I hadn’t actually planned on getting drunk that day. But the events of the week made it a somewhat inevitable occurrence. Vijay and Ashutosh, my friends and classmates, hadn’t had the best of review tests. Meanwhile, my fight with my flatmates Akhil, Harsh and Piyush had escalated to new levels.
It wasn’t my fault. At least, that’s how I saw it, and still do. Piyush was a philanderer, something that I found revolting, but that wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. I sure did respect his charisma, in a twisted way. He knew what words to spin and how, and could get any girl weak at her knees.
However, he was also an abuser. I’m sure his escapades with the female housemate who had recently moved downstairs must have left clues for his girlfriend to find out. He would regularly abuse his girlfriend for questioning him, and accuse her of cheating instead. Even now, I sometimes wonder if he was a sociopath.
The night before, when I was just heading off to sleep, I received a call from Neha.
“Heyyyy”, I groggily asked.
“Can you ask Piyush to talk to me? I haven’t talked to him in two hours and I’ll kill myself if I don’t talk to him! I really really love him and I can’t live without him. He is really angry at me and has told me he wants to break up with me and he screamed at me in the evening,” she slurred. She seemed to have been sobbing for some time now, and desperation was the overpowering sentiment.
I was dumbstruck. “What?”, was all I could muster.
“He is not talking to me. I will slit my wrists, and write his name on the wall. I can’t live without him.” She continued to repeat garbled variations of this sentence as I lay frozen and whispered, “It’ll be okay.” I’m still not sure who I was saying that to.
After two minutes of shocked paralysis, I sprung into action, threw open my door, and barged towards Piyush’s, all the while trying to calm her down – or maybe myself. I banged the door repeatedly and screamed, “Piyush! This is your problem, you take care of it!” He opened the door and, to my extreme frustration, just stood there, looking at me as if he was clueless.
“Neha, please don’t call on this number again. Piyush will take your call right now,” I slammed my phone and looked at Piyush expectantly. He beamed a gleeful smile back at me before taking the call and closing the door on me.
What led me to question my sanity was the fact that my other flatmates behaved normally with him after this incident. I, on the other hand, just had no words for him after that. I would think of Neha sometimes, and wonder why she would want be in such an abusive relationship.
Anyways, Vijay and Ashutosh, both were mates in school back home, just like Akhil and Harsh. Ashutosh was a senior, but he dropped a year. The three of us were brought closer by various things that were happening in our surroundings. At some point in the course of our conversations we decided that it was time to start drinking. Ashutosh, the most experienced of the three of us, decided that we needed to relax at a bar and have our first beers. So we haggled with the autowallahs and sped off to our destination.
Vijay was dealing with his exam woes while Ashutosh was having his own issues with studies. I’m not sure what I was doing then – I had been acing tests without really attending classes.
Kota is also plagued by an institutional caste system among the students, though not on religious or regional lines. It was formulated by the coaching centres to push students to do “better”. Students would be allocated batches and teachers according to their ranks.
The top batches were akin to the brahmins, while the lowest batches were treated akin to the untouchables, considered to be good for nothing, the sinners, the smokers, the drinkers, the gamers and the womanizers, even when they really were some of the most brilliant people I knew. I had seen every imaginable talent, from dancing to singing; from writing to debating; interests in topics ranging from economics to social work. Yet they were unlucky; they lacked the the knack of seeing mathematical patterns that the JEE wanted. Although some of the people in top batches had seemingly normal lives, they were the exceptions, not the norm. It seemed to me that the norm in the top batches was to be a studious robot who had finished the course twice before enrolling. The people in the not-top batches, who were not as prepared, were destroyed by their insecurities as they tried to climb up this insidious social ladder. I was in a top batch, mostly through good pattern recognition skills and strategy, and managed to scrape a place on this ladder and stay afloat.
Many would give up midway through the ordeal. Some, being unable to withstand it, would try to escape, and even death seemed like an escape to an unfortunate minority. Some more would see through the false aura of life at IITs that emanated from every aspect of this town, the facade of this billion dollar industry, and dream of a more normal life. A minority of them would buy the dream, work for it and do well. Others would get sucked into vices of various kinds, and it wasn’t as if I wasn’t up for those vices either, as I would discover after stepping inside Chanda Bar.
The bar wasn’t the most tasteful of places. It was lit with garish pink lights, and its bluish-purple plastered walls were adorned with posters of scantily clad models. I knew about Kingfisher beer, but the Budweisers and the Heinekens looked interestingly appetizing. Also on display were bottles of Smirnoff vodka and Black Dog whiskey, which I was wary of.
