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Three thousand stitches, p.13
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       Three Thousand Stitches, p.13

           Sudha Murty
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  ‘Sure, I will talk to him about it. I will message you his number if he agrees,’ said my friend.

  ‘Thank you!’

  Within ten minutes, I received his contact details and immediately called him. The man on the other side of the phone sounded like he was around forty years old.

  ‘Aunty!’ said Ramesh, his voice full of warmth. ‘I am happy to know that you want to hear about AA. I will share my journey with you and you can write about it too, if you like. It’ll be worth it even if one person learns from my mistakes.’

  ‘Why don’t you come over for a meal? We can speak leisurely then,’ I suggested.

  Soon, we decided to meet in my house for lunch.

  He was on time and confident in his demeanour. We sat down at the table. There was no need for polite conversation or formalities.

  ‘Tell me about your experience with AA,’ I broached the subject without beating around the bush.

  ‘I’ve read your book titled The Day I Stopped Drinking Milk. But if I had to write one, it would be called The Day I Began Drinking Alcohol.’ He sighed. ‘Let me tell you how it all began.

  ‘I belong to a conservative family. As children, we were expected to be home by sunset and were not allowed even tea or coffee! The only liquids I was allowed were milk, water and teertha (holy water). I was an excellent student and finished my twelfth grade with outstanding marks.

  ‘A few days later, some of my classmates and I decided to celebrate. We went to a restaurant and ordered a round of drinks. I had never tried alcohol before and it was a close friend, a coffee planter’s son from Coorg, who egged me on. “Come on, have a drink! Social drinking is quite acceptable now and it does absolutely no harm. One or two drinks will make you happier than the high you must have got from your top marks! Take this,” he said and handed me a peg of whisky with ice cubes.

  ‘Most of us were first-timers. Though the taste of the drink was slightly bitter, we all drank and felt good and relaxed. For some time, I felt that I was floating on air. The music was good and the world around me seemed beautiful and I had a nice buzz. I liked it.

  ‘The evening turned into night and we ordered dinner. Though I was a foodie then, I didn’t feel like eating anything. Instead, I quietly went to the bar and took a second peg. Everyone at the table clapped, “You were so cautious first, but look at you now!”

  ‘The night ended on a high note and my friend dropped me home in his car. Since it was late, my parents were already asleep, so I used my key to enter the house and crashed on the bed.

  ‘The next morning, I didn’t stir until 7.30 a.m. When I opened my eyes, the sun’s rays were shining brightly through the window.

  ‘It was late. I usually woke up at 6 a.m.

  ‘When my mother saw me, she asked, “Are you unwell?”

  ‘I shook my head, but my head was feeling heavy and I had a slight headache.

  ‘“How was the party?”

  ‘“It was fine.”

  ‘I headed to the bathroom for a shower and felt slightly better. I went about my routine and at the end of the day, I thought about alcohol. I was fascinated by the high it had brought me.

  ‘A few days later, I wanted to drink again and called my friend. He laughed and said, “No problem, man. Let’s have another party.”

  ‘This time, it was only the two of us. My friend taught me about the different kinds of alcohol, the qualities and the prices, as I eagerly awaited my peg. We began meeting regularly and without realizing it, I got addicted to alcohol and began yearning for it every day.

  ‘A month later, I got admission in a college in Mumbai and left home. Now I had complete freedom and there was absolutely no one to control me. I began boozing with different classmates. Somehow, I still managed to get decent grades, despite bunking classes—either due to hangovers or because I had slept late the previous night. I even got a good job that paid me well. Unfortunately for me, it also meant that I began drinking more since I could afford more.

  ‘A few years later, I was transferred to Bengaluru. By then, my parents had built another house on the floor upstairs and I told them that I’d like to stay there. I had an arranged marriage and the girl was very nice. But once my wife began living with me, she learnt of my addiction within a few days. Livid, she fought with my poor parents, thinking that they were aware of my alcoholism and had chosen to hide it from her.

