my choice

I am standing there, with a corona in my hand, and rethinking my ideal of more than 20 yrs. Usually people knew me very well before I went to a party or a pub with them. They would suggest/request to share a sip with them. I would just smile. And decline.

But last saturday, I wasn’t asked. SS saw the packs of beer and jumped, “all these for you”. SK, after a while, pushed a bottle, already opened, to my hand and it involuntarily moved to hold it, prompting others to cheerily confirm their belief that I was only a little shy. “Dont tell me you never had any in Bombay”, one said the other day. Bombay is synonymous with modernity. “You stayed in a hostel no?, hahaha…Another logic.

I haven’t understood how alcohol is perceived among indians, most of them hindus- middle-class, caste-hindus, . Of course, habituated drinking is frowned upon. Social drinking is probably acceptable, even encouraged. So was I.

Not that everyone was drinking. Not that it matters who wasn’t. Nobody probably ate beef, not even the Indian christians among us. I did, and laughed when they frowned and acted surprised. ”India is more diverse than you would like to accept”. Saturday was a veggie feast.

I am holding the beer. It is cold, the wind is matching cold. But sun is bright too. There must be a cloud of thoughts on my forehead, washed with my irritating longish hair. I must find the barber shop, i think. Someone stops in front of me to click a picture. I turn away, notice that the the bottle is still in my grip, still untouched and a little bit hidden away.

In my village, this would be a big news. Partly because, alcohols drained the meager earning we had as agricultural laborers. And that was the only job available. For us. When there was not enough rain, or too much loan, we would become itinerant workers. And this was the lens we viewed everyone through, even though he could afford drinks comfortably, had regular well-paid govt. job, or had high-stress job for which govt. subsidised alcoholic drinks. None of that would matter. This is where my rationale of alcohol-avoidance starts. The belief, however, started and reinforced with Ma’s sobs whenever she would discover a bottle of alcohol in Bapa’s travel bag. We all would be little confused, cause we knew that Bapa didn’t drink. For Bapa though, every ideal had to be rational, practical.

I smile when I think what Bapa would say. I don’t really know. I know Ma would have moist eyes. Bapa once said about a fresh phd graduate who now is a leading dalit writer in Oriya, “ in seven years of research, he could have invented a car that runs on water”. I took seven years too. No car yet!

In a university quarter, discussing dalit issues with drinks flowing, dissecting the casteist mentality, the dalit male stereotypes as hypersexual, aggressive, violent, dishonest and opportunistic, I picked up the lens slowly. I didn’t mention that “alcoholic” was another dalit male stereotype. It isn’t rare to find dalit intellectuals brainstorm over booze and party. Many of them, top-ranking universities graduates, widely travelled, non-or-even-anti religious, sombre up with alcohol before relaunching their speeches. That’s the impression I have, dont know for real. But there are other dalit intellectuals, who are poets, artists, autodidacts on economics and development, who are found lending their voices to various activism because there was no one else to do so, they also defy the ‘no alcohol“ vow that Ambedkar took and preached. Many of them are friends of mine. In many of their literary camps, the pre-publication night-outs, celebrations, they get drunk. Here the lens would fit. Their money could certainly be useful in some other way to their/our causes. And they have so little of it!. But they reject this utilitarian way of life. ”We are dalit, tribals, drinking is in our culture“, says H, a jovial young poet, govt. schol teacher, suspect maoist and a great Ambedkarite. ”Not drinking, not eating meat is brahminical“. He has started popularising beef-eating among poorer people, dalit-adivasi people, cause beef is affordable. It is nutritious. And it is a potent instrument against the re-hinduisation tactics of the Sangh parivar. But many would be tempted to disqualify his Ambedkarism because he drinks.

”I dont have anything against drinking“ I said to my sister once, and she started giving me a resizing stare. I evoked the lens in my memory and said, ”I just fail to extend this choice to everyone in my community without causing irreparable harm. The problem with being a conscious dalit is that you unconsciously elect yourself as a representative of your community.“

And that chops off half of your liberty, giving you a narrow choice of lifestyles. Not that everyone respects this restriction, because even among the community they can choose the section they wish to represent. CBP drinks, parties, travels around the world, singing paeans of capitalism, advocating fiercely for dalit’s share in it and issues s.o.p.(s) for modern educated dalits for adopting english lifestyles.

So what do I do? Do I choose to represent them who I originally belong or do I recalibrate my affiliations. How do I disown the present for a distant past or an unforeseeable future. What is the probability that I am going back to my village and become a model citizen?

I am remembering members of my extended family who were practically disenfranchised because they succumbed to that habit. And how all of them were addicted to it, not one trying it out and keeping safe distance afterwards. There is a widening distance between the beer in my hand and me. We-my family- have a love-hate relationship with alcohol. My great grandfather was an alcoholic. He must have a dibba hanging down from the thatched roof, before he went to bed. And it was indispensable for his artistic pursuit. Bapa might be reinventing a glorious ancestry for us, when he said my great grandfather was the best Dab-baja singer in the jilla. No one could beat him. But then, signs of that trait shines often in my cousins, my brother. My grandfather, was not impressed. He neither touched alcohol nor dab-baja. For life. The man who spooled and weaved khadi all this life looks at me unsmilingly from the wooden photo-frame, wearing an inexpensive coat without a tie. I wonder what made this iron-willed man to embrace all the difficulties in life unsmilingly but never tripping over to the small pleasures of life.

I am thinking, is the insistence that my range of choices are available to all is a kind of social eutopia? I don’t stop covering my body-like Gandhi, cause my people can’t. I would die of cold for sure. Then again, drinking is still optional for me, clothing isn’t.

A thousand words rummaging though my mind. For what? Just for a sip? thats how much am i wrapped in my own world, that i let go thousand alternative possibilities..

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