Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why are you a Teetotaler?

I never realized that there can be so many roadblocks in practicing a way of life or there can be so many questions posed on while adopting a certain lifestyle choice – until I decided that boozing/having alcoholic drinks was not for me. And it is more than often I get asked the cliched question of “Do you drink” and the answer to it (which is a certain NO) is usually followed up by another question of “Why?!”. It is very rare that the person in front gracefully accepts NO. Usually the tendency is to snark or to persuade you like it is done to lure a small kid by offering him his favorite candy.

Here I am talking in the context of India. Not sure how is it in other cultures but I assume the coercion; the persuasion by friends would be common. However, I confidently feel that liquor consumption or liquor culture (my own term) has grown in India in the last decade or so. And the thing that makes Indian society standout when it comes to this phenomenon is the increase in spending power (don’t get me wrong - which is a very good thing), more exposure to the Western Cultures (Again I am not against it. To give an example I can easily recall that not many sitcoms were broadcasted in India when I was a kid) and a misplaced understanding of “urban/modern” (more on this later).

To put into context the change Indian society has gone through in my opinion, I would share my childhood upbringing, the environment around me. I was brought up in a small town – a Tier 2 city and perhaps this maybe the reason I was not exposed to the “intoxicating culture” as I was never in a metropolitan city. It is safe to say that in the 1990s the four Metropolitan cities were the more advanced, economically prosperous than the other small towns and this fact is perhaps true even today. The modern technology and along with it the modern vices stepped into India via those metropolitan cities only. Thus, those Metropolitans were having more bars/pubs and more social acceptance towards folks frequenting them. However, the public opinion in other small towns was not that liberal and it has only started to change now. Also the sale of liquor was not as organized as it was in the big cities. It was mainly present in form of spurious liquor and usually the labor class indulged in it. Also, I am in no way accusing Metropolitan residents of propagating the drinking culture  just noting a fact.

Liquor Consumption in India via The Hindu

When I was 15 there was a news going rounds in our class that one of the boys used to drink along with his dad. It might sound trivial now but at that time it was THE NEWS and most of the kids used to look at that boy with such disdain and felt he was wayward. Even more it was not until I joined college when we had such easy access to alcoholic beverages. As is the case with most, in college you are free from the shackles and all sorts of limitations – many of the hostelers tried to have a drink the very first time in their lives. The excitement in them was palpable; for some the experience was good while for some their excitement got the better of them and they ended up vomiting. However, in the proverbial sense “they had tasted blood” – most were hooked to it and by the last year only 1 or 2 of us (including me) in the hostel were the only ones last standing up to the temptation. Another significant change that I observed is that when I returned from the metropolitan city I was studying in to my lovely town I saw a theka at a prominent crossing at the heart of the city. I do not remember ever seeing a theka in such a major place during my stay of 15 years there. Usually, they were confined to the dark and sleepy areas of the town but this was a slick, flashy looking glass-walled shop with hoardings of brands. I think the government had realized that the revenues it was warning from the liquor sales was too small to be ignored and had relaxed its policies by allowing sellers to set up shops in the center of the city. My information about the excise policy of the government can be wrong (do correct me if it is) but my understanding of why the government laxed its policy is because there has been a growing sense of entitlement to services provided by the State amongst the public and this has prompted the State to allow shops in the city to garner more revenue. Just read the arguments against the public ban imposed by Kerala govt. against liquor shops and you will find loss of the vast amount of revenues generated by them as a key point – so I feel I am right on this. Coming back to my observation, that liquor shop was right in the middle of the city which is a posh area with swanky multi-storey flats and showrooms. Interestingly, I also heard loudspeakers blaring out RWA (Resident Welfare Associations) protests against the opening of the theka. I could only catch a few words where a woman was voicing her fears over the ill effects it will have over children as it was a prominent area with many residential societies and schools. Critics might smile and call it the coming of the small town mentality to the fore. ;-)

But more than the urban-rural divide, it is the religion which ideally should be behind the calls for shutting down of shops. India is a country where you see people displaying their religious beliefs in public and many faiths prohibit intake of alcoholic drinks. Thus it might be worth a thought that a country having such a strong religious identity doesn't find it to be at the center of the lifestyle.

