass,
‘What happened that night’,
Was it not our responsibility as journalists to follow up on what happened or do I constantly tell myself that he is the brother of my sister’s good friend and whom I consider, think of as an elder sister too and so I must be considerate and that someone else will hold up our end of the bargain to write and report because that is our collective responsibility but would we have reacted as leisurely if the man who died that night was our brother, our son, our uncle, our father, someone we loved and wish to see again but never can and
what must the man who killed him be going through himself for the guilt must be killing him too, every day, each minute
this night is getting too trippy when I realise that I’ve downed 180 millilitres of scotch in less than an hour which is a quarter of a bottle which, in all honesty, is very little for man who can gulp down more than double that amount with ease on most days but I am in a strange town alone and after more than 30 years walking this planet you learn that its best to retire early when you’re in unfamiliar territory or when the guy on the dance floor has begun shouting ‘next’ because he doesn’t like the song playing out of the sound system and a Frenchie-sporting Asian man is unabashedly hitting on the only woman bartender to be constantly but politely thwarted but he will be back, his body language tells me and clearly she’s too used to such behaviour to be even slightly be impressed by a drunken man’s attempt to what can only remotely be considered “flirting” as I wonder why for heaven’s sake is Vengaboys’ “Shala la la la” and some other crappy song that I don’t remember the name of which this young man who was probably too young too even listen to when it first came out is playing, and damn,
I must leave before the bill does anymore damage and so I hand in the cash and leave a proper tip for I will be back on some other night, in some other year, for a different reason and he must remember me otherwise how else can I expect the royal treatment that I falsely think I am entitled to everywhere but then who doesn’t really for aren’t we all princesses and princes in our own worlds but paupers for everyone else,
Shit,
time to leave really cause I am a little drunk and beyond tipsy right now
And,
As I leave I catch a glimpse of an A4 size paper pasted above the wall of the entrance door that reads: Guns and other weapon not allowed inside the bar.

Colossal and the demon in me

A few weeks back I caught the Anne Hathaway-starrer, Colossal, and identified with it in a way that I least expected.

Colossal poster

Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead. If you haven’t watched the film yet but wish to, you should probably not read any further.

OK, with the mandatory spoiler alert warning set aside, let us begin.

Basic premise: The movie begins with Hathaway’s character, Gloria, coming home in the morning to her boyfriend after what was an alcohol-fuelled night out with her friends. Apparently, this has happened too many times in the past and her boyfriend, Tim, has her stuff packed and tells her to leave. Is this a break or a break-up? I don’t know and honestly who really does?

I mean, what does it even mean to be on a break? Or on a break-up? Does a break-up ever leave anyone feeling ‘up’?

I digress.

Gloria takes her things, moves back to her hometown where she grew up, moves into her parents’ old home that is now empty, and quickly runs into Oscar (portrayed brilliantly by the funny Jason Sudekis), somebody she went to school with.

After his father’s death, Oscar has been running the family bar where he takes Gloria in for a few drinks where he introduces her to his two friends, Garth and Joel.

During the course of the night, it becomes evidently clear that Gloria is kinda attracted to Joel, who happens to be a nice enough guy but someone who won’t really be able to hold an intelligent conversation for too long. But who am I to judge?

As one would expect, Joel tries to make a move on Gloria and for some reason, she pulls away. The timing is bad for Joel since that is when Oscar happens to walk back from the bar and to the table and sees Gloria backing out.

Now, I don’t know what the director and the script writer had in mind when they wrote that scene in but in my interpretation, Oscar isn’t too thrilled about his friend hitting on the girl whom he clearly likes. With men who hold themselves to a silly code of honour, not hitting on someone his friend likes is a no-go zone. Perhaps that’s what Oscar thought, I don’t know.

Anyway, after a night of drinking, at around 8.05 in the morning, Gloria gets out of the bar and begins making her way home. On her route is a park where she strolls around for a while before falling asleep on a bench. She then wakes up and heads home to sleep some more.

Around nine hours later, she wakes up to a call about some mysterious event on the other side of the world- a giant monster towering above skyscrapers has shown up in Seoul, South Korea, out of the blue making weird gestures. As she watches the news reel videos of the giant monster on TV, Gloria realises that she shares a connection with the monster halfway across the world and her actions are reflected by the creature.

Doesn’t take a genius to realise that this physical imitation of Gloria’s actions are also meant to be metaphorical- as the monster’s movements across Seoul leaves in its wake a trail of destruction, killing people and levelling skyscrapers -much the same way that her alcoholic ways damages her relationships and leaves a debris of dust behind her.

Did I see the parallels to Gloria’s behaviour to my own self-destructive pattern that has dominated my life for almost a year, now? Absolutely.

Whether individualists like me like it or not, people around us are affected by our actions. As much as we may wish for that to not happen, the actions of ours do end up impacting our families, friends, former friends, haters, lovers, and the ilk.

Our actions have a ripple effect, and the ripples do not just run linear or inwards- there are collateral damages.

What happens unfortunately is that for some of us, that pressure of knowing that our actions impact others only makes us spiral deeper into the rabbit hole.

I am an alcoholic.

I may have said this before but earlier I drank for no reason; now I have many. Am I making an excuse? Most likely, yes.

It would be nice to have our actions not have consequences but that’s not how the world works. But must we conform to every way that the world wants us to?

I am an alcoholic.