  ‘My mother was horrified! She had had no knowledge of my addiction. The only symptom she was aware of was that I had become short-tempered, but she had innocently attributed it to the stress at my workplace. I had, of course, let her think that way. So along with my wife, I got a sermon every day and it greatly annoyed me. She dragged me to temples and gurus. The more they pushed me, the more upset I became. Through it all, my wife continued to believe in me. “You are intelligent,” she would say. “You can leave this habit. I know you can control your urges.”

  ‘Sometimes her words gave me strength, but I couldn’t let go of alcohol.’

  I was dumbfounded. This could happen to anyone, especially in this day and age. I stopped him. ‘Tell me, how did you find out about AA?’

  ‘Now you must understand my journey, Aunty. Day after day, it became worse and I kept drowning in the problem that I had created. One day, I got a call from my old friend from Coorg. He was visiting Bengaluru with his cousin and invited me to his hotel. I was happy to hear from him and thought that we could have a memorable evening together. When I eventually saw him, I was concerned. The young, handsome boy looked like an old man and a skeleton at that!

  ‘“Shall we order something to drink?” I asked, a few minutes into our meeting.

  ‘“Don’t even mention the word alcohol. It is killing me. For a long time, I refused to get married. My parents tried their best to rescue me from this life, but now I have been diagnosed with liver cirrhosis. I can’t tell you how much I regret the past! I was born into a good family and grew up in a wonderful place like Coorg where I could have done something meaningful. People always plan a holiday there and I already lived in heaven. I should have become high on nature, but instead I became high on alcohol. I don’t have much time left. Don’t waste your life, old friend! Learn from me. A man near his death will always tell you the bare truth. This disease is worse than cancer. People will sympathize with you if you have cancer and there are medicines and surgeries that might give you a chance to get back to your old life. But here I am. This is what rock bottom looks like. People look down on me and judge me, even my parents. I thank God that I am not married or I would have ruined another person’s life too.”

  ‘His words threw me for a loop. How could this have happened to him? This isn’t how life is supposed to turn out for people like us.

  ‘I came home and tossed and turned all night. I couldn’t stop thinking about him or myself. My life was a mess. Sometimes, I would skip work because I had drunk too much the previous day. People who were less smart than me were getting promoted and I was being passed over again and again because I wasn’t considered reliable enough. Meanwhile, my wife and mother were under our relatives’ constant scrutiny because of my condition. It was plain as day—I wasn’t that far off from being in the same boat as my friend. The very idea shook me to the core.

  ‘The next morning, there was a call from my friend’s hotel. It was his cousin. “Your friend passed away last night,” he said. “You were his last visitor.”

  ‘I began trembling with shock and fear. It was the lowest point of my life, and I couldn’t control my body from shivering. When the shivers stopped, I went to the small cupboard containing all the alcohol, took the bottles and threw them in the trash.

  ‘With the help of my family, I learnt about AA and checked in to the alcohol de-addiction camp. It took a few years for me to become sober and I have been this way ever since. I now dedicate my life to helping others who are in a bad place because of alcoholism. I work with them and show them that there is hope. They can get better.’
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  He stopped and opened the bag he was carrying. He rummaged in it for a few seconds and took a book out. He handed it to me. ‘This is a book on AA and their twelve steps. They include apologizing to those we have hurt, helping others and surrendering to God.’

  I took the book from him, eager to read it.

  ‘Aunty, I am ashamed of my past but I am also proud that I could leave it behind me. My wife and mother have played an important role in bringing me back.’

  I was amazed to learn so much! He had opened a new door for me.

  ‘Please attend one AA meeting, Aunty!’ he said. ‘There are two types of meetings—open and closed. Anyone can go for the open ones while the closed gatherings are only for the members. Tomorrow, there is an open session in Electronic City where I am the chairman.’

  ‘Chairman?’ I asked out aloud.

