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Reasons for drinking

Excerpt from Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih's debut novel Funeral Nights

‘Okay, okay, that should be enough,’ Bah Kynsai cut in. ‘We have already discussed the issue twice, na? It’s time to move on—’
But Dale said, ‘Wait, Bah Kynsai. Before we move on, I want to know why Daju was hit by the car. Was he drunk or something?’
‘You bloody chauvinist!’ Bah Kynsai said good-humouredly. ‘Just because you are a driver, you think the fault is always that of the pedestrian, sala? If you ask me, na, it must be the driver who was drunk!’
‘No, no, no, that’s unfair, Bah Kynsai,’ Dale protested. ‘I never drink at all, and I certainly would never drink and drive—’
‘I always do. I take my quota in a restaurant at Jhalupara at about 7 p.m. and drive home from there. And nobody ever stops me.’
‘That’s because you were not drunk when driving, Bah Kynsai,’ Raji said. ‘Nowadays, they have started checking—’
‘Nonsense!’ Bah Kynsai pooh-poohed the idea. ‘How many drunken drivers have the police ever arrested? If there’s such a thing as a check on drunken driving, na, almost half the male population would have been arrested.’
‘Half the male population?’ Donald asked.
‘Of course! In a society where 50 or 60 per cent of the male population drink themselves to death by the age of forty-four or forty-five, don’t you think—’
‘I get it, I get it,’ Donald said quickly. ‘But why do you think there’s so much drunkenness in Khasi society?’
‘That’s what I’ve always wanted to talk about—’
‘You have already talked about it, Ning,’ Bah Kit interrupted, ‘and you blamed the matrilineal system for it, remember?’
‘Well, if you don’t think the matrilineal system is the cause, then what is?’ Evening challenged.
‘Nobody has done any research on the subject, Ning,’ Bah Su said. ‘We can only speculate.’
‘No, no,’ Evening insisted, ‘when a man—’
I did not want the discussion to veer towards the matrilineal system again, so I said, ‘Wait, Ning, wait, I have a story called “Reasons for Drinking”.’
‘Good, good,’ Bah Kynsai enthused. ‘Now we are getting somewhere, na? Chalo, chalo, Ap.’
It is an undisputed fact that alcohol is a terrible curse to Khasi society. Its abuse is so rampant that any Khasi man dying between the age of thirty and forty-five can safely be said to have died of eating too well (bam bha palat), a Khasi euphemism for drinking too much.
Every time there is a drink-related death, the most common and perplexing question that we hear is: ‘Why did he abuse himself like that?’ or ‘Why did he drink himself to death?’
But does one really need a reason to drink? Evening may very well have singled out one of the fundamental reasons why Khasi men drink so much. However, the little anecdote related to me by my friend, Kamai, had an entirely different take on the issue.
One Saturday afternoon, Kamai bumped into a group of young men—the oldest about twenty-five and the youngest about fifteen—who were hopelessly drunk. They were stumbling up the village road as if blown by the wind, now swaying left, now swaying right. All of them were raucous and abusive, chattering loudly about what they had been doing in so foul a language that Kamai wanted to cover his ears in shame. But being a responsible citizen, he decided to speak to them.
In a friendly but firm tone, he said, ‘Hey, hey, stop using that kind of language! You are in the middle of the village street, not in the jungle! And tell me, why are you so drunk this early in the day?’
The boys stopped and stared at him aggressively. When they recognised him, their leader said, ‘What to do, Bah Mai, we just lost a football match and had to give the winners a pig … We were in such low spirits, ha, so, we thought we should take some spirits to cheer ourselves up.’
Next Saturday afternoon, Kamai met the same group of young men in the same drunken and rowdy condition. He said to them, ‘What did I tell you about using foul language? And what is it this time? Did you fellows lose again?’
‘No, no, Bah Mai, not this time, not this time!’ the leader declared triumphantly. ‘This time, no, Bah Mai, we beat them good and got 5,000 rupees! See, our prize money!’
‘So, why are you drunk then?’
‘Arre, Bah Mai! When you win, you have to celebrate, no?’
‘You fellows are very strange: lose, you drink; win, you drink. You are exactly like Drainij Lyngdoh—’
‘Drain, the village drunk? Come on, that’s too much, too much, Bah Mai! Why compare us with him? We only—’
‘I’ll tell you why. When his uncle asked him why he was drinking so much, do you know what he said? He blamed his wife. “How can I not drink when, the moment I come home, my wife starts barking at me, hew, hew, hew?” But when his wife left him, Drain did not stop drinking, if anything, he drank even more. When his uncle asked him about it, he blamed his wife again. “How can I not drink when my wife has left me?” You fellows beware, see that you don’t end up like Drain, or even like Drippingjoy Dkhar, the gambler! Do you know what Drip said when asked why he was drinking so much? He said, “I drink because I lose; I lose because I drink. The more I lose, I drink; the more I drink, I lose.”’
