In Praise of Vice

In 2004, when the worst thing that had happened to the world was George Bush, when Indians wondered about the hidden motives behind Sonia Gandhi’s great tyaag rather than the then prime minister’s mann ki baat,all some of us cared about was getting wasted. The mythical source for the substances we desired was not shady drug dealers or bars, it was temples.

Two in particular were urban legends, at least in south Delhi. The first was a small Kali temple tucked away in a slum behind a very posh part of the city. After walking through some brambly bushes, and past stray dogs from Baskerville, a man, always topless and with half his torso bearing scars of fights long past, would hand you a puria (pouch) of the most rancid weed (or so, I am bound to say, reliable sources tell me) in the city. But it was still better than what you get in Bombay.

The first hit for many a young man and (given the ridiculous world we live in) some women, has been in his company — for Rs 50, with an invocation to Bhole Nath more sincere than at any family puja.

Then there was the booze temple. Dedicated to Shiv, the prasad at this house of worship was alcohol. From bottles of Black Label to quarters of Bag Sniper (a poisonous knock-off of Bagpiper) — anything could be your offering. The key to getting good and wasted was to go there with a quarter (once again, I must, for reasons of propriety, insist this is hearsay), chat up the priest and hope he shares the offerings of the devout with you as they ascend through the earthly vessel of his body to the parched throats of the gods.

Now of course, things are different. Religion might well have been the opium of the masses in the past, but fused with nationalism and political piety, it’s more like cocaine. It no longer seems to permit the little vices and adventures it used to, the diversities of transgressions that make life a little more tolerable.

We live in a puritanical, quasi-religious proto-utopia, where the life of a bovine is more valuable than the life of a person, where prohibition is a contagious moral project and if you want to let go in Goa, you better do it before 10 pm. In Gujarat, total vegetarianism has been declared a goal — the saattvic route to salvation is now a state project. The most basic things are to be brought under profane virtuosity of the state. A walk with a paramour in a park will make you a target for law enforcement, overeating at a restaurant could soon be a no-no and before you watch the next Housefull movie, you need to prove your love for the nation.

At such a time, it’s hard to figure out where, or how, to find yourself outside the oppressiveness of family, bosses and governments. George Orwell, when he wrote The Lion and the Unicorn in 1941, faced a similar problem. So many Englishmen thought that fascism was good for the nation, that order and discipline were more important than democracy and dissidence. But what saved the English, according to Orwell, were the little joys. The nation of shopkeepers was also a nation of hobbyists — stamp collectors and gardeners; builders of model trains and designers of miniature aeroplanes. The little joys protect a people from the power of the big, overwhelming identities, say, for example, Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan.

I am luckier than Orwell. To rescue individuality and Indian-ness in the face of everyone and everything trying to control me, all I have to do is get high. And I recommend it now, as a patriotic act. A way to express that you are not part of the project that wants to make you, and your identities, a boring platter cooked by celibate men with limited palates. In its very origins, my hunt for vice was religious. It is easy for us here, to break the law while being pious.

Take Holi, where substance use induces a revelry and camaraderie otherwise impossible. There are villages in Uttar Pradesh where women, otherwise confined and oppressed, would use this day to beat the men of their community, chasing them around the hamlet. Festivals, after all, have been the only place where the separation and rigidity that marks regular life is relaxed. Basically, a bunch of people come together, get high (and maybe get even), and then go back to their lives. They are a cheat code within religion, so that you can have fun without the disapproval and consequences it would otherwise invite. The bravest anti-Romeo squads dare not disrupt a dandiya, and the intense hooking up that accompanies it.

Transgression, rebellion and, yes, a little bit of drinking, are good for you. It lets boring MBAs party in Goa, let go and have a good time before going back to being the backbone of the economy. It makes you move outside yourself, and keep diversity alive. It keeps you from being boring. My best friend from school, a Jain who ate his first boti kabab with me (yes, beef) years back, actually boasts to his kid about it. It was, for him, an adventure greater than all the temple visits for the rest of us.

It is, of course, possible to experience ecstasy, and break out of the oppressiveness of the virtuous state through the saattvic route. The traditional way is to leave society (even then, there are many varieties of renouncers, and not all of them are “pure”) and become a sanyasi. But for a more temporary way to feel the high of a festival without the guilt of rebellion, there is another model.

Two years ago, I attended the concert of a rockstar-godman in Haryana. Hundreds of people were drawn into a mosh-pit of bad dancing and caste-less jostling. Not one of them was drunk, and most were likely vegetarian. They were led, in toto, by their guru on stage. Rather than lose themselves to a substance, they would do it for a great leader. No government will have a problem with that these days — follow the leader is the most nationalist high you can be on.

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