We set up lofty ideals for ourselves only to compromise with them to save our skins. The commonest example is the resolve never to tell a lie — and then lie like troopers to get out of awkward situations. I am a typical example of one who swears by the truth and lies all the time to avoid people I don’t want to see. In my home in Kasauli I have put up a plaque in a prominent place with a quotation from Shakespeare:
This above all,
To thine own self be true
And it must follow as the night the day
That then thou shalt not be false to any man.
I look at it when I go in and out of my bedroom. My phone rings: "I am so-and-so. Can I see you for a few minutes today at any time convenient to you?" he or she asks. Without a pause I change my voice into one of a doddery old man’s on his death bed, "I am sorry, I am not all well," I reply. The doctor has forbidden me from receiving visitors. Call me after a few days when I am better." And return to solving my crossword puzzle in undisturbed peace. I don’t suffer any pangs of guilt at having lied. And I did not offend him or her. This kind of petty lying has become my second nature. I have also told bigger lies, but taken care not to hurt too many people.
The compromise formula I have accepted is taken from James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. A resume of his creed runs as follows: "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church; and I will express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can asking for my defence, the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning....But I will tell you what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone, or to be spurned by another, or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, a life-long mistake, and perhaps as eternity too."
Joyce would have readily forgiven my trespasses because I fully subscribe to his resolve to speak without fear of consequences about my family, country and religion. And if trouble follows then keep mum, run away or lie my way out of it. Many great men like Galileo had to lie to save their lives. All life is sacred, one’s own more sacred than others. It is neatly summed up in an Urdu couplet:
Magar haq key liye koee aur marey
To aur acchha
Tum bhee koee Mansoor ho,
Jo soolee charhoo ?
(Truth is good.
If someone else dies for the truth
It is much better:
Are you some kind of martyr to be hanged?
Next to love liquor is the most popular theme in Urdu poetry: from Meer Taqi Meer down to Faiz Ahmed Faiz, they extolled the joys of drinking. The trend continues with Ahmed Faraz, the leading Pakistani poet. Though forbidden (haraam) by their Islamic faith, most of them were hard drinkers. But to my dismay I find that though they wrote a great deal about maikhanas (taverns), and sakis (wine-servers), there is no evidence whatsoever that there were any in existence anywhere in India till Europeans made their presence felt in our country.
Thereafter the Portuguese had their taverns, as did the French and the Dutch. The English did not replicate their pubs but confined their drinking to their exclusive whites-only clubs or bars of hotels. If there has been any maikhanas or madhushalas, they would have names as have pubs in England. None can be found in works of prose in Urdu, Hindi or English.
First allow me to deal with the Urdu poets’ love of liquor. One of the most popular poems of Meer Taqi Meer is Yaaro mujhey muaaf rakho, main nashey mein hoon (friend forgive me for I am somewhat drunk.). Asadullah Khan Ghalib made no secret of his liking for Scotch and French wines; he made his sundowner into a ritual: a bath, fresh clothes, then Whiskey or wine delicately scented. He took a sip or two before he picked up pen and paper to compose verses. He was often smitten with guilt and resolved to give it up. The resolution to become a teetotaller did not last very long. To wit:
Ghalib chhuttee sharaab par phir bhee kabhee kabhee
Peeta hoon roze-e-abr-o-shab-e-Mehtab mein
(Ghalib foreswore wine
But from time to time it is true
When clouds gather in the skies and nights lit by the moon, he breaks his vow and takes a sip or two.)
He also writes of the maikhana, saki, the rivals (ghair) he met there and the beloved with whom he exchanges glances which were more eloquent than speech. I am convinced that all these maikhanas, sakis and lovely women he flirted with his eyes were figments of his poetic imagination. All the drinking our poet-authors did was in their homes or in entirely male gatherings. Their mehfils took place in houses of courtesans; the women they fell in and out of love with and often bedded were professionals.
It does not matter whether maikhanas or madhushalas did or did not exist or whether wine-servers were women or young boys, our bards of yore conjured up fictitious but magical poetry extolling them. To wit Ghalib’s lines:
Ishq say tabeeyat nay zeest ka mazaa paayaa
Dard kee dawaa paayee, dard la-dawaa paayaa
From love I got the lust for living; To ease my pain it gave me something for sure; I also found that such pain hath no cure.
Women tipplers, they say, are tilting the scales
And fast catching up with the males
In their quest for liberty, equality, eternity, fraternity,
Beaten up by their drunken husbands
They are fast making amends
For their inferiority
In both towns and country.
And the report says, Dayanand and Damyanti
In the fort town of Jhansi
One evening came home high
And under their roof began to fly;
"Dinner, O get me dinner," Dayanand demanded
"Quick, you cook, I am starring," Damyanti responded
He caressed and coaxed her,
And there was a tide
Which he pushed aside
At which his manhood asserted and he commanded,
At which she was greatly offended
And kicked his behind
And hid herself a bit;
He ran for her in a fit
And without his knowing, his foot get caught in it
And his dhoti was gone;
But he was in a heat
And ran on into the street
Where he met his neighbours freely
And has since provided immense joy
To the entire locality.
(Courtesy: Kuldip Salil, Delhi)