I found myself – yet again – in a packed dingy bar surrounded on all sides by a blanket of noise, cigarette smoke and general ‘run-downery’. This dive, started by a Chinese gentleman – whose portrait hung over the payment counter – was in an old market area of Calcutta – Chandni Chowk – an area where Parsi traders once plied their wares alongside French and Syrian merchants. It is one of many spaces in Calcutta that oozes out History with just a little light tapping at the, apparently, hard surface. Bars are great at offering us those much needed oases for pensive Romanticizing. As I walked and interrogated the market area around me, a swell of Time swept over me. My mind started to over-excite itself with figments of this and that. The bar conveniently offered its (relatively) inner calm for me; to weigh and sort out the thoughts which had been percolating within for the past two hours. I went in hurriedly.
As I sat down on a hard, worn down chair I remembered similar ‘austere’ bars of my hometown. Shillong establishments of old – but ill – repute like Ambassador, Golden Dragon came up. I remembered the loud, smoky camaraderie and the (frankly) stupid (but useful) ideas we often threw at each other. All these things have added layers to my life and I smiled to myself (psychotically) as I sipped the vodka, drawing out the incidences once again in my mind. The bar had wooden booths built along the sides of the wall. They were far more spacious than those we, in Shillong, are used to. There must have been about 10 in all. Out of them came the unfamiliar and pleasant sounds of women chatting. I say unfamiliar because in Shillong you would be hard-pressed to find anything resembling a woman in a dive bar. Women, generally speaking, are routed towards fancier joints. Places like Pinewood, Cloud Nine and the like are considered ‘women-friendly’. Women can be free and ‘modern’ within such spaces. The rest of the drinking establishments of Shillong are quite clearly a ‘no go’ for women. Especially for ‘respectable’ women.
In Shillong I had once walked into a bar with some friends only to be told that they would not serve us booze. The reason was because one of my friends had come with his then-girlfriend. We made a show and protest, deliberately trying to upset the men who were already drinking and stormed off after that. In hindsight, there have been many similar incidences like that. But then again we live in a society which has a terrible sense of business; where empty moralism trumps everything else. Must be one of those “salient features” of “tribal” society that I have heard so much about.
A few years ago, there were indeed a number of Shillong bars that permitted women to engage in the wonderful societal event called drinking. However, a slew of molestation/rape cases and a murder quickly led many authorities to point towards the bars as the progenitors of the root problem. It is a fairly common but no less idiotic declaration, in other parts of the country as well. After that, all the bars were ordered to close down by 9 pm and gradually, over time, the curfew was relaxed. However, bar management (probably with directives from the police) had somewhere along the line decided that women were a great liability to their continued business operations. The outcome was that women could not drink as freely as they once did and many bars openly turned them away. This situation still holds true even today, some 5 or 6 years after the murder of that unfortunate woman.
For women, every space is contended space. Even as I sat in that Calcutta dive, I felt this. Ostensibly, it is wonderful that the city of Calcutta seems to have such a nonchalant attitude towards women drinking in bars. It comes out favourably when you compare this to the terrible persecution, women in similar situations, often face in Bangalore, Delhi, etc. By many progressive meters, Calcutta is India’s most ‘civilised’ city. However, the fight for “spaces” is not over by any stretch of the imagination. While we may applaud the permissiveness of Calcutta, we must also note certain things: how drunk women are looked at by the staff and management, how women are usually expected to be accompanied by male friends, how they are hidden away – in their booths or special rooms – from the “serious” drinking lot, how they are talked to, so on. Women should never be complacent.
A rape, murder or similar tragedy along with Right wing opportunism (whether political or social) could undo decades of progress. Women themselves must defend these hard-fought ‘battlegrounds’ because fortunes can change in the blink of an eye.
The issue is, of course, not simply about a woman’s right to drink openly. It is about expanding the rights of women to do anything they wish to do. It is imperative to “perform” publically against the idiotic patriarchal ideas and practices which characterize most Indian communities. As I sat thinking about these things, with that glass in my hand, the various unfortunate situations which plague women in Shillong came up as well. Being able to drink in cheaper places, like those in Calcutta, ensures that women of every social stratum can enjoy themselves. In Shillong, sadly, this is not the case. If women want to drink, they have to pay through the nose.
Perhaps, a look at how rural communities of Meghalaya ‘handle their drink’ would be beneficial for urban dwellers. My friends and I once had a wonderful sing-along with a group of inebriated ladies in a village beyond Smit. So here is a little secret: We did not rape them, we did not succumb to the ‘beast that lies within all men’; we joked and croaked out popular tunes over the hills, enjoying one another’s company. On their part, the women did not run away at seeing, similarly inebriated, creatures. They saw the fun in the situation and made use of it. To imagine men as “beasts” or bestial, is probably the most harmful thing that we could do. We are not challenging ourselves as human beings, to be very honest, when we assume such things.
Hiding women away from society, making “harems” (in whichever way) for their ‘protection’, does nothing but create more insecurity. Along the lake garden walkways at Rabindra Sarobar, I would see women moving about at 10 PM or so. This is a victory in a sense. Do the (middle class) Khasi parents encourage their daughters to participate in any activities after 6 PM? Do they encourage their daughters to walk around and explore Shillong? Sure, they might buy them a car and teach them to drive but that is hardly a “public space”. One should not be so surprised then, when women are turned away from bars, because in many ways we – as a male dominated society – are encouraging the recession of their public roles in a myriad ways. As a final invocation to Shillong youths, I would like to say: relax, turn “tribal” again, enjoy your soma. Cheers.