  ‘Yes, but not in the regular sense of the word. A chairman here is a mentor who shares his experience, the challenges of his journey and the weak moments too. He also gives input to the members on how to conquer the desire of a few minutes so that the person can survive the urge to drink.’

  I said, ‘I would like to join you tomorrow. You have shared your story because you know me, but why will other people want to share their darkest moments with me?’

  ‘Once I have the other members’ permission to let you in for an open session, then it will not be a problem. Most of them are willing to speak about it because now they recognize the problem and genuinely want to become sober. They don’t know how to go about it and that’s where AA comes in,’ he explained patiently.

  ‘Now that you are a mentor yourself, what about you? Whom do you speak to?’

  He smiled and said, ‘I continue to have a mentor and visit him weekly. I am human, after all.’

  The conversation took a different turn and we spoke about philosophy for some time. When the time came for him to leave, he said, ‘See you tomorrow. I will text you the location of the church.’

  ‘Why are you meeting there?’ I was curious.

  ‘Aunty, where else can we meet? In a place like Bengaluru, thirty of us cannot fit into an average-sized living room. If we look for places on hire, then the payments have to be budgeted. When we ask people to make an exception or allow us to use their facilities for minimal or no cost, they immediately refuse when they learn of the purpose. We were running out of places to meet and so we approached a church. The management was kind enough to allow us to use a space in their premises.’

  I thanked the church authorities in my head for comprehending human nature and allowing sins to be forgiven. It is the essence of life.

  ‘They said we could donate whatever we could afford but insisted that we keep the place clean.’

  ‘Why did they say that? Do people get their drinks there?’ I asked innocently.

  ‘Aunty, come on. AA is about not drinking and that’s what the whole session is about. A lot of people who drink also smoke. If we consider drug addiction to be one of three brothers, then it is the worst of them all. Alcohol comes next, while smoking is the youngest of the three. The elder brother is usually accompanied by the two younger ones, while the middle brother almost always appears with the youngest. So we keep ashtrays on a table and clean up before we leave.’

  ‘Who funds these meetings? Can Infosys Foundation help?’

  ‘Thanks, Aunty, but AA doesn’t take help from anyone on that front,’ he replied.

  Soon, Ramesh left.

  The next day, I reached the venue, a Christian school, at the assigned time. There was a small crowd of both men and women standing outside. The evening was fading away and night was almost upon us.

  Suddenly, I felt awkward. At times, being a writer has its negatives. What if someone questioned my presence?

  ‘Why did she come?’

  ‘Is she going to write about us?’

  Just then, Ramesh called me inside. He said that he wouldn’t be taking the session that day. I entered the room and sat in a corner. It was a regular classroom with tables and benches—there were no DVDs, overhead projector or any fancy equipment.

  Within five minutes, the room was full. There were people of different ages and genders, though the number of girls and women was less than the number of men. There were some foreigners too. A group of students entered and announced their presence before retreating to another corner of the room. No one paid any attention to me, but I still felt out of my depth.

  A middle-aged person walked in firmly and greeted everyone. Then he sat down in the front, facing us. He opened a book and read out the twelve steps that I had learnt about the day before. I observed some faces looking tense and worried. After that was done, the chairman said, ‘Welcome to all fellow members, guests and students. This is an open session. Today, I’d like to share something good. Fellow Bharat, where are you?’

  A man in his forties raised his hand.

  ‘Bharat is completing his first birthday here. We will cut the cake at the end of the session.’

  Everyone clapped. I didn’t understand what was going on. What did the chairman mean by saying it was his first birthday?

  ‘Our guests today may be a little surprised to see this celebration, but the first birthday is a very big deal. It means that Bharat hasn’t had alcohol for a year now.’

  ‘So that’s what it is,’ I thought.

