Fiction: The Alcoholic

Jitendra Bhatnagar

- Jitendra Bhatnagar


Sudhir entered the Milky Way and headed for the corner table expecting to find Vijay, Iqbal and Ajay – the other three members of the Group of Four or ‘4G’, as they liked to call themselves. They met at the Milky Way at seven every evening and the corner table was their domain for the next couple of hours. Sudhir did not see his friends. Instead, he saw a wizened old man occupying the table, a glass of whisky in front of him. ‘The Milky Way’ was a misnomer. It had nothing to do with milk. It was a bar, though not of a particularly high standard.

Sudhir raised a questioning eyebrow at the bartender who shrugged his helplessness. Sudhir advanced to the corner table and asked, “May I join you, sir?”
“Be my guest.” Said the old man, with an expansive gesture of his hand.

‘The old man has a lot of gumption to make me feel a guest at my own table’, thought Sudhir.
Thanking the old man, he sat down and discreetly sized the man up. A thinning mop of snow-white hair adorned his head. A pair of thick horn-rimmed spectacle sat on his nose. A clean-shaven man, he was dressed in an immaculately tailored pin stripe suit. Sudhir could not see his trousers and shoes but the torso he had observed led him to conclude that those would be equally good. The old man sat with military erectness. He could not be more than sixty, sixty-five at the most, Sudhir thought.

“Were you with the Armed Forces, sir?” Sudhir could not resist asking.

The old man merely smiled in response. It was a mysterious smile. “What can I order for you, son?” He asked.

“Nothing, sir. I will wait for my friends to turn up. Thanks all the same.”

“Do you and your friends come here often?”

“Every evening at seven.”

“Oh! And you occupy this same table every day?”

“Yes sir, I am afraid so.” Replied Sudhir.

“Awfully sorry to have encroached upon your realm, son. I will move to another table.” The old man said and started getting up.

“No, don’t trouble yourself, sir. We will be quite comfortable with you for company, I am sure.”
The other three members of 4G walked in together and were surprised to find their friend in company of an old man. Sudhir introduced his friends. The old man acknowledged them with a nod of his head and a smile. From what the old man divulged about himself, our four friends could gather that he had moved to the neighbourhood recently and led a retired life. He lived alone, enjoyed a drink or two every evening. He hinted that he could be a regular visitor to The Milky Way. The old man did not fail to observe the furtive glances of consternation among his audience.

“Don’t be alarmed, children. I will sit somewhere else and not bother you.” He assured.

“Oh, no, no, sir, no. Please don’t. Your company is welcome.” They lied.

The man merely smiled. That mysterious smile again. The four were intrigued.

In the guise of placing their order, Iqbal rose walked to the bar and asked the bartender, “What is with the old man?”

The bartender again shrugged and said, “I don’t know, sir. Never saw him before. But I can tell you one thing. I have seen many a man drink but not like him. He has been sitting in that corner and drinking since this afternoon.”

“He must be a tank.” Exclaimed Iqbal, placed his order and came back to the table. Their drinks served, Vijay saw the old man’s glass was empty and asked, “What are you drinking, Pops.”
“I will place my own orders, son, thank you. And you can call me Grandpa.”

“Grandpa!!!!” The four exclaimed together. “Surely you are not old enough to be our grandfather.”
“You will be surprised, children.” That mysterious smile again.

Grandpa’s drink arrived. Iqbal casually said, “Grandpa, you should not be drinking so much at your age. It is not good for you, you know.”

Grandpa guffawed. “The bartender must have told you. The sneak.” Growing serious, Grandpa said, “He could be with us today. But he drank himself to death.”

Confused, the four looked at each other. Grandpa seemed to have gone in a trance. The four had to strain their ears to catch what he was muttering.
* * * *

The monsoons have always played havoc in the north Indian plains. But they were particularly severe fifty years ago. Rains would pour for days together turning roads into rivers. One ventured out only if it was absolutely necessary. I was a bachelor then and lived alone in a first-floor room all by myself. Mercifully, the rain had taken a break for a day enabling me to stock enough food to last me a week. It started raining again just as I hit the bed.

Heavy pounding of the door interrupted my beauty sleep. Drowsily I rose rubbing my eyes and opened the door and confronted a raincoat clad figure, a small suitcase in his left hand.

“Yes?” I enquired.

“Don’t you recognise me, bro?” the caller seemed surprised. “I am Raghav, your elder brother’s friend. We met some time ago at your brother’s place in Delhi. Remember?”

“Oh!” I recollected having met a bloke called Raghav at my brother’s place. “Come on in.”

He came in out of the rain and got rid of his raincoat. His face clearly visible, I could recognise him now. He was my brother’s friend Raghav, alright. He told me he was on his way to Dehradun on his bike when the rain overtook him. The raincoat was futile against the downpour and he was soaking wet. Poor visibility made driving difficult forcing him to seek shelter ASAP. Luckily, he recalled that I, his friend’s younger brother lived in the neighbourhood. So here he was. The thought of having to spend the night in company of a comparative stranger was not pleasant but I had no choice. I made makeshift beds on the floor for I, a bachelor, did not have a spare bed.

Raghav did not bother to ask me if he could smoke. He chain-smoked bidis. Soon the room was thick with smoke and the floor littered with bidi ends. I asked him why he smoked so much.

