I want to preface this piece by stating, loud and clear, that I am not an alcoholic. I do enjoy drinking, however. I grew up in an Indian household and so, needless to say, I was not permitted to consume alcohol, no matter what occasion. My mother, even today, will have an aneurysm if you tell her that I drink.
At the tender age of 18, I moved to America. I attended a business school just outside of Boston for 4 years. I would be a liar if I told you that the infamous American drinking culture did not permeate my life. I spent freshmen year navigating blackouts, 2 am puking sessions and next-day hangovers. Sophomore year wasn’t much different, except now I had a group of friends to experiment and explore with. We took care of each other; we sacrificed hair ties so our roommates wouldn’t get puke on their curls, we made sure there was a Poland Springs water bottle next to them when they woke up, and we took on the responsibility of ensuring that they didn’t make a complete fool of themselves in front of their crush. Junior year, we got smarter. We held our own because now we knew how many shots of tequila it would take us before we got sick, how many haircuts we could safely indulge in before we would ‘feel it’. Our struggle to ‘feel it’ and ‘get on a good level’ headlined many nights. I would find myself wondering what we were trying to ‘feel’, exactly. I think it was a sense of companionship mixed with a heady buzz brought on by youthful abandon.
Senior year came and we were 21. Suddenly, it was legal to drink. We went on pub crawls and spent too much money on that fruity cocktail. I started to taste what I was drinking. I decided I only liked Guinness on certain nights when I didn’t want to dance. I realized that Sex on the Beach tasted like a smoothie and that Long Island Iced Teas needed to be reserved for special tragedies. I also learnt about wine from a friend who had studied abroad in Italy one semester. I realized that I loved Chardonnay and Merlot, not so much Sauvignon Blanc. It was an interesting time. Experimenting with these different bottles and drink recipes left me and my friends, exhilarated, and drunk.
At the end of the 4 years, I found myself packing up all my things and heading back home, to India. I was all set to work in a non-profit startup in Mumbai. I had left behind all things familiar in search of meaning for myself. I was moving to a city I had never lived in before, away from my parents, away from Boston, in the hopes that I would, as cliché as it sounds, find my true calling. Graduation was a tiring and yet, incredible affair. I celebrated the last 4 years and proposed one final toast to the future, with my friends and companions, who were equally scared and excited for their prospects.
I came back to my parents’ house, in Delhi, and started to unpack, mentally. I looked at my salary package and the cost of living in Mumbai, and realized I would only have enough to scrape by. No more Faneuil Hall bars on the weekends. No more $10 shots of Grey Goose.
But I was going to do something bigger than that; I was going to work in a company with a mission I believed in, I was going to help it grow, I was going to grow.
I nostalgically shut down my Club W account. An online club that would send me 3 bottles of local and cheap wine every month based on my selected preferences.
But, I told myself, you are going to find time to write. It’s something I had always wanted to do and never found time for. And, I added, you are going to explore Mumbai as an adult.
I am good at reasoning with myself, but something heavy had settled in the put of my stomach. Remember how I said – I’m not an alcoholic? Well, this was when I started to question that for myself. Why did the wine and the drinking matter so much? Is this really how addiction begins? Did I need help?
Help came, and in the form of Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent publication, In Other Words. She is one of my all-time favorite authors. Her stories are rooted in the Indian culture and often, are set near Boston. At the risk of sounding egocentric, I must admit that there are times when I believe she writes for me, to keep me company, to offer me solace. I was curious and apprehensive when I learnt that she had gone rogue, deciding to give up reading and writing in English to discover Italian. I was star struck enough to stay with her experimentation process, though.
As I read through the translated version of her book, written originally by her in Italian, I found lines that made me pause expectantly; I was waiting for her words to put my life into context, as always. Lahiri writes the following about how she felt when she arrived in Florence: “I am in an intimate, sober, joyful place”. She said sober. When I first read it, I wondered if there was an error in translation. Here is the most relevant meaning of sober, according to Dictionary.com –
“Marked by seriousness, gravity, solemnity, etc., as of demeanor, speech, etc.”
Seriousness and gravity, as opposed to drunk and light. Adulthood, as opposed to College. This is how I chose to make the distinction between the two separate periods of my life. I loved my days of carefree abandon and youthfulness, and I hope to never give that up. I want to always feel like a child, curious and open. But now, it is my turn to do things that have consequence, that have seriousness and gravity. Once I realized this, I kept reading because things were starting to make sense now.
Here is what Lahiri said about her linguistic pilgrimage: “I believe I have to leave behind something familiar, essential”. That is when it clicked for me.
This was not about the Merlot or the Jägermeister. It was about the people I drank with. It was about those achingly familiar conversations about our childhoods and dreams, our shared present. It was about opening a bottle of wine and spilling secrets to a long lost friend. It was about standing on the couch and popping a bottle of cheap champagne, because the music was loud and the lights were dim and we were in college. It was about taking shots to celebrate an A on that project or a two year relationship anniversary. I wasn’t sad about not being able to drink in Mumbai. I was sad about not being able to share those memories.
Having found the root of my troubles, I felt relieved. I thanked Jhumpa, for yet again, explaining myself to me. I let my thoughts rest in peace, knowing that even though there was a life I was leaving behind, I was hurling myself headfirst into a new, exciting one. I realized that I needed Mumbai in way that is still foreign to me. It’s a little like being addicted to a drug you haven’t yet tried.
To conclude, I would like to borrow words that express my sentiments infinitely better than I could phrase them.
“Why does this imperfect, spare new voice attract me? Why does poverty satisfy me? What does it mean to give up a palace to live practically on the street, in a shelter so fragile? Maybe because from the creative point of view there is nothing so dangerous as security”. – Jhumpa Lahiri