Saturday, February 3, 2001
S T A M P E D  I M P R E S S I O N S

What is the definition of bad?
By Reeta Sharma

I had grown up convinced that men who drank and smoked were "bad". However, the definition of "bad" was never clear to me and the perception was perhaps the result of an upbringing in a strict brahmin family. It slowly changed over the years as I came across many persons who earned my admiration and respect even though they drank and smoked.

One such person was Amitoj. He was a very dear family friend. He drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney. I liked him because he spoke refined Punjabi and wrote soul-stirring poetry. Creativity and imagination flowed in his veins. Later, he also turned a presenter on Jalandhar Doordarshan. He was a natural when it came to anchoring and his Punjabi literary programme earned quite a fan following.

He was always an unannounced visitor to our home. During his sober hours, he would bring cheer and joy to everybody in the family and was fun to be with.


However, when he hit the bottle, his behaviour could be anything from perplexing to shocking. One such evening had opened on a cheerful note. He was surrounded by my family members. The children specially were vying with each other for a place on his lap for the usual story session. It was raining heavily outside and as he laughed and talked with others, I went into the kitchen to cook for him.

But somewhere in the middle of this cheer and gaiety, his mood changed. He slipped away without so much as a goodbye. We searched for him in the house and outside but couldn’t find him. It was only in the morning that one of his slippers was found stuck in the mud. He had obviously walked off without even bothering to retrieve his footwear in the downpour.

Over the years, my admiration for this "bad" man grew, though I lost touch with him. But now news has arrived that he is staying in his native village and is bed-ridden. That his mother, who doted on him, his younger brother, who was in awe of him and loved him, his wife, who had married him for love, have all deserted him because of his alcohol habit. And that his poetry and honeyed Punjabi have turned listless.

I have certainly grown out of the men-who-drink-and-smoke-are-bad syndrome. But, interestingly, for many long years I was under the impression that Indian women do not drink and smoke. But then came many ‘shocking revelations’. I witnessed many a woman get totally drunk. I held the view that women who drank and smoked were worse than men who indulged in these activities. I used to withdraw from them. But it was they, the ‘drunkard women’, who brought about a sea change in my views.

Bibi Nooran was the first such woman who freed me of my prejudices. The year was 1978 and venue was the lawns of All India Radio, Jalandhar. I was walking towards the drama section when I suddenly saw this dusky, middle-aged, shabbily dressed woman sitting with some men and smoking a bidi. I threw her a dirty look and carried on.

As I was coming out, I heard a melodious female voice taking an effortless alaap. I was spellbound. I could not believe that the woman vocalist was none other than the rustic villager I had passed a few hours back. And the men who were with her were musicians themselves. One of them was playing a harmonium, the other a tabla, yet another a dholak and the fourth one was handling a couple of percussions. Many passersby had stopped to listen to her. I learnt that she was Bibi Nooran, a marassan, and a disciple of renowned Ustad Bade Miyan.

It was her haunting, melodious, velvety voice that dragged me to her house the next day. Her residence stood amidst stagnant water and mud, and there was an unbearable stench. The carcass of a dog lay with crows feasting on it. She was sitting on a charpoy with a bottle of local brew in her hand. Another woman, whose legs were encircling her girth, was scanning her dirty hair for lice.

We met frequently as my fondness and admiration for her singing grew. I even organised a solo musical evening at the local Tagore Theatre for her. The media had lapped her up and I had begun weaving dreams for her. But within two months, Bibi Nooran died of cirrhosis.

There are many Amitojs and Bibi Noorans around us who are blessed with talent and capability. Today, my definition of "bad" has become somewhat clear. I now strongly feel that it is not people who are "bad" but drinking and smoking certainly are. Hundreds of such extraordinary people have left suddenly without achieving the success that was within their grasp.