When fun fizzles out

FOR A quiet city that sleeps early and has, by and large, been traditional, we lose one too many lives on our roads on New Year's. Somehow it does not seem fair to our society to be losing young lives in a totally mindless activity of drunken driving, all in the name of having fun — fun that seems to get seriously destructive.

To reflect on some of these issues and to catch a glimpse of what is going on, I spent an evening with three young men, who have made Chennai their home. Rahul Thomas, Vinayak Nagaraj and Rajinder Balaraman are perhaps not very representative of our New Year's Eve daredevil heroes, but they are bright, perceptive, honest and responsible in their views, and interestingly, a group that had given serious thought to some of these problems.

They call New Year's Eve the `Mother of All Parties' and the only imperative is to have fun, which is not possible if you are even remotely sensible or serious! For any self-respecting young person to be accepted and appreciated in your gang, you need to push the envelope, you have to invent something really extreme to go beyond the ``normal fun", definitely beyond last year's fun. You want to be cool, you want to be seen and the way to go about is to have a happening gang to hang out with (though not necessarily your friends!).

Vinayak sees New Year specially ``as a time when your beliefs and your value frame are put to test. Where you have promised yourself that you will never drink, never smoke, never do drugs, and all these resolutions are put to the ultimate test". There is some peer pressure, particularly in an all-male situation but primarily all this is driven from inside and you are doing it for yourself.

Rajinder says, ``It's not even about impressing anyone, it is pure testosteronics! At our age we believe we are invulnerable to danger and destruction. We don't believe there is risk. In fact, risk is the reason we do it. Risk gives thrills!"

New Year is a very secular type of having fun. Acceptable to all, it legitimises your doing of things. Often, parents are understanding enough ``Hi Mom, I'm going out with my friends for New Year. We are sleeping over. I'll see you tomorrow morning". It wouldn't be nearly as catastrophic if New Year didn't come during the holidays when there is already a general lowering of thresholds, as it were. Being with friends who have the same understanding of fun comes high on the list of must haves for a New Year party.

Music of the right kind is a must at any happening party. It helps set the mood for the consumption of the next must have — alcohol. Chennai prefers to be a few years behind the West and still sticks to hard liquors, with whisky and vodka topping the list. Rahul explains, ``Ninety five per cent of folks who drink on New Year's Eve do so because they want a high, which incidentally is also a licence to do just about anything".

Drugs, whether grass or something more designer, are usually not mainstream. In public places and parties, the hosts and organisers, who don't exactly want to jeopardise their enterprise or name, often frown upon drugs. However, at small, private parties at homes there is more of substance abuse. At parties people generally hang out in their own gender groups, though mixed parties do enable interaction, mingling and definitely better dancing.

In the case of couples that have some emotional commitment to each other, the female presence actually acts as an inhibiting force. There are fewer chances of these men taking risks or going out of control. Otherwise when people get intoxicated their thresholds get lowered, allowing them to easily step over the threshold of reason. Worse, liquor also lowers the threshold of fighting and it is not uncommon to see pathetic brawls erupt, sometimes over the `ownership' of girls they have accompanied! With inhibitions dissolved there is often a free for all situation between boys and girls. When a relationship gets physical, and they often do, it is always, by definition, seen as something consensual. ``When the girls say yes, probably they mean no. I know of friends who later said that they somehow felt violated but will learn successfully to deal with it by blocking it out!"

The most interesting part of the discussion came when we looked into what was or is driving our young to this irrationality. There was perfect concurrence between Rahul, Rajinder and Vinayak. ``Even the most sensible young person is tired of being sensible all the time. You want to cut loose from yourself. You make wrong decisions consciously because it is fun. The real problem is, wrong choices are made when you are sober (not when you are drunk), usually because there are several distractions influencing the choice."

Basic to all this seems to be the reality that everything is only relative and that there is no clear value frame to benchmark against. Even the value you place on your life is determined by the value your parents or people who care for you place on it.

As Rajinder further clarifies, ``There are occasions when one lowers that value, times like New Year because the opportunity is there and you are not with people who can change your mind with cost/benefit analyses. The risk is easier taken when you are not with your family". Unfortunately, families and societies begin to pay when the partying is over. Drunken driving tops the list. People reach crazy levels of intoxication that need immediate hospitalisation. ``What is seriously dangerous,'' says Rahul ``is a general acceptance of violence, alcohol or narcotics and this hangs over. In a literal sense it becomes a habit.'' The next time it is easier to do because the value threshold has dropped further.

The other more pathetic consequence pointed out was — ``You don't stop with the New Year or the gang you spent it with. You become a floater. You float away from your family and friends to Group 1 to Group 2 to Group3 ... socially and emotionally also. Right or wrong, you lose control and focus."

What was unnerving about the discussion was the emerging inevitability of destructive behaviour with no inkling of what might stop it. So, the next best option was to consider precautionary steps and to contain the damage. They would like all private transport taken off the roads and impounded if necessary. They want the cops out in full force with breathalysers and arrest warrants. They want public transport (with non-drunk drivers!) to ply all night. They want gangs to pre-designate the non-drinkers amongst them to drive them back. They would like families to encourage their inebriated young to sleep over wherever they are till sobriety dawns. They want the janata (i.e. the young) educated on making wiser decisions when they are still sober.

Having said all that, they together struck the lowest blow when they pointed out why perhaps all this would not work, in any case. The target of all this is a small minority, say a couple of percent of the city — most of them coming from the powerful, well connected families, who are going around causing hell. Who gives them the cars and bikes to kill themselves and others with? Who gives them the money for alcohol or whatever else? The mobility, the money and the freedom come from the parents. So, who really are calling the shots and holding the levers? Looking around amongst their peers they realise that the only sobering effect in their lives comes from the way of life, the upbringing at home, the values that are practised at home and the trust they share with their families. The only people who can play a positive role in their lives seem to be their parents. They might consider spending safer New Year's with families if they can deal with the trend away from having fun with the family. The problem arises because there is a contradiction in the concept of fun as seen by parents and children. The answers perhaps lie in the direction of reflecting together and in discourse. In families accepting more responsibility, in young people talking about the issues and in trying to introduce the idea of slightly more responsible fun. As Vinayak said, ``Your road to tipsiness itself might get reconsidered. It is a long shot perhaps but the only one we have."

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