My opinion on this is that as we have progressed as a country – the stranglehold of religion over us as a society has loosened.  People are better off economically on an average and before any pessimists lash out at me I would point out the per capita annual income - a well acknowledged indicator of a society’s prosperity. However, I do concede that still there are areas and people who haven’t benefited from the progress. But overall, definitely we have moved ahead as a nation. The last 10-15 years are an unprecedented time-period in our history where there are abundant opportunities to rise. If you’re talented and merited there are chances now that you can rise up. IT industry has had a deep impact on the society. No other industry has allowed so many youngsters with a career choice which gives them two square meals a day for sure and save enough to spend on other needs too. What I am trying to arrive at is that there is increased spending power and with due respect to all– more easy money. Not that I think it is wrong or unethical. The thing is with more money to spend people focus on recreation in which boozing/drinking finds a place more often than not. Mainstream cinema has also done its bit to nudge people towards intoxication. Check the lyrics of popular songs these days and you would have a field day finding “daaru/vodka/party” in them. Some urge people to throw consideration about neighbors’ convenience to the wind by gulping down 4 bottles of a Russian drink generally made from potatoes and dance to music all night. Well before you start accusing me of a rant or me taking a high moral ground - it is not. I am just listing the reasons why I feel drinking is now a cool thing.

Why is it that friends prefer to meet and bond over weekends only over drinks? Why that “chilling out” is associated with chilled beer and not with a cold coffee? Yes it is an individual choice but it no longer remains so when you find it wherever you look around and realize that it is the IN thing. The other reason I mentioned was over exposure to Western culture. More and more Hollywood movies and television series are now available and they portray characters set in other cultures. I am sure no one would fault an Icelander trying to warm himself up with a few drinks as he combats below zero degree temperatures. But many impressionable minds ape them mindlessly forgetting that we are a tropically wet and dry country with no natural need to warm ourselves with drinks.

Comedy serials meant for family viewing portray a “daadi” (grandma) in a Punjabi family tottering over always in a hangover. Yes Punjabis traditionally drink but not to the extent that the beejee of the family will always be found recovering from hangover. I think I might be harsh here but this is what I sometimes feel. Too much insistence on it in the mainstream media.

Another thing which I find amusing is that the supposed perception of being unable to bond with people sober. I have been offered many reasons to drink – it relaxes you/you need to loosen up/it helps you open up with people/you get to make more friends/what if your wife is a drinker(the most hilarious one). Alas, none of them are convincing enough. I believe one should drink only because he wants to or he likes to – not to be socially acceptable or be under peer pressure. Many of my friends have confessed to me that their parents will throw them out of the house if they came to know that their son/daughter has been drinking.  So much so for the peer pressure! To me the idea to drink only to shed inhibitions and do silly things is not appealing. I feel I am able to converse freely without any influence and I do not need a drink to do so. Although I do understand that some might need to have a drink or two to do away with the mask they wear in public. Also, before anyone misinterprets my feelings against those who drink - I would like to clearly state that I do not believe that not drinking makes us any better than those who do, or for that matter it does not give a religious high-ground or make us immortals. However, there are some studies which do say that drinking makes you a little more mortal but here I would give the freedom of choice to the reader to accept or discard such theories as per his/her convenience. :-) 

What I would like to see is more open acceptance of the fact there are people who do not drink even in this “modern” age and they be spared of the volley of questions to figure out the reason they do not. Of course, if you adopt a stand that is contrary to the majority you should be having a strong mind but here the majority would do the minority a favor by abandoning attempts coaxing to join them.

For those unaware:
Teetotaler – Person who practices complete abstinence from alcoholic beverages.

(with a coffee ;-))