Bengali Vice: The Big Bong Theory


Bengali Vice: The Big Bong Theory

Illustration: Akshita Monga

My friend, Bapi Da, works in the comptroller’s office and likes to get drunk often. This is when he likes to reveal state secrets and talk wistfully about the radical revolution that will come to West Bengal on horseback in 2020. “I took a sneak peek at Didi’s blueprint for state reforms over the next four years,” he tells me, exuding a puff of thick Capstan smoke.

There aren’t any horses, but the revolution does look like it’s here. In a curious twist, the characteristically meek, effeminate, Gelusil-ingesting, cold-fearing Bongs are taking a stand and celebrating with pomp the vices frowned upon in the rest of the country. As Yogi Adityanath tussles with the Allahabad high court about his crackdown on meat shops in Uttar Pradesh, the West Bengal government launched “Meat on Wheelz”, a delivery service that brings exotic meats including quail, duck, and emu to people’s doorsteps. The Supreme Court says no booze near highways, so the Bengal government reclassifies highway stretches as arterial roads. Bars in three-plus star hotels can now serve alcohol every day of the year. And Didi has even instructed everyone to smoke copious cigarettes, because the 10 per cent tax on them helps her exchequer.

As Bapi Da speaks of great things to come, a thick cloud engulfs the room and things go hazy. I must have blacked out, because when I come to my senses, I am on the floor. Bapi Da is nowhere to be seen.

A little dizzy, I step gingerly onto the street. It’s around noon and the sun is in my eyes, but I can still tell that the streets look different somehow. Didi’s hideous blue-and-white colour scheme has been replaced with a respectable brown. I realise I’m on College Street, but now adjoining every bookstall is what looks like a paan ki dukaan. And what’s that they were selling? Could it be…

I begin my amble by purchasing a joint at College Street. You see, in Didi and Bapi Da’s glorious new Bengal, weed is legally available at paan thekas. I ask for some rolling paper and the cigarette kaku looks at me like I’m an alien. “Kothae achho tumi? (What world are you in?)” A stranger says to me brusquely, “Subsidised rolling papers are delivered every morning with your newspaper. But pliss to show some initiative and buy your own paraphernalia.”

I pretend to already know that crushers are selling like hot cakes and have long ago alleviated Bengal’s financial crisis. And that the land set aside for marijuana cultivation in 24 Parganas has undone all the damage caused by Modi’s demonetisation pagla mon.

The stranger kaku is by now convinced that he has to bring me up to speed on the new habits of the bhadralok. “Cocaine is bad for acidity so you better have some Gelusil handy… you can buy it outside the collector of stamp revenue’s office. And acid stamps are only an annual treat distributed by the gormint for Kali Pujo. Because hallucinations are part of the dark mother’s tradition, na. Tripping balls will help you handle Hindutvadis in the rest of the country like Modi and Adityanath.”

“Drugs er funding ke daye? (Who funds this drug scene),” I ask.

“Arrey! Taxes on mushrooms imported from Amsterdam, of course. Available at cafes on Park Street only,” he says beaming. “You can forget about having any,” he adds, taking a second look at me.

I thank him and edge away, smiling, dazed but also amazed and exhilarated.

I get into a taxi and decide to explore this brave new world. Cruising past Esplanade, I spy on a massive condom and sex toy sale at Grand Arcade. The astronomical profits help the exchequer get dreamless sleep; the taxi kaku informs me with a conspiratorial whisper, mistaking my wide-eyed stare for censure.

We reach and I have to gulp loudly in disbelief as I enter Park Hotel. Its main entrance leads you directly into the arms of a casino, with signs inviting you to slot machines and card tables. What interests me, though, are the dartboards where you can throw furious arrows at RSS officials. There are three boards to satisfy Baba Ramdev haters, and another one with the face of the Shiv Sena guy, who hit an Air India employee with his slippers.

I ask for an Old Monk at the bar, chug it, and almost choke when I see the bill. 28 rupees for a large shot?

“New to Bengal,” asks a slurred voice near my shoulder. I look up and it’s a suited gent balanced on the stool next to me. “Arrey, you see, Old Monk is heavily subsidised nowadays so that all its lovers – both the rich and poor – can enjoy it. Whiskey drinkers only get tax exemptions, though. Ora toh intellectual.”

