What a delightful young man Paneer was when I met him 23 years ago. Bright eyed, intelligent and personable, he seemed to be the kind of person one might identify as the “future of India”. He had joined the fledgling reforestation project I was involved with in Tamil Nadu, and had proven himself to be exactly the callibre of man needed: to take responsibility where it was given; to be trusted with any task required, and at the same time to have that gift to inspire those who worked with him to reach for their best potential too. What a find.
We worked a lot together, he as one of my key ‘right-hands’. He had been recently married too, and Sooji his wife was delightful. Also a very dynamic young woman. They were an inspiring couple. They lived in a little one-room thatched brick house in the village where others of his family lived. They were not poor by many rural standards, actually owning a few acres of land. But they lived an extremely simple life. The symbolic article of greatest luxury, was a radio. The house was tiny, but always immaculately clean and tidy, everything in it’s place.
It was only after a few years that I noticed disconcerting changes in Paneer. A shadow seemed to have settled over him: no longer the fresh-faced eager young man, nor reliable as he had been, often absenting himself from work, or turning up for a specific duty late or not at all. All very disconcerting, looking into sad, empty unhealthy eyes where they had been clear and sharp and vital. Drink. Of course. How could I not have noticed the indications, and put one and one together.
It’s a story so familiar in South India. Well, it certainly isn’t confined to south India, but there had been an alarming rise in obvious drunks and the violence and tragedy that accompanied them. Cheap – often dangerously concocted ‘country liquor’ being sold for a song, and an apparent oblivion as to when to stop drinking, made for a pattern repeated constantly, right across the countryside. The constant pressure of debt or crop failure – hand in hand – and the ‘role models’ offered by the ubiquitous movies peddling sex (by implication usually, in song or dance) and booze and wildly liberated lifestyles, all contributed to the attraction to ‘changing the unbearable reality of life in the countryside.
For a couple of years I would would several hours in the evening around a mountain circuit, almost every day. The pattern was clear. As the temperatures rose into the high thirties and forties daily, with no prospect of rain to slake the thirst of the arid countryside, little or nothing to harvest for sustenance let alone sale, the sounds filling the quiet of the evening, travelling across the parched landscape, would change. Voices became shriller, more strained and full of tension: the raised tempers and shouts of the men became hoarser and more garbled. Screams and fights and arguments punctuated the din. Grog was doing its pitiless work.
I spoke with Paneer about his situation, gently confronted him with my observations. Reluctant and embarrassed to silence about it initially, he finally admitted to his habit, but expressed his intention to change it. I encouraged him heartfully, and when I asked him, he acknowledged that it was impacting negatively on his family life. There was a little son to be raised now too. Plenty to be lost, more to be gained.
He seemed to get better for a while, and it was heartening. I left for several months to take up work elsewhere and replenish my dwindling funds. Easy for me; I was lucky to be born elsewhere, where poverty and the vaguaries of climate were not so all-pervading circumstances. I had a far greater choice about how I could ‘survive’.
When I returned, the situation had deteriorated again. I met Paneer early one evening, and he was reeling about, pissed as a fart, obnoxious and out of control. Next day I spoke with him when he finally turned up for work. He was deeply ashamed, genuinely guilty for his abberration.
“It’s not an abberration, Paneer,” I offered him. “It’s a very major problem that is starting to ruin your life. Your life would be one thing, but there’s Sooji and your little son Ram involved in it too. Where do they stand in it all?”
He burst into tears, leaned hopelessly against my shoulder, sobbing remorsefully. What to do? He promised he would change. I wondered, doubtfully.
Talking around the town, I gleaned quite a lot of background about his situation. It had spiralled into such a regular pattern now, and he’d been involved in some fights too, that included domestic violence towards Sooji even. It had been a traditional arranged marriage, but the parents had seemed to have matched them wisely; he loved her dearly, and had been apparently devoted to her. The supervising job he had secured with the project carried a lot of potential for him, yet it was slipping away as his work deteriorated and his reputation spread. What a fall from grace. How could it have happened so easily?
Another factor emerged that helped to break the spiral. His father was an alcoholic and had been for years. Somehow he had been able to maintain his family well enough along the way, but it had been a mirror that had not reflected well on the sons; an older brother was far worse than Paneer, and his younger brother was beginning to emulate the behaviour of his siblings.
There were a number of people who had also observed his slide, who wanted to arrest it. Each made their efforts in their own way.
“Paneer, this is not a weakness which you have. It is a sickness, and alcohol is the poison that causes it. Some people can have a drink and it’s no big deal. It can be even healthy for them in very small quantities. Others can’t and you are one. You really just can’t touch the stuff.”
More tearful contrition, and declared determination to stop it. I wished him well before leaving for another absence.
I came back and very shortly after my return, Paneer visited me, with an optimistic expression that he had turned the corner. I looked at him, and the face was indeed more open, less grey and shadowy. His eyes though, testified that he still had some way to go. Still unclear, bloodshot, and despondent, a contradiction the smile he forced and determined words.
“I don’t think so yet, Paneer, as much as I dearly want to believe it. I’m sorry to say it to you, but I’m still worried. How is Sooji now?”
“She is so good to me, and I care for her more than I can say. I feel so bad that I have not been so good to her. She tries to help me. She refuses to let me have sex with her now, saying as long as I drink, she is not available.”
Ah, a new strategy, that seemed to be truly making an impression on Paneer. The expression about ‘the way to a man’s heart, is through his stomach’, can of course truly be paraphrased by ‘is through his balls’!
The next time I returned was quite along time later. More than a year. We met again, unplanned, in the street. He was clean, his eyes shone like the young man I had met years earlier, and he was solid, without shadows or blurs.
“Yes,” I announced, and without elaboration, hugged him warmly. There was no doubt in my mind; he had beaten his demon, had won the fight with himself and the bottle. He was a new man, the one I had so longed to see.
Having finally lost his supervisory job with the project a year or two earlier in my absence, he now had landed not one, but two new ones. He had been taken on as the day director for a new ashram, a solid and stimulating position for a reliable and dynamic person. And as a part-time extra, he had taken on the role of focalisor for a program working with villagers to reverse the plague of alcohol that had tightened it’s grip. He was moving around as an organiser and inspiration for others who had lost their way to booze.
Well done, Sooji; well done Paneer. May you both be seeds of light for a different future for many.