The writer and the tipple

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on May 15, 2020

All for a sip: People violate social distancing norms in front of a liquor store in New Delhi   -  PTI/ MANVENDER VASHIST

The Covid-19 lockdown has brought about a new desperation around the drink

Indians are addicted to the quaintest words in the English language. Take ‘thrice’. Across the English-speaking world, the usage of ‘thrice’ raises eyebrows. “Wait a minute,” says the native English speaker. “What did you just say?”

Another word that’s in currency here is “tippler”. During the lockdown we’ve been inundated with headlines about tipplers: “Tipplers tackle acute withdrawal symptoms”, “Tipplers on edge as lockdown tests will power” and “Kolkata tipplers pay hefty overcharge to buy liquor in black”. No country that houses native English speakers has felt the need to use the word. The tippler, in modern usage, refers to “a variety of pigeon bred mainly for flying”. There are cooler words for human tipplers: Boozehound, toper, lush, sot. But, given that the Hindi press prefers to use the word ‘addict’ for drinkers, one must not complain. Tippler is fine.

The writing world is divided into the tippler and the non-tippler writer. The tippler writer exists to make the non-tippler writer feel good about herself. “Thank god, I didn’t go down that road.” Pity works like a goad for the non-tippler writer. The more pity she feels for the boozehound writer, the more her output. The former, meanwhile, is convinced of the exceptional powers of the third eye: “I have a deeper insight into the human condition. I am not a sell-out.” The lockdown turned this relationship upside down. The non-tippler writers began showing off their well-stocked bars and asking the lush writers how they were doing. The lush writers know why non-sot writers have bars: They don’t drink. A non-tippler writer once opened a bottle of Baileys for me in pre-lockdown times. It had languished in the bar for so long that it had curdled into flavoured yoghurt.

The lockdown hit tippler writers hard; it’s an opening from the Lucia Berlin story Unmanageable: “In the deep dark night of the soul the liquor stores and bars are closed. She reached under the mattress; the pint bottle of vodka was empty.” Berlin’s story is about surviving the night, for at “6, in two hours, the Uptown liquor store would sell her some vodka. In Berkeley you had to wait until 7.” During the lockdown, the deep dark night of the soul has lasted 40 days and, in many parts of the country, it continues.

The day the lockdown was relaxed, I drove around town. I was told there’d been long queues and baton charges. In the evening, a tippler writer told me there was no way he was going to stand in queues because it would be bad optics for his literary career. He didn’t want to be seen and judged. Not burdened by such bourgeois worries, I was back at the liquor store the next day.

The booze queue is a train. One finds a vend with the shortest train; attaching your bogey to the longest train in India would be foolish. Since one hasn’t spoken to real human beings the past few weeks, only disembodied voices, everybody feels chatty. The tipplers in queue are going on about how they survived the lockdown without a single drink, no sweat. I float the theory that tipplers can overcome evening craving by advancing dinner time. Everyone agrees; the ice is broken. The train is moving too quickly and I’m suspicious. Turns out people haven’t been standing in their little circles painted on the road. A cop comes charging and the bogeys crash into each other. The queue regroups quickly, each tippler castigating the other. A bus hurtles down the main road, the cleaner screaming out a social service announcement: “The vend up the road has shorter queues.”

After a discussion we decide to stay put in our slots. An intruder decides to enter the queue mid-way with the oldest excuse in the book: He’d been standing in the queue since morning and taken a break to buy medicines. He’s promptly sent to the back. My bogey has almost pulled into the designated platform, when I realise the shop is not accepting cards. A smiling goggled policeman provides the healing touch: “I’ll keep your slot”, and points out an ATM.

A word about Indian ‘bootleggers’ who do the word no justice. ‘Hustler’ is more like it. One hustler I knew asked me to get him a bottle when he realised I was standing in line. I cut the call.

Indian bootleggers have proved themselves utterly useless during the lockdown, a far cry from the efficient classy bootleggers of Mississippi, whom Eudora Welty’s biographer Anne Waldron wrote about in Eudora Welty: A Writer’s Life: “To avoid arrest, the bootlegger kept moving his place of business. Once when Eudora went over to buy bourbon, she saw a little black boy sitting on the bridge reading Time magazine. Left there to guide people to the new headquarters, he did not look up from the page when the car approached, but raised his arm and pointed her in the right direction. Going to the bootlegger was exciting; no one really wanted things to change.”

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BUSINESS LINE


Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

Published on May 15, 2020

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