Surviving A Big Indian City, Sober!
NEW DELHI: I’m newly sober. I am also new (ish) to New Delhi, having moved here from Bombay a little over a year ago. My introduction to the capital city was softened by a big boozy blur -- my first day at work was topped off by post-work drinks with my colleagues at a bar my office shared a wall with. Soon, I had a bottle of wine hidden in my desk drawer for the days we were too lazy to hop across next door (this says a lot). My drive home from work passed a big board of an alcohol company posturing as a record label or some such. Drinking dictated my social life -- from office mixers to brunch with the girls to an invite to a party I really wanted to be at.
For reasons that I am choosing to not get into, I gave up alcohol entirely a few months ago. Just like that, I was a newly sober, still single, girl in the city. My new found sobriety coincided with most boozy time of the year in Delhi’s social calendar -- no not the New Year, but summer!
As if the social Gods were testing me, my first weekend sober was at a big event my company had organised. My colleagues were all soon at the bar, downing shots and passing around drinks. I meekly asked the bartender for a soda and lime, got a bizarre look in return, and survived about fifteen minutes at the event before I had to run home, crying.
Crying because I saw my colleagues have a great time; no matter how delicious I pretended my soda and lime was, I had suddenly become the outsider. The same people who would spend the night cracking jokes with me, who would dance awkwardly to the awful music with me, who would make wild plans that we never followed through on with ME, seemed to have no interest in talking to a sober me. The message was clear: If you’re not part of the inner clique downing tequila shots at the bar, you’re no one. Just go home.
I spent the weekend in my tiny apartment. No one called to make a plan for drinks. No one came over for a glass of vino and Asian Haus. Had I made a mistake? Was giving up booze social suicide? I rang my sister (who still lives in Bombay), crying. This is what she said, “You’re a mess when you’re drunk, and if the only people in your life are people who like that mess, it’s time you change that.”
The next day at work I expected my colleagues to be distant and to exclude me from the daily gossip and chit chat -- as they had been doing at the party. I settled in at my desk with a frown on my face, repeating my sister’s words to myself. Like clockwork at 10 am, Swati - the design girl and my closest friend at work - showed up at my desk with two cups of coffee. This was our routine, but my tears over the weekend had convinced me that it would no longer be. I don’t think Swati even registered my surprise, as she jumped onto my desk and with that, into gossip about the weekend. Rashmi, one of the copyeditors we didn’t like very much, had hooked up with Rahul, one of the copyeditors we did like very much. Parul, in marketing, had gotten super wasted (as usual). The other Ayesha (don’t get me started on her), had tripped and fallen in front of the big boss. We laughed; I - extra loudly, happy that things, inexplicably, seemed normal.
The day went on as it always did. A little bit of work, a lot of breaks. As we approached 6pm, I began feeling anxious. Will my colleagues invite me to post-work drinks, or has the whole day been a forced act and they still hate the new me? I couldn’t concentrate on anything but that thought. Maybe I can invite myself, if they don’t, I thought. Maybe I can prove to them that I can still be fun, even if I’m not drinking. Oh who am I kidding, I can’t even dance or sing out loud till I’m drunk. Maybe I can have a couple of drinks? Maybe this sobriety thing cannot work…
My thoughts were abruptly interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. “Want to come for a drink?” Rahul asked. I glanced at my phone and saw that it was 5:55 pm. I cannot explain why, but without even batting an eyelid, I smiled and said, “Nah. You guys go ahead. I have a lot of work.”
Over the next few weeks I realised that my boozy colleagues did not really care that I was not drinking. It didn’t change anything about our sober time together -- no awkwardness, no distance, no cold treatment or being left out. In fact, they almost seemed to enjoy that they had someone to share their stories of weekend antics with -- someone who wasn’t there; an audience, if you will. So I laughed extra hard with Mayank, also in the design team, told me a joke he had heard at a party on Friday night. I listened extra carefully when Swati told me about her latest fight with her boyfriend (she threw her drink on him in front of everyone, apparently). And I cheered extra loudly when Rahul told me about his latest Saturday night conquest.
I was finding a new normal.
The one thing lacking in my new normal was social activity over the weekend. I had figured out how to traverse work, but my weekends were still being spent watching Netflix and chatting with my sister, and not liking it. One Saturday night, about a month into my sobriety -- and I don’t know what exactly changed -- I picked up the phone and dialed Swati. The group were all going to a house party. “Pick me up,” I said, and in what felt like the first time in eternity, I got out of bed on a Saturday night and got ready.
We arrived at an apartment in Nizamuddin at about 11:30 pm -- early by Delhi standards. The host was a friend of a friend of Rahul’s. As we were walking up the stairs, I suddenly felt a sharp pang in my stomach. My friend, anxiety, was back. Would I be able to make conversation without a drink? What will I do if someone asks me to dance? Will people think I am a loser if I am not drinking?
I somehow survived night number one without a drink. It wasn’t easy, and I won’t lie -- I got bored. But I realised that no one even knew I wasn’t drinking. My soda and lime looked close enough to a vodka, soda and lime, and more importantly, everyone else was too hammered to be concerned with what I was or was not drinking.
By 3 am, my friends were near the speakers, dancing (tbh, they looked quite ridiculous but I was usually tanked by that time, dancing alongside them). I had been ready to go home two hours ago, but this being Delhi, taking an Uber alone that late wasn’t really a possibility. The night dragged on, my friends got more and more drunk, and I whiled away time eating stale tortilla chips and making small talk with a nerdy looking guy who had just moved to Delhi from Calcutta. But, I survived -- and that’s what I needed to know.
It has now been almost four months that I have been sober. I would be lying if I were to say I have not had a night like that 5 am morning in Rahul’s friend’s friend’s nizamuddin apartment, but the fear-of-missing-out is a real thing. What I can say, however, is that the need to have nights like those has become far less frequent, and I have come to appreciate Netflix and those long conversations with my sister. I also spend the weekend’s doing other things -- running chores, working, meeting up with people who want to have a sober conversation.
What I have realised in the past few months being sober in Delhi is that everyone around me is tanked, and the women doubly so. The modern, urbane Delhiite has to be a serious drinker, and what they drink signifies a lot about them (as does the music they listen to). There’s the Delhi-crowd -- born and brought up in South Delhi, privileged and very insular. The girls drink vodka-soda and the boys scotch. Then there’s the alternate Delhi-crowd. They can be found at music events/gigs organised across the city. They dress down and will scoff at the commercial music the Delhi-crowd listens to. Vino juice is the favourite here. There are the expats -- usually white, in Delhi working with a civil society group or their own startup. They drink anything, and hang out at bars in South Ex or Greater Kailash, home to frequent “expat nights.” There are the Indian working out-of-towners -- people like me and my colleagues who are in Delhi for professional reasons. We crash expat nights and the music events of the alternative crowd, but can’t bear to have anything to do with the Delhi-crowd (other than stalk a few of them on Facebook). We drink IMFL -- Black Dog, Smirnoff (Absolute when we are feeling indulgent), and like our drinks strong and straight.
Not drinking, therefore, means that you have little chance of belonging to a group in Delhi. The social fabric of this city will not allow you in.
I had always suspected the above, which is why I continued drinking even when I was blacking out every time I drank. It was also the one thought to dominate my life when I finally gave up drinking -- being without a group was a constant worry.
In the last few weeks, I have pretty much confirmed that the above is true: It’s hard to have a life in this city as a non-drinker. The irony of it all is the realisation that having no life in Delhi is actually better than that insular, booze induced, version of life that this city relies on.