A poet remembers: Drinking in Goa and why alcohol is a false god

[Book extract] It is just another intoxicant that in the end leaves you high but dry, and ultimately, out in the cold.

 |  14-minute read |   04-06-2016
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"Ankur" means seedling in Hindi and true to its name, it was the first restaurant established by my late maternal uncle, back in 1941.

Since then he set up or ran several more, both in the Fort area of Bombay and in the suburbs. Before it was rechristened as Ankur with a bar or "permit room", as such places were then known, it was a popular Udipi-style outlet known as New Welcome which catered to the hundreds of office-goers in the area, especially during lunch time.

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It was so popular that it issued monthly lunch coupons to its regular customers. Oldtimers in Tamarind Lane — rechristened now as MP Shetty Marg, after my uncle — and the surrounding areas still remember the place with more than a hint of nostalgia for its excellent and modestly priced food.

Many of them were perhaps not too happy when it changed to its new avatar as a swanky, air-conditioned bar in the early eighties — a bar which curiously only served vegetarian food.

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My uncle by then had turned to his sons to carry the business forward. The younger generation saw little sense in continuing to dish out the same old fare with small profit margins in a highly competitive and labour-intensive business.

A permit room was the way forward and the vegetarian menu, which many were skeptical of, actually made sound business sense.

There was no other similar outlet in the area and more pertinently, the Bombay Stock Exchange was close by, teeming with Gujarati stockbrokers and speculators who were predominantly vegetarian.

After all that hoarse shouting in that tension-packed bear and bull ring, they needed to unwind with a drink or two and some wholesome vegetarian food. As a veteran stockbroker once put it to me: "Both ways you win: if we make a windfall we come here to celebrate; if we lose a fortune we come here to drown our sorrows."

There were also a few other regulars who quaffed a bewildering variety of "Doctor’s brandies" on medical advice.

Like those share bazaar brokers, I embarked on my brief twoyear career at Ankur with purely mercenary motives—to become a partner in the business, make a killing, and marry my ladylove who just happened to be from another community. But my gamble didn’t quite come off.

My extended family rightly didn’t see me as an astute businessman nor someone who would for purely pragmatic reasons marry a girl from my own community.

With my long hair and somewhat unconventional attire, I was at best a bit player in their grand designs. I hung in there for two years, but no miracle happened.

Indeed what happened was quite the contrary. I began to drink. Not that I was a stranger to Peter Scot or Hercules, but it was at Ankur with the bar literally within reach, that I became a serious drinker.

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The long hours only compounded the habit. The peak crowd would usually thin out by around ten at night as most of the clientele lived in the distant suburbs.

Incidentally, the paanwala outside did brisk business as almost every customer picked up a fragrant Banarasi to disguise the unmistakable aroma of hard liquor.

No one, it seemed, had enlightened them on the impossibility of camouflaging the smell.

If some crafty distiller were to invent odourless booze, I’m sure the sales graph would resemble vertical lightning.

I had, as someone who managed the show, to stay on at least till midnight when the restaurant closed, to check the accounts. As often happens in such bars, customers would troop in just before closing time.

The "last order" before the bar counter closed would invariably be a clutch of three or more large pegs, lingered over garrulously till well past midnight when the swaying customers would be politely ushered out.

During these hours of utter boredom, I usually planted myself behind the dumbwaiter, quietly sipping on my fourth or fifth whisky.

This became my daily routine before I took my regular taxi back to my home in the suburbs. If the customers lingered on longer, my  own intake rose to a sixth drink or more, usually progressing from "small" (30 ml) to "large" (60 ml).

I was never a sporadic binge drinker, never the life of the party, but always nursing my drink in a quiet, unobtrusive corner. The government-ordained "dry days" were often a nuisance but such days only served to intensify the regulars’ thirst for alcohol and liquor was served to select customers under the guise of "soft drinks".

Indeed, on such days excise officials themselves whose duty it was to enforce abstinence were regular freeloaders, quite happy to drink whisky mixed with colas.

Looking back, I doubt it was the easily accessible free drinks — part of the perks — that contributed to my burgeoning addiction.

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It was akin to a second nature within me to drink, and in any case I often bought my own liquor on Sundays which was supplemented by new and free sample brands given to me for promotion at Ankur.

People find it somewhat novel that an aspiring poet should run a bar, and in the biographical notes in anthologies that feature my work, this fact is often highlighted.

But it was actually nothing more than a purely mercenary sidelight — with noble intentions of course. And indeed several poets have led far more interesting parallel lives.