‘Tet teri ka, Bah Mai, you are so funny, so funny!’ They all laughed drunkenly.
‘Funny? You fellows take care unless you want alcohol to have the last laugh.’
My friends were laughing too. And I said, ‘Those are some of the reasons why people drink.’
‘But they don’t seem like reasons at all, Ap!’ Bah Kit said. ‘People drink when they win, drink when they lose, drink when their wives are with them, drink when their wives leave them … Those are not real reasons for drinking. What do you say, Bah Su?’
‘Quite right, quite right,’ Bah Su agreed. ‘And those reasons, ha, if they are reasons at all, have nothing to do with the matrilineal system. Those boys would have been too young to think—’
‘But Bah Su,’ Evening interrupted, ‘you are taking it for granted that Ap was telling us a true story—’
‘It is true!’ I asserted.
‘There you are,’ Bah Su responded. ‘So, as I was saying, ha, those boys would have been too young to think about marital relationships and the matrilineal system. And, as you have heard, they drank to console themselves in the first instance and to celebrate in the second. The other fellow, Drain, obviously did not drink because his wife nagged him. He must have been rebuked because he was always drunk, ha, but when he did not mend his ways, his wife had no choice but to leave him. So, what are the real reasons for drinking?’
‘Why don’t we ask Bah Raji and Bah Kynsai?’ Dale suggested with a laugh.
‘Why only us?’ Raji asked belligerently. ‘Why not Bah Su also? He’s drinking as much as us, no?’
‘Yeah, yeah, let’s ask the three of them,’ Hamkom said. ‘So why do you drink?’
‘No, no, you first,’ Raji told Hamkom. ‘Why do you drink?’
‘At home, I don’t drink much. I have a peg or two before dinner, that’s it. It’s a kind of relaxation for me.’
‘The same thing for me!’ Raji declared. ‘I don’t drink much at home. I drink only before dinner, also for relaxation.’
Everyone laughed at the idea of Raji not drinking much at home, but Bah Kynsai said, ‘That’s true, that’s true … We drink a little more than a peg or two, of course, but only to make the food tastier, na? We don’t drink till drunk. Till a little drunk, maybe, but not till very drunk,’ he concluded with a loud laugh.
‘And all for relaxation and as an appetiser?’ Magdalene asked.
‘Absolutely.’
‘Well, it certainly looks like nobody drinks because of the matrilineal system, no?’ Donald observed. ‘Evening will have to give us an example if he insists that people drink because of it.’
Not wanting another quarrel, Bah Kynsai said, ‘So what’s the moral of Ap’s story? What about this? A drinker justifies his drinking with reasons but gives only excuses. Should do, na? And that’s exactly like the song Ap used to tell us about a Sohra man … what was that song, Ap?’
‘You mean Phamos’s song? Yeah, he—’
‘Hahaha, what a name!’ Magdalene laughed.
‘That was how his parents spelt “famous”,’ I explained.
‘And what about the other names you gave us earlier? Exstarson, Hellweena, Drainij, Drippingjoy, are they real?’
‘Yeah, yeah, all real. Their stories are public knowledge, you know, so no harm done. As for Phamos, he was a habitual drinker, but people loved him because of his jovial ways. The only unhappy person was his wife, who used to yell at him whenever he came home more drunk than usual. But Phamos never lost his temper. He simply sang a song to justify his drinking and mollify his wife. And the song was always the same: Dih te nga u ba dih, tangba nga dih teng teng, ta ruh ym ka yiad Khasi, hynrei ka yiad Phareng. (Drink, it’s true I used to drink, but only now and then, and that too, not the Khasi brew, but the whisky of the Pharengs.)’
Bah Kynsai laughed. ‘According to him, na, because he drank the whisky of the Englishmen, and not the local brew, it was okay to drink.’
‘Speaking of justifications,’ I said, ‘Kamai told me this about the drunks of Nongpoh. Defending their drunkenness, they used to say, “Drinking? Who says we are drinking? We are actually engaged in Education, and we are studying three very serious subject-combinations: Comic, Logic and Plastic. In the morning, we relive the Comic scenes of the night; during the day, we apply Logic to find ways of earning money for a drink; and in the evening, we go to buy Plastic in which the local brew is kept.”’
‘That’s a really good one!’ Bah Kynsai said, roaring with laughter, as were the others.
Only Donald was a bit confused. ‘What exactly do you mean by plastic, Bah Ap?’
‘Polythene bags.’
‘But why polythene bags?’
‘The sale of the local brew is illegal, Don. Makers and sellers in most places operate without a licence. That’s why they keep it in the most innocuous containers they can think of. At Ïew Polo in Shillong, for instance, they sell in plastic bottles kept in cloth bags carried by men and women who move up and down the street, on the lookout for thirsty people. It’s uncannily like soliciting….’

(Excerpted with permission from Funeral Nights, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Westland)

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