There are drunkards and then there are drunkards; they range from ‘social’ drinkers who consider alcohol a lubricant for socialising, to those for whom it is the very reason for life, the one and only medium of joy, expression and experience. Discourses about drinking and alcoholism too are of varying kinds, while some genres eulogise the merits of the spirit as a catalyst to creativity and freedom, others consider it as a vice and an active stimulant to crime, the source of all evils around us. These tales of victims and survivors, pontificators and condemners, are of endless physical woe, mental depression and social damnation. Beyond the clinical, criminal and pathological condemnations of alcoholism no serious attempt is being made to look at it from the other side, of the one who is drawn by its ‘spiritual’ lures and gradually succumbs to it.
Kudiyante Kumbasaram by Johnson is a path-breaking attempt in this direction. It is an autobiographical account that graphically portrays the inner world of an alcoholic that gradually caves in upon itself. Here the mind and intellect of an alcoholic are laid bare in all its intimate, visceral details. Written by an alcoholic who turned into the founder of a de-addiction centre, this book, apart from being eminently readable, also provides the campaigner and the policy makers a lot of insights into the inner dynamics of drinking in all its social and psychological dimensions.
Johnson’s narrative is marked by its thick descriptions of vignettes from personal life, various emotional traumas he underwent, the various kinds of people who populated the journey of his life from an adolescent to a de-addiction activist, all seen through a mindset of a man and his life-long struggle with alcohol. One can read the book from various points of view: on the one, it is an autobiographical account of an alcoholic piecing together the shards of experiences, fragments of memory, intermittent nightmares, pangs of guilt and remorse, physical pain and mental doom.
On the other it is a rich and striking collection of human portraits, of the lives of various people entangled in the fatal lure of drinks, their shrinking horizons of experience and fields of vision. It is also a social history of Poomala, a village in Thrissur that spans the last half century.
Most poignantly, the book is a long conversation with and confessions to his late father (who himself was an alcoholic) and his wife, who stood with him all through the ‘highs’ and lows of his life (“My wife who turned half caring for me and looking after me”, as he describes her).
There is an array of colourful characters in this book whose romance with the bottle and life comes alive through Johnson’s acerbic and earthy turns of phrase. One can never forget the haunting presence of his crumbling father and suffering wife, and characters such as professor Narayandas, Joyikkuttan, ‘Daivam’ and many others like him.
Johnson’s story is a rare and illuminating account of his fatal tryst with alcohol, a saga of suffering and pain, a litany of woes, and also a valiant account of human resilience and overcoming. Never does it glorify liquor or pontificate on its vices. His strange encounters, captivating and ‘deadly’ moments, chilling experiences, and pithy observations, Johnson takes us through a heart-wrenching journey into the life of an alcoholic. Most significantly, he never points accusatory or judgmental fingers at others, but empathetically understands and also illuminates the condition of others through himself. It is by seeing himself in all of the others that he captures and engages with their anxieties and problems; most probably the reason why he is the most compassionate, one who has gone through hell before extending a helping hand.