Were there any warning signs in the sky? Any doomsday stars? Nothing.
Instead, we were rather unshakeable in our belief, even in the last minute, that Vijayettan would rise up like Moses, wave his magic wand, part the ocean, deliver us across, as he continued to repeat: “Hear my words. Beverages are essential commodities. Bevco will stay.”
We went rapturous.
We also had statistics behind our back that told us drinkers were veritable Atlases shouldering our weak economy. Proud we were. Who could put us down!
“Thou shall lock down!” Ji said.
And everything was suddenly locked down, the world went dark, save the only bottle at my home (The economy staggered but regained its balance to our horror).
My father-in-law called from Kilimanoor. “Hey, I got a problem with my TV.”
“Uncle…” I wanted him to be calm if I should tell it. He was also reminded that he was past his prime age of shouting and screaming when his son-in-law tells him it was not the TV, but…mm… what he heard in the News was true. The BEVCO has indeed shut down.
“So not any technical problem?”
“Not any technical problem, uncle. Not the TV.”
Before he disconnected the call a thought crossed me.
“Uncle… you got anything in stock?”
“Two bo…, hey ask again? You mean bottles? No, I haven’t got any.”
He hung up quickly. Without even remembering it was I who married his daughter 23 years ago. He talks to her every time he calls me.
That evening I took the only bottle I have from my shelf. Tears welled up. This can’t be true! How long will it stay with me!
We had a glimmer of hope in the initial days of lockdown. As the land dried up, hardcore alcoholics blew their lids and started lining up to take their lives. After each mishap, we’d turn to Vijayettan at the press meet. “See Vijayetta!” We threw our hands up in despair before the tv to catch his attention. “Another fell! You were bang right; what do those bloody khadi-clad morons know about our society! Stop it Vijayetta, stop it! Or else our state will run out of people!”
Meanwhile, another routine developed.
Uncle began to call me every evening half an hour before the Chief Minister’s press meet. “You heard that? Another committed suicide half an hour ago!” He would update me from the war front in a sombre tone which I suspect he had quite recently finetuned up for the purpose. Silence. I’d wait for the customary sigh to emerge before he could disconnect the phone.
Hmm… depressing indeed. But I wonder where he was getting all such intel from! They make me feel like a muggle kept outside a very interesting society!
Poor man. Uncle now had other shocks too.
Earlier he had bragged to his daughters that being an infrequent drinker he could take the ‘sudden turn of events’ lightly but was only concerned about Kovaalan, his aide. “He might die!” His voice choked over the phone. From forty kilometers afar, overhearing the father-daughter conversation, I could smell the strategy.
A desperate Kovaalan would find desperate measures to get to the booze, be it legal or illegal. You only have to track the ant to discover the hidden sugar heap. “He might break down any moment,” Uncle choked one more time before he disconnected the call.
Kovaalan didn’t break down, didn’t die, didn’t bother to take anybody to any hidden sugar heap. Instead, to my uncle’s shock, it was the ant who took matters lightly. One morning Kovaalan even had the cheek to stand before my uncle in mundu and white shirt, a sandalwood paste on his forehead, a smile across his face. Looking immensely healthy. Annoyingly saintlike.
“What?” uncle asked.
“Nothing.” Kovaalan smiled.
“Cool?” uncle asked.
“Cool,” Kovaalan replied, flashing his pan-stained teeth.
A wave of an unspeakable emotion simmered inside the old man, but just before it came to any boil, uncle turned and walked away from that still-smiling-monster-in-white. For he had other reasons to panic.
“You heard that?” uncle called in the evening.
“Nothing!” he said, throwing his phone back to the cupboard.
Only later did I understand what he meant by ‘nothing.’
A week into the lockdown a pall of eerie silence suddenly fell on the society. “I just couldn’t understand the psychology,” a psychologist-friend fumed over the phone. So irresponsibly, so shamelessly, people had stopped taking their lives! Just like that.
“Tell me, what is the provocation!” he asked. I didn’t know what to say. Or how to say.
Thousands of psychologists across the state who had readied up to tackle the deluge of depressed ‘patients’ sat all day, gloomily staring into their numb phones. Nobody called. “Did we do anything wrong! The doctor asked. “This is so depressing Manu.” I can’t agree more.
There were even rumours that two weeks into the lockdown some drinkers had now so unabashedly started lining up behind their wives, helping them in kitchens, all across the state! A few even showed telltale signs of ecstasy as they posed for selfies with their partners on facebook. “Disgusting,” he said. I too agreed.
“You want some money?” Uncle asked.
“For what?” Kovaalan asked.
“Why should I need money anymore!” wondered Kovaalan.
The ant didn’t want to go anywhere. Uncle didn’t call me that evening.
Even after slicing up my last peg into six equal portions, I found myself staring into an empty bottle after two weeks. But then what are friends for! This is the irony. Only those who don’t have bottles at their homes pick calls these days. So if they pick, I disconnect, losing the point.
But friends who live in other countries are kind; they answer my call even when they hold on to bottles.
“Oh Manu, if you were here, see, we could have spent the evening over this…” Hmm… From the way I hear them panting, I could figure out how they had dashed out when I called, to check the sky just to make doubly sure that International flights have not resumed their operation, and their friend was still pinned down in his home far away in Kerala.
Some friends have grown plain callous in lockdown.
Bhanu from Dubai knows only one way to answer questions: “Eda, are you safe there?” I ask. He answers with the picture of the latest bottle he has procured from somewhere. What did I ask! “Bhanu, how is your family? Are they with you?” Another picture pops up in my mobile, this time, Bhanu hugging a bottle. Did I ask that! Did I ask that!!! I am sure if I’d ask him one more question, I’d be treated with the unsavoury sight of Bhanu naked and shamelessly doing it with some bloody bottle!
Perhaps it’d take a very long time before this lockdown is finally lifted.
Oh, then we must pick the rituals from the very beginning, from where we’d left them a long time ago. Would we remember the old ways!
On the first day, we’d be walking among those glittering lights inside a bar, dazed, like those people in the Mohanlal film, Guru, wondering at the magical world suddenly opened before our new eyes. Oh, if I could remember, we’d say.
Once settled, both the barman and I would be asking each other what soda does to a glass of brandy!
“Mmm….I think, mmm…. perhaps….,” the barman might finally come up, “you should chase this soda down with this dark drink, named…let me read…BRANDY.” I’d nod until something else would catch my attention. “Then what is this doing here!” I’d raise a tiny plate of groundnuts before the bewildered eyes of other customers who’d gather around me, throwing the whole bar into utter pandemonium.
Uncle would call in the evening. “Kovaalan wanted that sanitizer Lallu had sent me last week. Who’d need that when there are enough soaps on the shelf! I gave it away.”
Eeswaraa! Johnny Walker Blue Label!!!
So all these days the ant was patiently preparing the man to take it to the hidden sugar heap!