Saturday, July 6, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

What do different religions say about drinking
Khushwant Singh

I WAS curious to know the attitudes of different religions towards consuming intoxicating drinks. I am fully aware that people who like to drink do so no matter what their religion says against drinking alcohol. On the contrary taking wine is a part of Catholic and Anglican religious ritual. Only latter day sects like Mormons who practise polygamy, Jehovas Witnesses Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists, Quakers and Plymouth Brethren disapproved of imbibing liquor. There are lots of references to the joy of drinking in the Old Testament. Psalm 104 assures that "Wine makes glad the heart of man." Ecclesiaste exhorts "go eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart." Wine made from grapes was believed to be good for health. "No longer drink only water but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities."

Attitude towards drinking underwent a change with the advent of Islam. Scholars still dispute whether the Koran forbids it as haraam (unlawful) or only censures it as something undesirable. So drinking in public is forbidden in most Muslim countries except those like Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt which are comparatively westernised. Also, in Malaysia and Indonesia, though it is frowned upon by the orthodox, it is openly available to everyone. In the more conservative Muslim countries like Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh despite prohibition, people manage to get it. A friend who has lived in Riyad, capital of Saudi Arabia, the most orthodox of all Islamic States, assured me that he had little problem getting his required quota of Scotch and wines.

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The Hindic family of religions, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism, takes a more tolerant view of drinking. Our gods drank somras, on many religious festivals drinking hard liquor or bhang (hashish) is de rigueur. My Sikh friends who disapprove of my drink quote passages from the Guru Granth Sahib to prove drinking is forbidden by the Sikh faith. Nevertheless, next to the Parsis (Zoroastrianism does not forbid drink), Sikhs are the biggest tipplers in India. Strong disapproval of drinking is a later development among certain Hindu reformist movements and given religious tones by men like Mahatma Gandhi and Morarji Desai. Fortunately their influence is on the wane. Prohibition is as dead as the dodo. Drink is enjoyable provided you drink like a gentleman and don’t make an ass of yourself and be a nuisance to others.

Kalka railway station

The Howrah-Kalka Mail starts its eastward journey from Kalka in Haryana, runs through the Indo-Gangetic plain and terminates at Howrah. It starts its westward journey from Howrah and terminates at Kalka. This train has given Kalka a place on the map of India.

Kalka is the cleanest and best kept railway station in India. So everyone at Kalka railway station will tell you. I had not been there for many years. For me it was a station I looked forward to spending a pleasant evening in before boarding the train to Lahore or the Howrah Mail to Delhi. As I came down from cool Shimla and Kasauli (I usually walked the nine-mile distance) into the hot, dusty plains, my clothes were drenched in sweat and my throat parched. I took a shower, changed into fresh clothes and made for the dining largely patronised by the sahib log. A glass of chilled beer went down from the dry throat to the toes, like life-giving elixir. Then I would choose my restaurant: vegetarian, Hindu non-vegetarian, Muslim or western. After a meal, I took a long after-dinner stroll along the station’s two platforms before lying down on my berth. By the time the train pulled out of Kalka railway station, I was fast asleep. I have happy memories of the Raj.

Kalka railway station is slowly coming back to its own. The Shatabdi Express from Delhi now goes all the way up to Kalka every morning and leaves from there in the evening. People bound for hill resorts near Shimla find it more convenient to get down at Kalka than detrain at Chandigarh. All that Kalka railway station needs to have is a gourmet restaurant with a bar licence to restore it to its past glory. In addition, a well-stocked book and magazine stall. You can watch rail motor cars and the small gauge trains chug their way up the hill towards Shimla. The atmosphere can become more festive.

Chandigarh has now become a wayside station for me. The train almost empties itself there with only hill-wallahs going to Kalka, an hour’s journey beyond. They form a fraternity as most faces are familiar. A lady walked up to me and asked, "Are you going to Kasauli?" I’ve just rung up my son on the mobile. He says it has been pouring since the morning." A few minutes later, her husband came over and said, "If you are going to Kasauli, we can give you a lift. My car will be at the station. We live next door to your friend Bulbul Sharma." Introductions were made. They were Rana and Rekha Jolly. They own Baikunth resorts, a few miles from Kasauli.

