The new age limit of 25 for drinking continues to grab headlines. Recently, a front page item in Times of India said Parents across the city have expressed the fear that young adults will be driven to clandestinely consume alcohol if the higher drinking age of 25 remains.Law or no law,youngsters will sample alcohol on their own if they so choose. When you place restrictions on something,you actually give it further impetus. I don’t know how many parents were surveyed to reach this conclusion.
This item reminded me of my first encounter with alcohol which happened before I reached the legal drinking age.
It was June 1977. We were enjoying our vacation. I was particularly happy since I had just cleared the tough IIT entrance exam. About eight of us were planning to go for a trip to Matheran. For the uninitiated, Matheran is a quaint hill station about 90 km away from Mumbai. It is one of very few places where vehicles are not allowed. This makes the place completely pollution free and pleasant.
The plan was to catch the last train from Dadar at 1 in the night and reach Neral early morning, around 3.30. Then rest for a couple of hours and start trekking up Matheran around 6 in the morning; stay at the Government Tourist Camp at Aman Lodge for a couple of nights and then return.
We decided to reach Dadar earlier and wait there for the last train. We reached there around 10 PM. Then the discussion turned to whether we should try alcohol on this trip. Seven of us were in the same class from our early school days and knew each other very well. All of us were about 17 years old. At that time, the legal drinking age was 18. The eighth guy, Balu, was cousin of one of the group. He was a little older, about 19 and had tasted alcohol before.
We were divided in three camps, as it normally happens, in any group, on any question. A couple of us were vehemently against the idea and a couple were very strongly for it. The remaining were on the fence. Finally, it was decided that we will buy whisky and take it along with us. Balu, the most experienced guy, took the lead. At that time, it was not very easy to buy alcohol, particularly for young people. There were very few shops and permits were checked very frequently. Balu knew about a place near Dadar station where he could buy whisky without having a permit.
That was the time when the hooch business was really thriving. Hooch or Khopdi is cheaper liquor that has high quantities of methyl alcohol which is normally used for industrial purpose. It is actually very poisonous for humans, but is cheap and gives a very quick high. Just a few days earlier, many people had lost their eyesight by consuming Khopdi. Naturally, we were worried about buying the liquor from a shady place. Balu assured us that the stuff he was getting was genuine and not contraband.
So a party of three of us led by Balu went out and bought a half bottle (325 ml) of whisky.
Everything went as per plan. We started walking from Neral around 6 in the morning. We trekked along the normal route and reached Matheran by 9.30. We spent the whole day roaming around. Finally, we returned to the camp after dinner at around 8 PM. And, then came the much anticipated moment of alcohol consumption. Balu was the expert and the biggest consumer. Most of us were really scared, but couldn’t back out, for the fear of losing face. So we consumed the whisky, by taking a capful in a glass and filling the glass with water. In no time, the eight of us emptied the small bottle. Maximum any of us had was much less than a small peg of whisky. We were elated at having tried the banned fruit and also a little worried about doing it. Finally we slept on the floor, next to each other.
As we were sleeping, the electric supply in Matheran got disrupted. So the night lamp, the street lamp, everything went off. Matheran has a very dense tree cover. In fact the name Matheran means “Forest on the top”. Also, being monsoon, there was thick cloud cover. It became pitch dark. Staying in a city, we can’t imagine how dark it can get because we always have some ambient, reflected light.
One of us woke up in the night and couldn’t see ANYTHING. He immediately reached a conclusion that we had consumed khopdi and he had lost his sight. He panicked. He woke up his neighbour. Even his neighbour couldn’t see. Now they woke up everyone! Nobody could see anything!! Hell broke loose. We were all shit scared.
Then somebody caught on, that the power had failed. In the dark, we started going around looking for a match. Finally, someone found a matchbox and lit a match. I had never been so happy to see a light. The incidence seem very funny now, but we were so scared then.
This incidence left a lasting impression on me. After that day, I didn’t consume alcohol for a very long time.