It was early last year I think, that as I read a book called Economy and Food in Ancient India as part of my research for a story on vegetarianism, I found myself giggling.
The book wasn’t funny. It was serious research into our eating and drinking habits from the Paleolithic age to 1200 AD. But it was obvious that the author, Om Prakash, a retired lecturer from a Delhi college, had to swallow quantities of bile when he wrote the section on ‘intoxicating beverages’ in every chapter from the Vedic period onward.
Dr Om Prakash made it clear that he thought alcohol was a bad thing. Yet, every chapter had a section on ‘intoxicating beverages’ because, as he learned, there were a lot of intoxicating beverages in ancient India. And everybody drank them, including women. Sita’s own favourite drink, Dr Om Prakash found, was maireya, a kind of sura that was also served to guests at weddings. And in the early Buddhist and Jain works, “taverns and drinking shops are frequently mentioned” and
“from the Jatakas we learn that even women and hermits drank hard on some occasions”.
Dr Om Prakash probably hated having to write all this. But he did his job well. He researched eating and drinking habits in ancient India, and he recorded the results of that research whether he liked what he learned or not.
I like this man, I thought, as I set down my now-empty mug of beer at the pub where I was reading and waved to the waiter to get me another. Given where I was and what I was doing, Om Prakash may not like me, but I like him because though he made his position clear, he didn’t let his personal feelings lead him to rewrite history.
I also like the pub I was at. It’s one of my favourite places to hang out. I usually go there once a week after work to meet friends, enjoy a couple of pitchers of beer, sing along with the music and indulge in completely pointless but very satisfying adda-baazi in which my friends and I do intellectual calisthenics and sort out all the problems afflicting India and the world.
It’s all pleasantly inconsequential and harmless. If there is any harm involved, it’s to my liver. I enjoy the slight buzz I get from the beer, I enjoy the music, the conversation and the arguments, and then I go home.
Tonight though, my adda-baazi at the pub will revive an old argument between the women and the men. Women, I’ve always said, even if they belong to the majority religious community, the majority regional community and the majority linguistic community all at once — i.e., even if everything is correct — know exactly how it feels be part of a minority. Because women happen to be women, other people — usually men — believe they are the ‘other’ and should live up to standards set by other people (usually men), however irrational, unjust or hypocritical these standards might be.
Whenever I’ve said this, however, the men at the table have refused to agree. I’m exaggerating, they say. Well, the Mangalore pub incident should make a point on my behalf. Women who enjoy a drink, the Shri Ram Sena says, should be beaten up and molested, because women aren’t supposed to drink. It’s against our culture.
I don’t know what culture they’re talking about, because history shows us that women have always enjoyed a drink or six.
But if it’s a culture that supports mobs beating up and molesting people just because they disapprove of what those people do, I’m glad I’ll be at the pub tonight, opposing our culture.