The tables were dirty and stained with god-knows-what, hogged by people who couldn’t care less about what was around them. They seemed to have been there since eternity, drinking away their problems. Their eyes, fixated on something far away from this dingy place, seemed like a bad omen. Others were talking loudly and crassly to each other. The bar didn’t seem like the friendliest of places, unlike what we were used to seeing in American TV shows. Not that I was expecting a McLaren’s a la How I Met Your Mother, but a guy can dream about his first drink being at a respectable joint, rather than some dingy bar. Nobody dreams of losing their virginity to a prostitute. However, it was the only bar we knew about; the other option was to buy drinks from the wine shop.
Vijay didn’t seem very comfortable with the place either. Ashutosh, the occasional drinker, was at ease though, and ordered Budweiser for us. “Foster’s is stronger, Buds will suit you guys well”, he explained as he suavely asked the waiter to get our drinks and accompaniments.
It was eerily similar to our usual outings, except for the drinks. We’d usually meet around 7, wander towards the mess and spontaneously decide to get something nicer to eat. Bankrolled by our parent’s monies and hopes, we’d be off in search of the day’s variety to be bought from the small selection of restaurants and large selection of street food Kota had to offer. The kulchas from the roadside seller, in front of Allen coaching center, were our firm favorite. Also well etched in our minds was the cold coffee from a nearby joint. We’d usually walk back, smoking a cigarette or two, and reach our places just around 10, when our landlords would lock up their homes. The cigarettes helped calm our nerves and concentrate as we tried to grapple with our fast and transient lives.
We usually talked about Kota and studies. Sometimes we talked about acquaintances who were living nearby, other times about some girl one of us was crushing on – things one would expect from 17-year-olds.
For instance, our hot topic for about a fortnight was the girl who lived in front of Ashutosh’s house. We caught glimpses of her throughout the summer, but we never got to know what her name was. She looked pale and her hair was brown. She had slender arms and a round face. Ashutosh found her to be pretty cute, but me and Vijay weren’t into her. Apparently, there were two guys that would come and get her flowers and the girl would occasionally smile and flirt back. On one fateful day, they saw each other and went berserk. The fight reached the road in front of Ashutosh’s house, from where he had a view akin to that from a watchtower. The police was called to separate them. To add more spice, the next day, a third guy climbed the pipes to her room around 11pm and left around 5am. Ashutosh wasn’t the happiest witness, but what could he do anyways? He was the hapless neighbor spying on the girl next door.
“Bhaiya! Here are your Budweisers and Paneer Tikka!”, the waiter laid out the dishes in front of us.
“Somik, this is it. Your first drink,” I thought to myself as I exchanged reluctant smiles with my comrades. I hadn’t really made up my mind about drinking till then. My family had already furthered the “normal” Indian tradition of not discussing taboo issues, so it wasn’t as if I’d get any inputs from them other than a lecture about how it was a bad thing to indulge in.
It seemed like an iconic moment in my life. A moment that I might recall years later, having ruined my life. I thought of the good life that I might be throwing away. The sanskaari idea of a good boy played in my head. In my sinful stories, I was usually a spectator to the madness around me. Would I be creating my own from now on? I took a swill expectantly.
Pungent. Bitter. Yuck. I knew it wasn’t supposed to taste very good, but it sure was unlike anything I had ever had. I looked at Vijay, who seemed to share my concerns. I was afraid to ask Ashutosh if something was wrong with my beer. I was afraid of looking stupid. Vijay’s face had a similar expression. Both of us sipped it quietly. Ashutosh, however, seemed to be enjoying his beer. I wondered, “How in the name of god?!”
We then started chatting and I started savoring the tikkas while drinking my first pint. A second pint followed the first. Then came the third, and so on. Somehow, I stopped minding the taste of the beer and the garish scenes started fusing with the loud music to create a surprisingly nice cocoon around me. I felt a little loose, and a burden seemed to leave me behind. It was unexpected. I was almost never tense, but a voice at the back of my head would nag me like I was about to do something wrong all the damn time. It seemed to have quietened down inside my cocoon, and I couldn’t seem to care enough.
“1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… 7…”, I slurred, counting the fan’s rotations as I lay on my bed. We reached home after having more than a couple of beers. The ceiling fan seemed still, and it felt like I was the one swirling. Despite the occasional nauseating feeling, I actually started to enjoy the rhythm, and the imagery in my head seemed to prance and dance. I don’t know when I closed my eyes. It could have been an hour, but it could just as easily have been two minutes. I had lost all sense of time. It was the best sleep I’d had in months.