Ted Hughes, for instance, was once a night watchman.

And in the The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry which covers about 1,500 poets, the editor Ian Hamilton remarks that among the "zany professions" some were involved in were that of "lumberjack, tax inspector, furniture remover, carpet salesman, and policeman".

One poet was even an international hockey player and nineteen of them had served time in prison. Rather surprisingly, only fifteen of them "were diagnosed as alcoholic".

Out of 1,500 poets, this to me is not a credible figure, and the operative word is "diagnosed".

There would surely have been dozens more, who like most seasoned tipplers, would hardly allow themselves to be officially "diagnosed" as alcoholics.

Self-delusion and denial are the hallmarks of a habitual drinker’s psyche.

My plans thwarted, in 1984 I left Bombay for a job in Bangalore, but not before a fellow dipso presented me with a book inscribed with the following ditty:

"I drink to your health when we’re together /I drink to your health when I’m alone / I drink to your health so damn often / I’ve almost ruined my own."

My health was the last thing on my mind when I worked for two years for a Sunday evening tabloid in Bangalore.

As a chief sub, my duties involved late-night editing and ensuring that both the "dak" mofussil edition on Thursday distributed to the small, surrounding towns and the main city edition on Sundays met their deadlines.

The press was at some distance from the city and its main priority was printing an Urdu newspaper.

The printing of my paper could only be taken up long after midnight. The proof-reading was a little tricky as I had to check the main headlines right to left as the printer found it too cumbersome to change the process from the Urdu formatting.

I remember a particular edition well, the day when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. The urgent edition very nearly went to press with the 60-point typeset headline "PM SHOT DEAD" reading DAED TOHS MP, almost getting past my bleary eyes which were no doubt shot red too with the Hercules rum which was my constant companion.

After the editions went to print, I would sit on the crumbling steps of the press alone, nursing that companion till the first rickshaw sputtered into view usually just before dawn.

There was not much of a market for a Sunday evening paper in Bangalore and soon after it closed down, I moved lock, stock and barrel (no pun intended) to Goa.

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As all tourists know there is no, or a minimal excise, tax in Goa and liquor is sold at roughly a little more than half the price prevalent in the rest of the country. But I was not led there by the availability of cheap booze.

My motives were far more wholesome — to have a home of my own and start a family. I did of course continue to drink, quite steadily, every night after work. What made my drinking habit imperceptible and almost anonymous to others was that I never drank during the day, only at night after eight or so till around midnight.

Three-quarters of a bottle or three nips a day — and a drop more — was for me quite regular. I envy people who refuse a drink after their quota of two "small". For me that would only be the kick-off point, the appetizer leading to the main course.

After the fifth large, when inhibitions are down and garrulity takes over, the intake is usually more rapid, one "repeat" following the next and if you have run out of your particular brand, so be it.

After half-a-dozen large drinks, the brand takes a toss and there’s little difference between the desi Diplomat and Chivas Regal though, curiously in Bombay, even before I joined Ankur, I never developed a taste for the country liquor "aunty" joints in the Dhobi Talao area and, in fact, even in the floor above Ankur from where at night customers tumbled down the stairs.

In Goa I did, though aficionados here will jump at your throat if you lower cashew or coconut feni to that crude country level.

Put off by its naturally sickly and fruity odour, it took me two years before I was drowned by the lure of cashew feni. And for the next twenty-odd years, I drank nothing else.

I stopped fooling myself buying two or usually three full bottles of IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor) every week with their delusional, macho labels like Officer’s Choice or Black Knight or the occasional Johnnie Walker.

It was cashew feni distilled from fermented cashew fruit with all its sweetish reek and nothing else.

And bought wholesale from a regular supplier from Colvale who, on his motorcycle, home-delivered twenty litres at a time in a plastic jerry can.

Initially for storage I used a garafão, a traditional, large, curved and bulbous bottle wrapped in a crisscross coir design.

But one night the garafão slipped from my hands and broke. (The horror! The horror!) My distiller and supplier, Mahableshwar, a short, stocky man with a white moustache, would then fill twenty bottles in the kitchen sink from the jerry can.

I dreaded the days when he came to refill my stock as the entire house reeked of feni.

Indeed after bouts of heavy drinking, even after several hours, its smell poured forth from the very pores of your skin. But at less than Rs 30 a bottle, it was worth the olfactory intrusion into domesticity and the dark, glowering looks all around.

