Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Virtuous Lonely

Kaushik shook his head again. “I am not sure, you’ll all get drunk and what will I do? Sit and watch?”

Lecture sessions for the 5th semester had ended. There were 15 days to go before exams began and Kaushik, like the previous 4 occasions, planned to spend them at home in Ahmedabad. He’d always maintained that being home afforded him the time and peace to prepare better for his exams, away from friends who wanted to study together and those that wanted to be together but not study. He’d already booked seats on a bus to Ahmedabad. And now, his friends were asking him to stay on for another day.

The idea of Bhang had been floated a few days back by one of them. The rest had latched onto it immediately. “I know where to get it!” one of them had said. And thus it was agreed that on the day classes ended, they would spend the evening drinking bhang-infested milk.

Kaushik and six of his closest friends had decided to move out of the college hostel at the beginning of that year. It was like a custom there – when one reached the third year, one moved out, unable to restrict the revelry and debauchery to the confines of the hostel’s regulations. Since Kaushik and his friends didn’t partake in these activities, that he then considered vile, it was not actually necessary for them to move out. However, they had decided to do so anyway, hoping to get away from the noise and filth. They had found themselves a nice place fairly close to the college campus, a two-storeyed tenement with spacious rooms and presentable toilets. It had a small neglected compound around it where grass and mushrooms grew wildly. They often played cricket there with stringent restrictions on how fast a ball could be delivered and how hard and in what directions it could be hit.

“Come on Kaushik, it is just one extra day! You can always transfer your bus tickets to tomorrow. None of us has ever had Bhang before this; we don’t know what’ll happen! One sober guy in the group could be important!”

Kaushik had declared he would like to be excused from this particular adventure at the outset. They had tried convincing him for a while.

“It’s not getting drunk Kaushik, it is Bhang! Lord Shiva’s own drink!”

“It has nothing to do with Bhang and Lord Shiva, I just don’t enjoy getting inebriated!”

Since it was clear after a while that Kaushik wouldn’t budge, they asked him to just stay and be with them instead. This too, Kaushik was now trying to avoid.

Eventually though, he gave in.

“OK. I’ll stay. But mind you, don’t force me to have any of that stuff.”

For the first hour, nothing happened. They all drank full glasses of Bhang while Kaushik watched. Nothing happened. They looked quizzically at each other and wondered what was wrong.

“Is there more?”

“Yes. But shouldn’t we wait for a little longer? I’ve heard the effects take time to kick in.”

“One hour! Can’t take that long, can it?”

“Yeah probably not.”

They drank another glass. Nothing.

“Let’s go sit on the terrace for a while. The night air might help.”

The terrace was actually the roof of the house, bordered by a knee-high parapet, open where a rusty iron ladder formed the entrance from below. They sat in a circle in the center of the terrace, after one of them pointed out the perils of sitting on the parapet if the Bhang did indeed take effect. Kaushik alone sat there, away from the rest, humming to himself.

The alleys around the house were deserted. Tenement such as theirs lined these alleys and he could see lights in some of them. The others were completely dark and Kaushik surmised their inhabitants were already asleep. It was only 10 in the evening; Dhule slept early. The temple, of which they now had a direct view unlike from the college hostel, was empty too. Its bells chimed occasionally and feebly, swaying in the erratic wind. He heard laughter and turned to his friends.

Two of them sat face to face now, encircled by the rest. They were babbling.

“You go”, one of them said.

“No, you go first.”

“No, you go!”

“No! No! No! You first!”

Between each sentence they laughed in high pitched voices, the rest of them joining in. Kaushik was certain they’d forgotten by this time what it was that they had to go for.

“We’ve got to go downstairs guys,” Kaushik told them, “You don’t look too good.”

They protested but eventually gave in. By the time they climbed down, they couldn’t control their laughter anymore. Nobody spoke. They just looked at each other and broke into hysterical laughter.

Five minutes later, one of them vomited. He hadn’t had time to realize what was happening and vomited on himself and on the mattress on which he sat. The vomit, Kaushik noted, was strange and green like herbal paste, only thinner and smellier.

“Listen, you go to sleep. I’ll get you to your room,” Kaushik said, pulling the boy to his feet, “We’ll see about the mess later.”

Two hours on, everyone except Kaushik had vomited. The same green substance. The whole place was submerged in it. Some of them had attempted to get to the toilet but had failed halfway. For a long time, one of them, Sunil, had appeared in control. He had even helped Kaushik drag the others to bed. When the first two had vomited, Kaushik had suggested they should abandon the room for the night and clean up the mess in the morning. After three more had gone down in corridors and in other rooms where they’d tried to force themselves to sleep, Kaushik sighed. “We’ll have to clean some of this up tonight.” He told Sunil.

So the two got a broom and a bucket out and began cleaning. An hour later, the floors were wet and slippery but clean except at the edges where the walls met them. The wash basin, into which someone of them had emptied his stomach, was choked and there was nothing that could be done about it. The rooms still stank like hell but they had no fresheners to spray. They would just have to live with it.

“That’s all we can do, I guess.” Sunil said.

“Yes, when the others wake up in the morning, they’ll have to clear some of their own mess.”

That was when Sunil vomited too. He graciously sprinted to the basin to do so, only marginally compounding a problem they weren’t going to solve right then anyway. He collapsed onto his bed after that and didn’t budge until later afternoon the next day.

Kaushik went back to the terrace, unable to get used to the stench. The breeze was chillier now. He climbed down, found himself a blanket, and climbed back up again. He wondered what would have happened if he’d drunk that stuff too. He was aware it couldn’t have been much worse than what it already was but he was glad he hadn’t. Years later, long after that horrible smell remained only hazily in his memory, he tried recounting the episode to others and found it strange that he did not remember any conversation. They’d blathered on for half the night and he’d retained no memory of it. When he spoke to some of those present there that day, he found they remembered far more, inebriated, than he did, sober.

He spent the rest of night on the terrace, without thought, staring at nothing and sleeping fitfully, and only climbed down next day when the Sun was high and strong enough to prickle his skin. He found he was still the only one awake.


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