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Teetotal recall

Depending on your disposition and on the drunken company you may have witnessed, if not kept, at some point of your formative life, you either find the effects of drinking attractive or you do not. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Dec 25, 2011 00:15 IST
Indrajit Hazra

It’s Christmas. And what could be a better time to talk about teetotalers than the day after Christmas eve? (Well, if you say Gandhi Jayanti, you have a point. But who’s side are you on?) The cult of teetotalism has its origins in watching or being in the company of the inebriated. Ironically, so is the origins of drinking alcohol. Depending on your disposition and on the drunken company you may have witnessed, if not kept, at some point of your formative life, you either find the effects of drinking attractive or you do not.

While no rigorous study has been conducted to ascertain who is a happy, attractive drunk and who is a foul, despicable drunkard, it can be safely said that despite the bad rep drinking has, it brings pleasure to the drinker that is denied to the non-drinker. The problem, of course, is the effects of excessive drinking. While poets and writers and singers and bankers have managed to cover their tracks by using their poetry, writing, songs and banking skills to make society at large excuse them for their ethyl alcohol-fuelled behaviour (‘He’s a drunkard, but then, he’s a poet!’), for those lacking the skills required to get away with being a heavy drinker, only castigation awaits. The funny bit is that to use the example of drunks lying in the gutters or smashing up the furniture as a warning against drink is like using the example of the two planes that were made to crash into the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, and pointing out the extreme dangers of flying.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not extolling the joys of getting pissed (not here, at any rate). I’m simply questioning the teetotaler’s notion of the world being divided into alcoholics and abstainers and nothing in between. Teetotalling for health reasons, of course, is understandable — by which I mean abstaining because of a medical condition like a busted liver, not because of prolonging one’s longevity or some other deeply narcissistic motive. As for religious regulations, like the case with all laws and rules, some faiths insist on abstinence for the same reasons that many bosses or parents-in-law frown on employees or children-in-law drinking: the possibility of ‘overdrinking’ leading to embarrassment and temporary floutings of hierarchy.

The effects of excessive drinking have been dutifully noted in all cultures, including those that celebrate drinking. Its after-effects have even been noted by one of the most keenly self-observing drunk of all, writer-drinker Kingsley Amis. In his novel Lucky Jim he decodes the essence of a hangover: “The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.” It’s too early for me as I write this to confirm his description, but going by the ‘last time’, I would think he’s put it down pat.

But despite the after-effects of excessive drinking that include the feeling of two midgets sitting on one’s face, two things stand out: the joy of drinking outweighs the sufferings of the ‘day after’; and that I’ve fallen for the teetotaler’s argument of all drinking being or leading up to a binge. Instead, let me swing the focus back to the dangers of teetotalism.

Life, barring the occasional ruptures, is boring. And the teetotaler, equipped with his incredible arsenal of self-righteousness, thinks otherwise — or worse, thinks everyone else is wrong about life. (The horror of a gentleman once announcing that he didn’t need to drink as he was “high on life” has left deep and lasting scars in my psyche.) As a result, in an evening of merriment the teetotaler is guaranteed to be boring while the drinking lot at least try and re-arrange the real world. Although, I must add lest you think I make scintillating company, all teetotalers are boring; but not all boring people are teetotalers.

Teetotalling is also about despising raucous laughter. In-built in the practice of refusing to let alcohol enter one’s blood stream and thereby lower one’s inhibitions, there is the hankering for control. While Stalin and Mao did fine with their vodkas and maitais, there is a correlation one can detect in teetotalling and totalitarianism hitched to cultural-religious mores.

But perhaps most perversely, teetotalling’s biggest bane is that it encourages others — especially the young — to make drinking and drunkenness the same thing, with the result of someone without elders or peers who enjoy a drink or two to take the cue from resorting to glugging. So teetotalers are really responsible for encouraging drunkenness. There, I said it.

Have a merry Christmas everyone, and cheers to you, Atalji, on your 87th birthday.