I learn that the government makes up on this generosity by keeping bars open 24/7. So it’s raining booze all night every night for Bengalis – even the sclerotic diabetics are in overdrive.

I’m reeling by now. I need some sort of reality check and venture to my old friend Dasgupta’s place. He’s an economist and hopelessly left-leaning and will surely have some serious view about all this.

The barstool stranger also gives me a lowdown on the meat industry when he sees me order a beef cutlet. Apparently meat shops have fit-for-slaughter certificates for all types of meat. Didi’s “Meat on Wheelz” is booming, but rivals offering special concessions on beef can also acquire licences with a snap of their fingers.

“Of course, there’s sound monetary policy here,” he smiles. “Bengal is crawling with beef-deprived souls from the rest of India… like you. Tourism is skyrocketing.” Outraged vegan hotel owners must sign a disclaimer saying that they are not right-wing bhakts, if they want to ban meat on their premises. What about vegetarian communities, I wonder aloud – the Jains, Marwaris, Gujaratis, and other groups who’ve been here for centuries? “Dhur, Kolkata is a utopia toh,” he continues, rolling his eyes. “They can celebrate vegetarianism if they want. No one will stop them.”

I stumble out and decide to pay an impromptu visit to my cousin Susmita, but she hustles me away as soon as I step into her apartment. She’s on her way to a date. I gasp – she’s had a secret boyfriend for years now, but has never dared to meet him in public. “Where’ve you been, didi,” she says, exasperatedly. “City lakes now open early for old lovers and late for young lovers.”

There’s also free parking to facilitate canoodling for rich lovers with cars, Susmita tells me, but these folk also have to buy a pack of condoms on their way in. I’m ecstatic because this means that I can resume my long lakeside snurfing sessions, for which I was once chased strenuously by a cop, who demanded a heavy bribe. They must still try to get bribes? My face falls.

“Uff, don’t worry about the police, didi. They give lovers lifts back home if we leave at odd hours,” is Susmita’s happy retort.

I’m reeling by now. I need some sort of reality check and venture to my old friend Dasgupta’s place. He’s an economist and hopelessly left-leaning and will surely have some serious view about all this.

I’m right. He has the serene, superior smile of someone, who knows that both his worlds are coming together in a glorious union.

“The love revolution is here re, and it’s making money,” he declares, waving his arms like an orchestra conductor. “Blue films are back in business at cinema halls, and you pay an extra ₹30 per person to not stand up for the national anthem. Special discount for the masses, eh? Only in Bengal. Tagore wrote it anyway and he would never have interrupted a make-out session for some patriotic bullshit, now would he?”

I can’t argue with that. Especially as he goes on to tell me other wonderful things. Like Section 377 has no meaning. Didi has decided that billboards advertising condom and lube companies can get a discount if they show “progressive” images of gay, lesbian, and transpeople making love. Rainy Park in Kolkata has been renamed Rainbow Park. There is a 40-foot LGBTQ flag hanging there with photographs of gay icons. LGBTQ clubs dot the highways to Midnapore. They don’t have entry charges, because love is free, but the booze is steeply priced so that Didi can endorse more vices every year.

“There must be some catch to this love revolution business,” I mutter to myself. Dasgupta smiles wisely. “Of course! You have to pay extra VAT everywhere for Didi’s anti-Rama training camps, which turn out respectful feminist men and women. They’re also trained to patrol the city and make sure no one’s trying to supress our rules of vice.”

Apparently, they had great success outside Presidency College last week, where they beat the shit out of some anti-Romeo lurkers. “How did they know which people were anti-Romeos,” I ask baffled.

“Baapre! You’re so out of the loop! Didn’t you read the Telegraph news report that explained it? You can spot the moral police from the look in their eyes.”

I leave Dasgupta’s. Learning about the new Bengal is starting to feel like I’m stumbling around in a strange utopia ruled by the gods of Freedom, Capitalism, and Vice.

Because the revolution is here, and yes Gil Scott-Heron, this one does go better with coke.