Smoking seems to have replaced drinking. This is the impression I get when I reach the venue of an AA meeting at 6.30 on a Saturday evening. Four men are gathered around the parking lot, cracking the odd joke, pulling each other’s leg about the nagging wife, waiting for their buddies to arrive so they can begin the meeting. By the time others show up and they stub out their third, maybe fourth cigarette, it’s 6.45 — time to move to the library room in the Arya Samaj Mandir where the meeting is to be held.
We’re all sitting on school benches. This is also a make-shift classroom, for the children of the underprivileged. The walls have cobwebs. The switchboard is uncovered. Dusty wires hang unattended. A yellowed chart drawn by a child has pictures of four kinds of fans.
Despite the puzzled faces wondering what I’m doing there if I’m not a drinker, I’m welcomed warmly. One of the men who I’ve only just met, Manish, 48, covers for me: “She’s here to observe.”
We are a total of eight men and three women — two of whom, including me, are observers. The third, Claire, is a striped-pajamas-wearing American in her fifties. She sits down with one of those thermos-mug things in her lap. The other woman, Priyanjali, in a creased, red and white salwar-kameez, is the wife of a ‘first-timer.’
The meeting begins with the group members introducing themselves: “Hi, I’m Rajiv and I’m an alcoholic.” A loud, enthusiastic chorus greets him, “Hi Rajiv!” or a “Hi, my name is Peeyusha and I’m an alcoholic.” Again, loud chorus: “Hi Peeyusha!”
Alcoholics Anonymous is a publicity-shy group. Point eleven of their twelve traditions says: “Our PR policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need to maintain anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.” Naturally then, they aren’t keen on having undercover reporters in their midst, going, “Hi my name is such-and-such, and I’m an observer” — which is what I did. To my surprise, none of them had a problem with my presence. I even made a few friends.
Like Manish, for instance. The chain-smoking, jovial hotelier is unafraid to take, and dish out, a few good-natured punches. September 4 was his ‘anniversary’ — he’s been sober for five years. Not a drop since the day at the bank when he couldn’t tally his signature and the lady at the counter had to make him sign 17 times. He still couldn’t tally it. His hands shook so much. Finally, he had to excuse himself, go to the car, and ask his driver to pour him a stiff one.
Sitting in the backseat, he knocked back that large whiskey in the middle of the day, steadied his hand, and produced a clear, perfect match of a signature. This was Manish’s moment of humiliation. He shares this in the meeting, not proud, but unafraid to bare his demons. Some look down. Some close their eyes. But there is no room for judgments.
As Claire says when asked why AA meetings work: “You leave the bullshit at the door.” Fellow AA-members welcome that.
Every meeting has a moderator, a leader, a pied piper, a class teacher, as it were. In this one, it’s Manish. Halfway through the meeting, two volunteer to get everyone coffee. The cups are handed out quietly.
Incomplete sentences hang in the air — “I was going downhill so fast, my mother gave up on me…”; “I hold the record among my friends for maximum car crashes…”; “My wife went to live with my sister… she couldn’t take it that I would get drunk and bruise myself banging into tables, falling all over and next morning not remembering how I got these blue marks...”; “I love alcohol more than my family”; “I was angry I wasn’t allowed to go to parties anymore…”.
Saying things out loud helps. That is the premise: talk it out, we’ll help you, we’re all in this together. At AA, you follow the 12 steps (see box) and learn to rely more on people (your sponsors) than on the bottle. When you feel like you might cave in, be it at 5am, the onus is on you to dial an AA pal for a pep talk, a little moral support, some hand holding. Abstinence is the only cure to what some call a disease. The struggle, more than to put the bottle/glass down, is to remain sober every day.
The first timer, dragged to the meeting by his wife Priyanjali, is from a royal family, and in the last 10 years, hasn’t been sober for more than 8 hours. Royalty (my unimaginative nickname for him) doesn’t speak. His wife smiles at me. Her husband’s come in sloshed, his features ravaged by drink.
Royalty sits with his eyes closed. His liver is on crutches and he’s reeking of the stuff. When the person next to him says, “I eat mithai when I want to drink”, he giggles helplessly. He’s half a peg away from being carted off to rehab. But his wife, in her crushed white salwar and pained smiles, insists he try AA first. She wants him to talk about his problem. He doesn’t want to talk. He just wants a refill.
At the close of the meeting, a little cloth purse is passed around discreetly — donations. People gathered slip in as much as they like in the pool. One wallet dispenses with a hundred, some fumble for change. How much of yourself you give to AA is totally up to you.
*Names have been changed on request
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