During work, not many people actually knew of my abundant intake.

In terms of tippling, I was a day scholar: studious and industrious by day, and something of a brooding villain after sunset, though I never got into brawls, brandishing a menacing knife, swaying, with bloodshot eyes.

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But intoxication was part of my intrinsic mental make-up though I’ve never understood the romantic notion of alcohol as a palliative to a broken heart, as exemplified in some old Hindi movies.

I was also not unfamiliar with the hash-addas of Churchgate and Colaba. After a few drinks I often made my way to these joints, trying to attain some outlandish acme of nirvana.

(The difference between booze and grass: booze aggravates, grass accentuates).

Alcohol may be a timetested icebreaker, but it’s also the quickest way to a fool’s paradise, even if the next morning, the tongue turned dry as tanned leather, serves as a reminder of the previous night’s folly.

An endangered liver may be the last thing on a seasoned drinker’s mind, but I feel a little concerned when I see people quaffing liquor neat or on the rocks.

Some drinkers even surreptitiously put down a whole pint within minutes to escape detection. I never drank in that perilous manner, but always with the peg topped with water to the brim in a tall glass. And always accompanied by a meal or snacks.

But the problem with booze is that the higher you are, the higher you want to go.

Once you have conquered the lowly Alps, you want to conquer Mt Everest.

Why poets drink

I’m often asked if liquor is conducive to the writing of poetry.

My straight answer is no. Drinking offers no profound insights into the mysteries of the universe or the soul. Booze is not some mindexpanding drug, leading to super-consciousness.

It makes you less inhibited, but is of no help in exploring the dark (or radiant) recesses of the mind.

I’ve often written what I perceived to be brilliant, original lines under the heavy and heady influence of liquor, only to find the most banal scribblings the next morning with, if I’m lucky, not more than a line salvageable.

For me at least booze was a false god. Its physical intoxication was a path to bravado and little else.

This is of course not a golden rule for all poets. Perhaps poets like Dylan Thomas and many others found inspiration in drink.

But what is a magic potion for one may be poison to another, as it eventually proved to be with Thomas.

I cannot deny that liquor helped me socially in opening out from my normal morose, withdrawn self and that there is much to be said for sociability and good fellowship.

But it provided no revelatory spark to set off a sheaf of poems. Indeed quite the contrary happened.

After I gave up serious drinking, my output burgeoned manifold. From 1994 to 2010, I produced no book of poems, only a few scattered ones still confined to my notebooks.

Since 2010, after I gave up heavy drinking, to the present time, I have published three full-length books, with another in the hands of a reputed publisher, each one quite substantial at least in terms of the number of poems in them. I cannot obviously vouch for their quality.

That I leave to readers and critics. But the fact is I was soberly alive to grab those moments of lucidity with alacrity which otherwise would have been lost to the fumes of alcohol.

The battle with booze is, however, never over. It is an ongoing conflict. Alcoholics need their "quota" just as intensely as a junkie needs his fix. Perhaps excessive boozing has coarsened my taste, but I’ve never fathomed how people can get high on beer or wine—whatever the vintage or "bouquet".

To me, they are poor substitutes for hard liquor. Occasionally, especially at weddings or parties, I still find myself slipping up.

When I do, I feel deeply ashamed of myself, of my lack of will and of my infinite capacity for self-indulgence.

I remind myself that I have vanquished the habit once and can do so again, despite the passing years.

I know for certain that I will not again become the daily three-quarter-bottle (and the occasional full bottle) man again.

There are those who say to break this habit, you need the support of people around you, your family and friends, of organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous which no doubt does good work.

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But I’ve never had the humility to go to an AA meeting.

My mind has never functioned in that fashion, of seeking a remedy outside for my own misdeeds.

Indeed the more a boozer is harangued and chastised, the more he will drink.

My best defense is that I know all too well that the worst form of deception is self-deception.

Booze is possibly an ally for our soldiers in the extreme cold of our borders in the mountains.

But here, in the pleasant environs of Goa, it is neither an ally nor your enemy.

It is just another intoxicant that in the end leaves you high but dry, and ultimately, out in the cold.

(Excerpted with publisher's permission.)


Manohar Shetty Manohar Shetty

Goa-based poet; Sahitya Akademi fellow. He has edited Ferry Crossing: Short Stories from Goa (Penguin India) and Goa Travels: Being the Accounts of Travellers to Goa from the 16th to the 20th Century (Rupa). He has lived in Goa since 1985.

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