This essay appeared in the Atlantic this week.
Blame It on the Alcohol: An Unintentional Bender in New Delhi
What happens when an abstainer, inspired by Islam and confirmed by palate, is accidentally served a daiquiri at a friend's wedding in India.
After a quarter century of never imbibing so much as a drop of alcohol, it was a strawberry daiquiri at a lovely garden party in New Delhi that did me in. That watered-down libation, the contents of which I'm still not entirely sure about, kicked off a series of of close encounters of the boozy kind.
My decision not to drink has never been a complicated one: it's inspired by Islam, reaffirmed by observations, and cemented by palate. I was raised with the understanding that alcohol was haram -- forbidden -- and, as a perennial goody two-shoes, it would never have occurred to my rule-abiding self to challenge that decree. Furthermore, I don't see the appeal of giving up control of my already delicate faculties, only to then invite the inevitable hangovers. As anyone who has witnessed my interpretation of "Wannabe" during a night out at karaoke can attest, I do a sufficiently adequate job of making a fool out of myself while completely sober. Just call me Curly Spice.
But if an aversion to ridiculing myself any more than is my baseline weren't enough, as a picky eater I also avoid introducing my taste buds to things that could potentially offend any of my senses. I've refused to eat guava because the name sounds funny, eschewed caviar because it looks funny, and shunned bubble tea because the texture feels funny; why would I voluntarily drink something that, to me at least, smells funny? A whiff of beer reminds me of urine, wine of bad breath, vodka of ammonia. I will concede that apple martinis do smell like Jolly Ranchers in a delightful liquid form, albeit mixed with more than a hint of paint thinner.
Being a teetotaler isn't so hard, especially when you don't know anything else. In college I held back my share of matted hair and concealed my pinched expression from view as friends thrust their faces into toilet bowls. At restaurants and lounges, I order water (I don't even like soda... or coffee... or tea). For me, the highlight of a bachelorette trip to Vegas was being in the audience of a stage-show version of the Price Is Right; the closest I got to any debauchery that weekend was when our waiter at a trendy restaurant revealed that he'd been a Chippendales dancer in a past life. I've often attributed my ability to subsist on an alarmingly low salary in New York City on not having to shell out for $12 cocktails on a regular basis. Judging by how frequently I'm invited out "for drinks," I can only presume that most of my acquaintances choose alcohol over rent.
My week in India started out innocently enough. I was in New Delhi for a friend's wedding along with a host of other Americans, and Dom Pérignon flowed freely at the welcome soirée. I approached the bar to see if any festive non-alcoholic drinks could be concocted from the glinting array of bottles, and after some lengthy consultation, the bartender and I agreed upon a virgin strawberry daiquiri. I rejoined my friends, rose-colored confection in hand.
The drink was a hit, so I flagged down a waiter for a sequel. "Can I get one more virgin strawberry daiquiri, please?" I inquired sweetly, gesturing to the vestiges of pink froth in my empty cup. Moments later another glass materialized, only something was off. I still kept sipping at it, willing it to taste like the previous one. I finished the whole thing and felt somewhat light-headed, even dizzy. Wait a second, I thought, my heart pounding. No, no, it's not possible, no way, you're just jet-lagged, I assured myself, grabbing onto the nearest chair for support.
But soon other acquaintances began whining about being served mojitos instead of martinis. "I don't think the waiters understand our accents," a friend complained about the rash of mixed-up orders. Now the unspoken possibility suddenly seemed a lot more real: The bartender knew I'd wanted a non-alcoholic drink because I'd conferred with him extensively about my liquor-free options; could the passing waiter have not heard the "virgin" that prefaced my "strawberry daiquiri"? I'll never know.
Turns out, that incident merely heralded the beginning of my week-long bender.
A few days later, exhausted from dance practice under the command of a slave-driving male professional choreographer whose hips beguiled in ways mine refused to emulate, I descended upon a lavish dessert spread with ravenous abandon. "Oh, my God, the sweets are amazing!" exclaimed the bride's sister. "That tiramasu -- ahh! You could taste every drop of the rum, it was completely... soaked... in... it."