So I saved myself a hefty taxi fare and the newly levied fee of Rs 40 per car entering Himachal Pradesh and Rs 6 for entering Kasauli. I had the company of Rekha and Rana and took the shorter road to my destination. I also had a brief dekho and handshake with Bulbul and her husband. They have a tiny commune of about six families who have built garden villas alongside each other among the pines. When bored with life, they drive up to Kasauli to see some raunaq.

The shorter route did me no good. It is a very narrow road broken down on many places and threatened with landslides during rainy seasons. In one word, dangerous. Despite the levy to fill its coffers, the Himachal Pradesh Government has done nothing to make it safe. I will not be surprised if one of these days a car or a bus goes down the khud, killing all its passengers (there are sheer falls of a thousand feet or more on one side). Then there will be the usual passing of blame to one department or the other or the blame will be put on the driver of the vehicle.

Sentinel dogs

My housekeeper in Kasauli kept two dogs to keep uninvited visitors and monkeys at bay; Neelo and Joojoo. Neither could claim any pedigree and had been picked out of litters of bitches living in the vicinity. Both were ill-tempered but their barks were stronger than their bites. They were never known to bite anyone but everyone, including the postman, shouted his arrival from a distance. When they had no one to bark at, they growled at each other and often had a scuffle. Their ill-temper was more in evidence when I happened to be in Kasauli. As is common to most dogs, they sense who is the master of the house, and attach themselves to him rather than those who feed them. No sooner would I arrive, the two would vie with each other to claim closeness to me. Neelo being the younger and tougher of the two would sit by my chair and snarl at Joojoo if he came anywhere near me. But Joojoo found ways to get round his rival. Neelo did not like to go for a stroll in the evening and would wait for me at the gate. I did not like Joojoo coming with me because he was prone to pick up quarrels with any dog we met on our walks. I did my best to drive him back home but he found footpaths on the hillside to catch up with me. While going through the small stretch of the bazaar, Joojoo would fight half-a-dozen dogs belonging to shopkeepers. However, over the years I got used to the temperaments of the two dogs and stopped fussing about them.

This went on for 14 years. Both Neelo and Joojoo aged but not very gracefully. White hair sprouted round their mouths, they became slower in their movements, Joojoo stopped dogging my footsteps during my evening strolls. I noticed signs of ageing in the two dogs but refused to admit to myself that I too had aged and was often reluctant to step out of the house.

When I returned to Kasauli in June, Neelo was missing. My servant told me that the dog men in the employ of the Cantonment Board had fed him poison because he wore no collar. Joojoo, who had spent his lifetime quarrelling with Neelo, looked older than ever before. His skin sagged over his bones, his genitals hung like a dilapidated sack under his belly, his legs trembled as he walked and his eyes looked bleary and unseeing. He would join me at tea-time to beg for a biscuit or two because he could not chew anything harder. One morning he came and sat by me while I was having my morning tea. When I got up, he stood up on his trembling legs and looked pleadingly at me. I spoke to him gently: Joojoo too buddha ho gaya. Joojoo main bhee buddha ho gaya (Joojoo you have got old, so have I). He looked at me with uncomprehending eyes and slowly went away. An hour later, one of the boys living in the house came and told me: Joojoo mar gaya (Joojoo is dead). I saw him lying by the club house. The Cantonment Board took his body away in a cart. So ended our 15-year-long friendship.

Wonderful painting

During an exhibition of his paintings, an artist was explaining his work. "This", he said, pointing to complete blank canvas, "is a cow grazing."

"Where is the grass?" asked a visitor.

"The cow has eaten it."

"Well, then," the visitor said, "Where is the cow?"

"How could you expect her to stay?" the artist replied, "after she’d eaten all the grass?"

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Silcher)