Six years ago, I was in my second year of college in Hyderabad, and as per tradition, we were planning to throw an elaborate Fresher’s Party for the new students we had hazed for one year. This was nothing out of the ordinary. Every college in India maintains this tradition at varying degrees of intensity. The incoming students must be prepared to be ragged by their seniors (any student who is a year or more ahead of them) and go through different kinds of initiation trials for a fixed period of time, after which they are rewarded with a party in acceptance of their (inevitable) graduation to the second year. Indian colleges not being very big on the party scene, especially parties with alcohol, the Fresher’s Party is a major deal. Normally, the college faculty does not condone drinking and dancing, and alcohol is not allowed on campus, so these parties are conducted elsewhere, usually in a swanky club or pub. It is the second year (soon to be third year) students’ responsibility to organize and pay for this party. Nothing out of the ordinary.
What was out of the ordinary in my case was this: I refused to pay for alcohol. I don’t drink, because my religion forbids it, and it forbids making alcohol accessible to others, be they Muslim or otherwise. Basically, I am to have nothing to do with alcohol. Islam is not new to India (which maybe the understatement of the millennium), especially not in this region. Hyderabad was a Muslim nation not long ago, before it became a part of India. Let it be established that Islamic rules and practices are well-known in all parts of the country. However, Muslims were a stark minority in my college, especially in my class. And like all minorities, we found it easier to dissolve than to stand out. Not a very good idea.
It was perhaps our assimilation that led others to believe that we would be partaking in all activities, haraam or halal. Non-alcohol drinkers were expected to pay the same as everyone else. It was an arduous task to convince the others that we would not be paying for alcohol. This triggered a heated debate between the ‘drinkers’ and the ‘non-drinkers’ (who weren’t necessarily all Muslim, which made it less easier, as that meant less money to make up). One person suggested that we all contribute the same amount, only the non-drinkers’ money would physically be put into a pile which paid for the standard food and some extra meals to make up for not paying for the alcohol. The drinkers would pay only for alcohol while we were paying for their food. It made sense to quite a few people, who understood the problem to be about where the money goes. It did not make sense to me. Why were we to pay for extra food? Were we being punished for not drinking? We should pay the same amount everyone else was paying for food. That should conclude our involvement in the issue, and the alcohol should be sorted out separately.
To include an unfortunate detail in this process: I was alone. I was the only one raising my voice. The other non-drinkers only responded when I called for a vote. There were a few people who were on the fence about this issue, and they found it easier to go with the majority. Some whispered to me not to make a big deal out of it; I could go individually and refuse to pay. It was disturbing to think that people feel that each one should save their own ass by circumventing the rules instead of changing the system. A system we had established and a system we controlled. I felt it was essential for the existence of a differing point of view to be acknowledged and addressed instead of being swept under the carpet.
Needless to say, we didn’t pay for alcohol. We didn’t pay for extra food.
Let’s examine a similar situation, in London this time. A group of my grad school classmates and I went out for dinner earlier this week. Unlike in India, alcohol is an integral part of socializing in the West. It is the norm, and Muslims/ non-drinkers being an much smaller minority than in India, most people have hardly ever had to face issues such as the aforementioned. I was the only non-drinker in the group. Everyone else was drinking, and when the check arrived, it was natural to suggest we spilt it evenly.
My adrenaline began to pump, and I prepared myself to tactfully express my unwillingness to pay for alcohol. However, I didn’t have to say a word, as no one questioned my stand. It was not a topic of discussion. The price of drinks was subtracted from the bill before being split evenly, and after we all paid for the food, the drinks were paid for by the rest of the group.
Why was this decision so easy and natural for this group of people, most of whom had never interacted with a non-drinker before? Who had probably only seen Muslims on the news (you know, the ones waving their arms and blowing themselves up)? And why was it so difficult for a group of people residing in what used to be a Muslim country, who had been brought up surrounded by Muslims?
Religious values apart, why is it that some people find it easier to pretend to be the norm though they are the exception? Why is it easier to sneak through the back alleys of an existing system than to evolve that system from a public platform?
I am living an elaborate social experiment, which does not fail to baffle me every single day.