She trailed off and several pairs of widened eyes swiveled in unison to gape at me. I'd practically been wiping my plate clean with my tongue. I looked up, mid-lick, and darted my gaze from face to face. Oops?
On my final night in Delhi, a group of us went out to a lounge to celebrate a friend's birthday. I breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing a small but adequate mocktails section on the menu -- how hard could it be to point at something that was already on offer? Even the most accent-averse waiter couldn't screw that up, I figured.
But I grossly underestimated Tushar. I chose a juice blend with a moniker like Tornado Twist, while my friends ordered their usual mix of cocktails and wine. Moments later, Tushar returned and set a yellow drink dressed with a pineapple slice before me with a flourish. "Here you go, may-dam!" he said with the boyish enthusiasm so characteristic of many in India's service industry. That's odd, I thought to myself. I thought I was getting a berry drink. Oh, well, I must have read it wrong. I took a sip and immediately regretted my order. I'm not sure how milk of magnesia spiked with battery acid and topped off with a few drops of pineapple juice would taste, but I have a strong suspicion it would be similar. I gagged and rifled frantically through my purse for a stray mint to dilute the foul aftertaste. Well, there's 300 rupees I'll never see again.
I was still wincing when Tushar returned to our table, picked up my drink, placed it in front of Mike, and proffered me a new, purplish, and seemingly berry-tinged beverage. "So sorry for the mix-up. Here is your drink!" he said cheerily.
The epiphany struck all four of us at once. We froze, taking a moment to register what had just transpired, while Tushar grinned obliviously. Mike was the first to recover. "She can't have that, she's, she's MUSLIM!" he sputtered in horror. Tushar, who undoubtedly was familiar with the basic tenets of Islam, recoiled in dismay as the magnitude of his faux pas sunk in. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, oh my goodness, I'm so sorry!" he blurted.
After the shock dissipated, I took a moment to regroup. After all, it was an innocent mistake, and it certainly wasn't my fault, so there was hardly any point in getting worked up. Furthermore, I was tantalized by the realization from my first confirmed sip of alcohol that it tasted just as horrible as I'd suspected, and I really wasn't missing out on anything. "Oh, it's OK, don't worry about it, just don't let it happen again," I said to him. But Tushar was inconsolable.
"I am so sorry may-dam, I am so deeply sorry. I do not know how I could do such a thing. Please forgive me!" He was reeling. "No, really, it's fine, please calm down," I said.
"I cannot calm down. I am answerable to a higher power now!" he wailed with that level of drama Indians have cultivated through decades of steady Bollywood consumption.
No matter how much I tried to reassure him that I really didn't intend to have him smited for his misstep, however egregious, the crestfallen Tushar was not having it. He avoided our table aside from the necessary interactions his responsibilities entailed, and each time came bearing the somber expression of a mourner at a funeral procession and uttered a fresh litany of melodramatic regrets. But mostly he steered clear, presumably exiling himself to the kitchen to weep. When it came time for us to pay the check, he woefully refused to accept a tip, insisting he was not worthy. He probably wasn't, but we left him a few hundred rupees anyway.
Tired of spending my night comforting Tushar, I resolved to have some wicked fun on my way out. I summoned him over as we walked toward the exit, and he approached cautiously, his face still hopeful for a new wave of solace and reaffirmations of my forgiveness. But he was not going to get so lucky this time. If he insisted on making himself miserable, the least I could do was help him.
"You know, Tushar," I said, leaning in conspiratorially, "all my life I've been able to say I've never had a sip of alcohol." I paused for dramatic effect -- after all, I, too, have grown up with Bollywood. "But I can't say that anymore."
I can still picture Tushar's face as it crumbled before me, and to this day I'm racked with guilt. Now I'm the one who's answerable to a higher power -- and not because of one wayward sip. Perhaps I can blame it on the booze.