Posted by: cochinblogger | May 4, 2010

People One Meets When Drinking Alone in Bars

I’m a largely solitary drinker. Not being a party animal, I don’t go out much; I like it that way, as I am never happier than when curled up with a book or fiddling with PC software or listening to music. I enjoy alcohol in moderation, and I usually drink alone in my favorite bar. My routine while drinking is rigid (I’m human, so sometimes the rules rarely, very rarely, get broken): not oftener than once a week, not more than two drinks, and not longer than 45 minutes in the bar. This arrangement has worked for me, despite the conventional wisdom about the dangers of drinking alone. In fact, on the rare occasions when I drink in company, I find that my consumption actually goes up. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

One occupational hazard of drinking alone in bars, however, is the risk of meeting a certain species of solitary drinker who no sooner spots a fellow solitary drinker than he must accost him and unasked, make up a cozy twosome. This kind of person will generally be very, very drunk and an expansive talker. I’ve had one such person slump glassy-eyed on my shoulder in mid-sentence. I hastily moved to the opposite sofa in anticipation of the puke to come and watched him collapse in a heap on the sofa, while around us, waiters frowned and drinkers smiled knowingly.

Sometimes, the bar is crowded and the only empty seat is the one opposite you. A fellow solitary drinker might then have no option but to take it. Sometimes, only smiles are exchanged, and sometimes, a few cursory words; and sometimes, a conversation develops. During my bachelor days, one such fellow solitary drinker sitting opposite me got increasingly drunk, revealed that he was a bisexual, and propositioned me. He became furious when I refused, demanded to know what I did for sex, and called me immature when I calmly told him that I did not discuss such matters with friends, leave alone total strangers. (Strictly speaking, he was not a total stranger, because he had early on in the conversation disclosed his identity and profession.) I then retreated into a monastic silence while he glowered at his drink.

Recently, I had an unusual experience with a fellow solitary drinker. I placed my order, went into the washroom, and, returning to my seat, was about to think about the book I was currently reading (for me, drinking and thinking often go hand in hand) when a bearded man clad in the saffron robes of a mendicant came up to my table. He had a glass in his hand, and in it was either brandy or whiskey. He asked if I recognized him. I looked at him closely, but no glimmer of recognition dawned, not even when I tried visualizing him without the beard. One candidate, a bearded former friend, suggested himself, but the saffron-robed stranger standing beside my table was considerably taller. I confessed my inability to recognize him, which seemed to sadden him. His eyes drooped, and he sighed heavily. I felt guilty. His eyes were large, melancholic, and soulful, set in a pinched, almost skeletal triangular face. He was thin, and there was a disheveled, unkempt air about him, but he was dressed neatly and stood steady on his feet. He must have been in his fifties. He spoke good English, there was dignity in his mien, the words were enunciated clearly and deliberately; he was certainly not drunk.

He then asked if he could sit opposite me. I could not find it in myself to refuse, though I had been looking forward to a solitary alcohol-seasoned thinking session about the book I was currently reading. I invited him to sit, but added the qualification that I would not talk much as I had to think. He shot me a look, then sat down and again asked if I remembered him. I, tiring of this cat-and-mouse game, took a sip from my glass, and bluntly asked him who the hell he was, in as many words. His lips quivered a smile, and then shot the following words out like an arrow that pierced my gullibility: “I’m trying to recollect where I’ve seen you. Your face is so familiar! But I just cannot remember! The memory trace has been overwritten.”

I knew then that I’d been outwitted, but decided to make the most of it. I asked him some questions. He owed me that much for the pleasure of my company. What was his name? Sridhar. Did he have a job? No. Was he married? Yes, but he was a widower. Children? Yes, a son in an engineering college in Bombay. His house? In Aluva, a small town on the banks of the Periyar. Why was he here, in Ernakulam? To meet a person, who had never turned up. Where was he headed? To a temple in Mangalore. He was filling in the hours to his train’s departure in the bar. He then asked me about myself, and I replied taking care not to give away anything specific. I ordered my second drink. He too ordered another drink. I offered him what I was eating, but he declined; soon, a waiter put a plate with a omelet in front of him.

He suddenly made a remark that seemed entirely out of character; he pointed to my hair and asked why I kept it like that. Now, my hair was long, and colored with black die, but that was all. I now felt a surge of irritation: Why had I invited this twit into my life, even if only for thirty minutes?! The twit was showing his true colors; the mask was beginning to drop. I looked straight into his eyes and told him, “Think about what you just said. That was not Sridhar speaking.” He looked at me, puzzled. I pointed to his glass and said, “It was your glass that spoke.” His face changed color, and he lowered his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. The conversation flagged. He seemed dispirited. I drained my drink, and asked for the bill. He continued to study his reflection in his half-empty glass. The change arrived, I tipped the waiter, said goodbye to my companion, and rose from the table. He stretched his hand out and asked, almost apologetically: “How about some dakshina?” He had earlier confessed his weakness to me: once he began drinking, it went on and on. I knew what he would do with my dakshina.

“I don’t give dakshina in bars,” I said, as I collected my bags and headed for the door.

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