Photo above: The morning after a night of heavy drinking, a still-annebriated pimp keeps lookout over his brothel. Andhra Pradesh, India. ©Tom Pietrasik 2009
I had the misfortune of working with an alcoholic translator-fixer last week. I knew it the moment he greeted me at the airport arrival gate. The sunglasses he was wearing may have hidden the bloodshot eyes but they couldn’t mask the sickly stench that hung over him and lingered for the rest of that day. It might have been easier had I confronted him there and then and found somebody else. But this was a remote part of India and I had few alternatives. Besides, I actually liked the chap. We ended up spending all of last week working together and for the most part he was sober. He was generous, smart and worked hard on what was a challenging subject: the lives of sex-workers. He had a good grasp of my needs as a photographer and his easy-going manner meant that we were able to build a trust amongst those I photographed.
Drunk men beside a fleet of Kolkata’s ubiquitous yellow Hindustan Ambassador taxis.
Kolkata, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009
Alcohol is a divisive issue in India. For the wealthy elite, a drink is undeniably de rigueur. And in my experience military officers would consider an evening wasted if denied the company of an Old Monk or Blue Nun. In contrast the sight of a middle-class Mrs Gupta – or Dr Seth – sipping on a shandy would raise serious doubts among the neighbours.
Members of the Delhi Wine Club gather at an exclusive restaurant for dinner and one or two glasses of Sula Red.
New Delhi, India. ©Tom Pietrasik 2008
For many working-class men – but almost no women – alcohol provides the only means to escape lives which are often harsh and monotonous. Of course for the families of those who soak themselves in the stuff it does nothing but extend their pain. I didn’t quite appreciate the significance of alcohol as an issue in India until a trip to rural Maharashtra last year. I was photographing a workshop intended to encourage the involvement of women in local decision-making. When asked by a social-worker what they might do if they were able to change one thing about their village, those in attendance were unanimous: Shut down the liquor store!
I saw this story today on BBC.co.uk about sex workers learning karate to defend themselves: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/8093946.stm
I guess drunk pimps are no match for their dangerous clients.
I notice that the karate program is in Tamil Nadu: such a culturally conservative state yet at forefront of so many initiatives that benefit marginalised groups.
Great work! I like how you weave a story around a small set of photos.
Referring to your comment above, I think it’s because Tamilnadu is so urbanised and has a strong social justice movement that it has such remarkable initiatives being implemented.
Thanks Mekie, I’m please that you like the work. There are clearly people in Tamil Nadu who hold the government to account. The relatively high literacy will be a factor in this. I’m sure, like you say, urbanisation must also play its own part.
One of my most memorable Indian drinking experiences was in Diu, a small island off the south coast of Gujurat, where every Friday night carloads flock from the [booze-free] mainland to indulge in a legal tipple or two. Fast forward to the end of the night and the town is full of smashed Gujaratis, stumbling around, bumping into things, giggling at each other, vomiting in gutters and falling asleep in the middle of the road. It felt like an Indian version of what I imagine Benidorm to be like, except without any drunken violence, just silliness.
Watching a drunken group in a restaurant ordering too much Western-style food was a moment of utter brilliance that will stay with me for a long time.
Great site, Tom. I’m hoping to head back to India at the end of the year to get some writing done, and it’s been good to get a glimpse again through your work.
Yes, I’ve rarely seen drinking in India spill over into the kind of macho violence you get in the UK. But it does often have a sadness about it. I’m not sure if that was the case in Diu: lots of men – and only men – gathered in the darkness, many of them apparently ashamed of indulging in an activity that is so widely frowned upon. I have to say, Diu always seemed like it might be worth a visit – not so sure after your description! Thanks for your comment Jared.
Tom, please don’t let my story put you off Diu; it’s a wonderful little island populated by lovely people, and it somehow manages to maintain a steady calmness rarely experienced throughout much of the country. That might have much to do with a combination of it being a real effort to get to (for the budget traveller at least) and a distinct lack of Goa-esque beaches and no nightlife; plus with the large beach becoming a haven for holidaying Indian families at the weekends, I can easily see why the tourist masses stay away, something which has realistically contributed to keeping the island pretty much the same for last few decades.
Diu almost feels Mediterranean in its attitude, flora, and architecture (beautiful Portuguese buildings everywhere) and its calming environment has been great for my writing in the past. The drunken story above is one retold with fondness, but is the exception rather than the norm. Small groups do head to Diu for drunken weekends but they can be just as easily avoided as observed with a smile (or a camera?) and as you alluded to above, these guys don’t appear to drinking out of sadness, just silliness, and being a Brit abroad it’s a relief to see a group of drunk men NOT wanting to fight everyone and anyone.
Get yourself down there and have a nose. I’ll see you at the bar.