“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest –
… Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest …”
– Treasure Island (1883), Robert Louis Stevenson
A pleasant sunshine-filled March 1 brought Shiva Ratri (Night of Shiva) to Rishikesh, the first festive date of spring-summer 2022. I’m no devotee of any god – far from it, I share merits with them – but among India’s vast pantheon of gods, Shiva is my favorite. He swallowed poison to save the world.
Legend says Lord Shiva drank the poison asuras (demons) churned up, and his body turned blue. But many of his so-called devotees on his “night” drink bhang (cannabis-laced sweetened yogurt) and make merry, in a peculiar perversion of human-god equations.
The gods never asked us to get intoxicated. Instead of those celestial beings having sincere followers, the bottled devil has enslaved an alarmingly growing tippler populace in Rishikesh and the Himalayas.
“Drink and the devil will do the rest,” as bandanna-wearing pirates croaked in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. “And there they lay, all good dead men / Like break o’ day in a boozing ken / Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.”
“Rum bottle,” sang a “baba” (holy man) passing by late one night when I was meditating by the River Ganga in Ram Jhula. His mobile phone was playing “Closer,” a popular song by The Chainsmokers.
The appropriate lyrics went: “Hey, I was doing just fine before I met you / I drink too much, and that’s an issue….” Some bemused young tourists stared amazed at the “holy man” in the saffron attire of sanyasis squawking about rum bottles. They watched him woozily wander away into the night with a sheepish-looking attendant in tow.
Only hours earlier, Keith Dympep of 60’s Green Hills told me the local “babas” had graduated from smoking beedis (low-cost cigarettes made of tobacco leaf) and cannabis to drinking booze.
Upriver new dams hinder the natural flow of the Ganges, but nothing apparently hinders the torrent of liquor flowing these days in Rishikesh. Friends I saw drinking occasionally 15 years ago now drink nearly every night, late into the night. Alcohol consumption is officially forbidden in “sacred” Rishikesh. But the ban is as ineffectively enforced as Uttarakhand’s Anti Littering and Anti Spitting Act of 2016.
So merry drunkards across the hills and mountains ensure Shiva Ratri becomes more dedicated to Bacchus, the Greek-Roman god of alcohol.
Boozy Bacchus in the Himalayas is a strange contradiction. Living in a Himalayan forest, I see village men, women, and load-carrying children with stamina and strength enough for me to call them “Himalayan Super-beings.”
Moderate Himalayan trails cause exhausted city dwellers to turn back halfway before their trekking destination. But Lodsi villagers like Muninder speedily carry bags of cement and other construction material more than 3 kilometers up fairly steep pathways barely 60 centimeters wide.
Muninder and his mustachioed father Ghani Ram worked near my temporary address of a tent in the forest below Lodsi village. They were building three rooms for the locality’s tippler-in-chief Shyam Lal. A small, gnome-like man in his 60s with disappearing hair and teeth, Shyam Lal looks like he is reverse-evolving into a Gollum-like creature from Lord of the Rings.
Tormented Gollum was slave to The One Ring, and Shyam Lal is a dedicated servant to the bottle in the little black shoulder bag he carries all day. Getting drugged or drunk to escape from his inner turmoil is like trying to escape from his shadow. I told him about the meditation I am here in the Himalayas to practice. He politely offered me a beedi.
Despite being captive to beedis and Bacchus, Garhwal village folks get their work done – and then go berserk on payday. “They get 1 or 2 lakh rupees [about US$2,600] and spend it all in a few days,” said a local, Sanjay Mahar.
Following that script, Muninder came staggering outside the tent on the afternoon of February 28, wearing his usual friendly smile, and collapsed drunk on the ground. The tent when unoccupied, I had been told, serves as a halfway resting house for village drunks before they stagger up the mountain to their homes.
During the cold winter of February, three or four times a day Muninder brought tea for me brewed from a wood fire in his adjacent construction site. Now here he was on the gravelly ground, out for the count.
With the project completed and payday in effect, Muninder gave himself a good time somewhere. He had returned looking almost unrecognizable in new clothes, new shoes, a new haircut, and more alcohol than his inner machinery could hold.
“I’ve thrown away my mobile phone into the river,” he dizzily grinned, after I splashed water on him. He didn’t explain why he drowned his smartphone in the Ganges. Then he got up and lurched his way up home, yelling away. He fell down again en route, but luckily not down the mountain slope.
For these hard-working, honest, simple-living “Himalayan Super-beings,” alcohol is their kryptonite. Like Bacchus devotees worldwide, they seem unaware or ignorant of inescapable consequences. And as with the world with a warped sense of hospitality, guests in Lodsi homes are plentifully offered alcohol for them in later life to suffer liver cirrhosis and a damaged mind.
The saving Himalayan grace for locals is their daily trudges up mountain pathways. They burn away the toxic residues within, and they live healthy.
I am yet to see a drunk Lodsi woman. They apparently have not succumbed to the devious devil in the bottle. The Lodsi ladies – as in mountain tribes – toil particularly hard. Besides cooking, housewives, grandmas and college girls carry firewood and fodder on their heads along mountain trails. Women in saris and girls in salwar kameez climb trees to cut leaves for fodder.
Returning from Rishikesh to my Himalayan forest tent around 4pm, I saw a pretty girl about 20 meters up a tall tree. Professional coconut-tree climbers wear a thick rope around their ankles, but this barefoot young lady reached the top of a tree nearly twice as tall as coconut trees.
With one hand she held on to the slender trunk, and the other hand wielded a busy sickle chopping down leaves. She risked her life to feed a goat destined soon to become mutton in the food chain of life.
“What to do, sir,” said her brother-in-law watching proceedings from the forest pathway, “the goats eat only a particular kind of leaves.” He works in a prominent soap factory in Lodsi up in the mountain, while the girl risks her life for a goat.
But this daring girl did not seem as foolhardy as good Himalayan people and friends elsewhere being devotees to Bacchus. They dangerously risk alcohol, shaking, stirring and awakening the inner devil.
I should know. My father tragically ruined his potentially brilliant life with alcohol, slipping over the edge that the bottled devil sneakily pushes tipplers.
“Drink and the devil had done for the rest …” Alcoholics Anonymous, broken marriages and homes, ruined careers, prisons, hospitals, and graves are filled with victims falling over that edge of the bottled devil’s sneaky trick, “drinking responsibly” – the risky delusion that booze companies promote. The world’s largest brewer, the Brussels-based Anheuser-Busch InBev, sold $46 billion worth of bottled body-mind poison in 2020.
Local bottled-devil victims include the Lodsi village transporter and alcoholic Jagdish who daily drives people and goods to and from Rishikesh. Jagdish was in a Rishikesh hospital for the past week, for an operation costing 40,000 rupees ($520), for which he told me has no money to pay.
I told him to get an Ayushman Card, the pathbreaking national health-insurance scheme for low-income families that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched in 2018.
Jagdish survived. “He has given up drinking now,” his son-in-law said.
The writing cost of this article is donated by Satish Shankar, a past pupil of Don Bosco, Egmore, 1984; the series is in association with Red Chilli Adventure and Sukoon Home Stay, Rishikesh. Raja Murthy has been a Mumbai-based contributor to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and earlier for the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com, The Hindu and others.
This is the fourth article in an eight-part series. To see other “Postcards from the Edge” articles use this link, which will be updated as the series progresses.