A couple of nights ago during a night filled with alcohol, rage, tears, and some misguided behaviour, I lost my little messenger bag which contained everything I had- my phone, power bank, watch, an external hard drive filled with films, and a wallet that contained little to no money but all my ID cards; for a few days I had no identity, so to speak.

It isn’t the loss of “things” that left me upset. No, it was the idea of what the incident represented that had my heart and head aching- why is this happening?

My wallet contained very little cash and ATM cards for banks accounts that had a total of 723 rupees in them. Meaning, I lost very little in terms of tangible value. What I did lose were two photographs of memories of what once was and what will probably never be.

Not to sound too self-serving or self-pitying, but I’ve been trying to pick the pieces of my life for about 12 months now in the most unhealthy of ways- drowning in alcohol. The morning after (and since) that night, I’ve asked myself several times- how low and how many times must I fall before I learn to rise up and walk?

I wish to confront the monster inside me in the same manner that Gloria did in the film when she flies out to Seoul and faces another robotic monster, and in a way faces her own inner demon.

In the final scene of the film, we see Gloria, having conquered her demon so to speak, enter a bar and order water. It seems like the moment when she has finally defeated her monster when the bartender puts a beer in front and she pulls a face.

The film’s director, Nacho Vigalondo, explained it best when he said: “I think it would be too cynical if she drinks again, and it would be too naïve if she prefers not to drink. The thing is when you’re dealing with addictions, I want to make something that people suffering an addiction can relate to and can understand. Sometimes in a movie when people stop drinking or stop taking drugs, or stop having a bad habit just because, that sounds really, really [neat]. So I have to leave the door open, because it’s not that easy.” (sic)

That’s the thing: many of us when we are damaging ourselves and wish to do something about it but not all of us can quit cold turkey. The intent is there, the action, not always.

Of course, we’ve all heard it more often than not that words and intent mean nothing if they don’t translate into actions. That the intent does not matter and only the actions do. But can every action in life be seen through those lenses? That the intent is inconsequential and the action is what matters? Are the two detached? Is my monster simply a manifestation of one aspect of my personality or perhaps, deep down, that is just who I am?

Rotten Tomatoes review: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/colossal/

 

Purple Days or (No Lasik For Life)

It’s just two minutes shy of 10.30 on a Tuesday night. The purple haze from what was surely meant to set a sexy mood feels like how every seedy place across the globe does. As in everywhere else, a familiar scene plays out here too: Young men trying to cavort with young women and old men trying to cavort with even younger women.

Some will succeed. Some will go home to the comfort of their right hand; snug in the knowledge that tomorrow is a new day and that tonight will be forgotten by the time the birds begin to sing.

The bartender lives up to the stereotype: moving about, chatting to customers, shouting out orders to his subordinates- the ones who aren’t on the same level of bartending skills as he is.

I once heard a character in a movie say that a quiet bartender can make patrons nervous. I agree.

My new frames seem to mask my identity a bit. No one bothers me until they get a close look under these lights.

I know, choosing a bar where I half-expect to know half the patrons and wishing to be left alone doesn’t make sense. But here we are. Here I am.

A young lad I am acquainted with looks through me, not recognizing who I am. For now, I let it be.

A young bunch of people I am supposed to know are sitting across the room behind me. But with my back to them, I don’t know who is who until one of them walks up to the bar to get the next round of orders. He doesn’t recognize me.

Thankfully.

Some days, I want to alone by myself. Some days, I want to be in solitude. Today, I’m not sure what I want.

My life, so far, has been a series of extempore speeches. Stumbling from one sentence to the next, leaving in the wake a line of “aahs”, “umms”, and “wells”. Not the most eloquent, I know. My autobiography wouldn’t read well. At all.

“Ranju Dodum: A Life in Extempore Speeches”.

Punctuated with ellipses; exposing the uncertainty that is my life; attempts to hide my insecurities, my fears, and all of that sadly makes up who I am.

Am I ashamed of who I am? On most days.

The new glasses may change the way I look, but can it change my vision metaphorically? Correct it even?

I suppose there is No Lasik For Life? I suppose not. #NLFL

Why do I write? I have never given that any thought until I find myself sitting on a bar stool with a pretty young girl who subtly asked me to move my messenger bag from the stool next to me so that she could sit there.

No, she’s not the least bit interested in me. No, her attention is reserved for the men beside her and her equally young friend. All of them bespectacled and half of me- both in age and in weight.

I would like to think in intellect, too. That’s one of the things I like to hold on to.

Although age may take away my youth, and the sparkle in my eyes may fade (the glasses help me hold on to them, barely), I hope to retain my mind with its memories and experiences (both the horrific and the honourable).

I think I write to unintendedly chronicle my life. What will we be if we didn’t experience all that life could offer? And not remember the life we’ve lived.

After all, that’s the one thing older people have an advantage in- a head start in life.

It is an hour into the night, hip songs off of Bollywood films have been blaring through the speakers. The dance floor holds up well to the stomping of high heels and platform shoes.

My mind wavers into thoughts: Do Arunachalees realise how indoctrinated they have been to what is mainland Indian culture?

Two hours into the night. Five pegs of whisky and one shot later, the mood is lifting, subtly.

But only momentarily.

The alcohol is doing what it’s meant to. My words are losing their way. The sentences, becoming shorter.

These “chapters” are getting smaller. Right now it is almost 3 AM. I am home. The rice has been set at the electric rice cooker with the faux chilly chicken resting easy inside the carton.

This is my night.