  ‘As the chairman, I will share my experience first. My initiation and drinking began in college under peer pressure. It was cool to drink and I was proud to be in the party crowd. Over the next few years, I became an alcoholic. Still, I was able to land a job, find a good girl and gain appreciation for my work. When I thought the time was right, I asked my girlfriend to marry me, but she refused. She said that I was drunk whenever she met me, irrespective of the time of the day. So I turned to the bottle even more, using my heartbreak as an excuse.

  ‘One day, my parents finally said to me, “Grow up! The girl left you years ago and is now the mother of two children and yet, here you are—still drinking your life away. This has nothing to do with her and everything to do with you—you are an alcoholic. We are ready to help you get your life back on track, but you must realize what you have become.”

  ‘I was livid. How dare they label me an alcoholic? I could quit drinking whenever I wanted to. I was the one in control. So I didn’t drink for the next two days and thought that I had proved myself. On the third day, my parents wanted to go to a temple nearby and I offered to drive them there. I had a quick shower in the evening, shaved and applied an aftershave lotion. I looked good.

  ‘A short time later, we left for the temple. While driving, my tongue touched my skin briefly and it tasted of the aftershave lotion. I kept licking it and by the time we reached the temple, I was craving for a drink. I dropped my parents, went to the closest bar and stayed there for four hours. Unaware of my actions, my poor parents performed a puja for me at the temple, waited for me, then took an autorickshaw and went back home.

  ‘That was my turning point. It was the day I realized that I couldn’t live without booze. So I came to AA and they helped me vocalize what I was. It was here that I found other people like me and I was glad that I wasn’t alone in this. Our slogan is “I can’t, we can”.’

  The chairman looked straight at the crowd in front of him, ‘If you would like to stay and be with us, please do so. You are always welcome here. People who think that this isn’t the place for them, let me tell you that there is a bar on the opposite side of the street. Feel free to leave.’

  He paused, waiting for people to exit. One person did, but at a turtle’s pace.

  Then he said, ‘Only an alcoholic can understand another fellow alcoholic. Nobody is going to judge you here. I invite you to share your experience or thoughts.’

  By then, the environment felt very informal and I didn’t feel awkward any more.

  A young lady sitting on one of the benches introduced herself. ‘I am Raveena Alcoholic,’ she said.

/>   ‘Hi, Raveena Alcoholic,’ responded the other members.

  ‘I come from an affluent family where social drinking was a part of our culture. My parents studied in France and hence frequently discussed wine and its various characteristics. I was introduced to wine at the age of sixteen but the quantity was restricted. The next year, I went to college in Delhi and my parents headed to the Middle East for a financially exciting job opportunity. I stayed back in a residential hostel where I met girls who frequently drank hard liquor such as vodka and whisky. At first, they made fun of me and urged me to try what they were having. So I began experimenting and came to love other drinks too. My parents used to send me a monthly allowance then. Whenever they asked me about my spending, I would conceal my expenses on alcohol. Lying came naturally to me once I started it and I barely felt guilty about it over time.’

  ‘There comes the fourth brother,’ I thought.

  ‘Around the time of my graduation, I went to a bar and met a boy. We got along like a house on fire and spent a lot of time learning about each other and our habits. We disclosed our relationship to our parents who approved of the match and we had a lavish wedding. Following the north Indian tradition, there was plenty of wine and liquor on the day of the reception, and the guests drank as much as possible since it was free. After the wedding, my husband and I shifted to Bengaluru. We would sit and drink together every day after he returned from work, but he noticed that I could drink more than him. I needed more than two pegs to get high and I didn’t puke afterwards or get a headache immediately either. I thought it was a great quality and that I must push myself further.’

  Suddenly, Raveena’s voice softened. ‘Weeks later, I learnt that I was pregnant and went to a gynaecologist. I didn’t tell her about the alcohol. During the third month of pregnancy, I felt very uneasy in the area around my stomach and went to see her again.

  ‘As a part of the routine check-up, she asked me, “Are you drinking alcohol? Perhaps wine?”

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