“Because I will drink if I do not smoke.” Raghav replied.

“No. Seriously!” I said incredulously.

“Oh, I mean it. You see, I am an alcoholic.”

The word was new to me. I asked him what was an alcoholic.

There are two kinds of drinkers, my young friend. One, who drink occasionally. They drink moderate amounts of alcohol in company of others. Such people are social drinkers. The other kind keep drinking till they are dead to the world. They crave for more when they are back with the living. It is not their fault. They hate themselves for it when they are in possession of their faculties. They do not drink out of habit. They drink because they have to. They drink because they can’t live without alcohol in their system. They suffer with a disease called, alcoholism. Fortunately, such people constitute a small percentage of society. Unfortunately, I belong to that minority.

It set me thinking. I was still not sure he was not pulling my leg. He had got to be kidding. He assured me he was not and proceeded to tell his tale.
* * * * *

Farmers did not always use pumps for irrigation as they do now, he said. For centuries they had used bullocks till diesel pumps arrived and made bullocks obsolete. I worked for a company marketing diesel pumps. I had a jeep with a diesel pump mounted on it. My job was to go to the villages, meet their pradhans, gather local farmers and demonstrate and promote the product. I was good at it. The bosses were pleased with me and rewarded me with out of turn promotion. I was so happy. Some of my close associates demanded a party and we went pub-hopping. I am from a Brahmin family and had never tasted alcohol in my life. My friends would not take no for an answer and I succumbed to their insistence. My first sip hooked me for life.

It was well past midnight when my friends dropped me home, dead to the world. I was still half dead when I came back to the living world at noon the next day only to find myself lying in my own muck. I had thrown up all over my bed and did not know it. My head was bursting with pain but somehow, I made it to the toilet and cleaned myself as best I could. I was disgusted with myself. How would I face my colleagues in office? What will they think of me? The entire office would be abuzz with my shame. I did not go to office and, like a coward, quietly resumed my touring circuit. It took time to make peace with myself. I convinced myself that it was a momentary weakness and that I was strong enough not to succumb to it again. Little did I know.

It was not long before I was forced to spend a lonely night in a god forsaken town. The hovel of a hotel was a picture of gloom. I thought I would take a drink or two, eat, if I could what the hotel offered and try to sleep.  Before I knew, I had finished a whole bottle and asked for another. I drank and drank and drank.  The next day was a repeat of …... you know what. Only this time I did not feel as bad as I had the first time.

It was not long before I started carrying a bottle in my briefcase. I had to have alcohol in my body all the time or it would not function. Things were not looking good but I was managing. Then came the day when I met the pradhan of a village and asked him to arrange a demo. He gave me a funny look. I asked him what was bugging him.

“You were here only yesterday sahib.” He said.

“Really! You are mistaken. This is the first time I have come to this village.” I responded and returned the look.

The pradhan said he was not mistaken and insisted that I had already demonstrated the product. The pradhan and I were still at it when a young stranger stopped, gave me a surprised look and said, “Aray, Raghav sahib, you again! Did you forget something yesterday?”

This shook me. What shook me even more was that many other people knew me and asked me what I was doing there when I had already visited the previous day. “Was it possible?” I asked myself. “Did I really visit the village a day before? So many people could not be wrong. If I did visit, how could I forget it?” I racked my brain to recollect some happening of the visit. Not a trace! All memories of the previous day were blacked out of my mind. I drove back to my town hotel in a daze and settled down with a bottle of whisky to try and reconstruct the lost day. No go. I could not remember anything. Could I have lost my mind? I was not sure. I tried to continue my work as best as I could. It was obviously not good enough. I was summoned to head office once again. Not for a promotion this time. The boss lecture me about how I had fouled the company’s name by my disgraceful conduct, being drunk all the time. I tried to protest but he had received complaints from hotels where I had created a mess. The boss asked for my resignation and advised me to go to a rehabilitation centre.
Music was my hobby when I was a student. I was rather good at vocal music. I had learnt singing at Bhatkhande which came in handy after my release from rehabilitation centre. I got a job as a music teacher in a public school. I have been off drinks for years now but alcoholism is, and will remain, my problem as long as I live. There is no such thing as a cured alcoholic, my young friend. I cannot, and must not, touch alcohol ever again. If I do, I will go back to being an alcoholic. Are you aware that there is an organisation called ‘Alcoholic Anonymous’? We alcoholics are encouraged to meet and relate our experiences. We strengthen our resolve by shaming ourselves in public. I do hope I remain strong for the remainder of life.
*****

“He left me the next morning,” Grandpa said,” and I did not see him again for a couple of decades. I don’t know how he found me but one evening he came to my house. A bedraggled man in shambles, I was not able to recognise him. He had to introduced himself to be recognised. He came up with a sob story and begged me for a loan of one hundred rupees. I had no choice but to lend him the paltry sum. He was such a pathetic figure.

“The next day’s newspaper carried a story of a man found dead in a road side drain, left hand clutching tightly a bottle of country liquor. From the papers in his pockets he was identified as Raghav.”

2 comments :

  1. Very interesting and gripping story. Smooth reading. Couldn't put down till the end.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very interesting and gripping story. Couldn't put down till I reached the end.

    ReplyDelete

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