A Sober Passage in India
After months of rootless-feeling travel, I realized—in a 12-step meeting in Mumbai—that I’d found my way home.
I have travelled the world before. Fifteen years ago, I was stoned and drunk and backpacked through Europe, and I had the time of my life. I had just gotten back from studying in South Africa and I still regale my friends with smoking Durban Poison in well, Durban, and drinking that great cheap sugar cane rum that they readily sell to unsuspecting customers in developing nations. But this time around, the experience has been a little different—a little more, shall we say, depressing. Maybe it’s because I’m older and more set in my ways, or maybe it’s because I don’t have the liquid courage in me to get over the small stuff (infected scabs, lice, dirty toilets) and to ignore the big (racism, poverty, dirty toilets). But when I arrive in Chennai, India for a month of working with a local NGO, I can tell, this time is different.
For the previous few months I had been studying in Paris, and though I am always someone who thinks my happiness is to be found elsewhere, I couldn't help but examine the profundity of my homesickness there. I missed my home in LA. I missed my friends. But perhaps more than anything, I missed the stability that six years of sobriety had given me back home.
At first, I don’t know if India was such a good idea. I get into a motorbike accident the second day and I begin to wonder if I've lost the adventurous spirit that I once believed was mine. There's only one 12-step meeting a week in the town I'm in, and my first time there, all I can do is cry. But then, through the weeks, I make friends in that room—friends who give me the same stability that I have missed so much from home.
As I head down in the elevator and find myself in a dingy basement straight out a horror movie, all I can think is, “Any lengths.”
When, after a month of living outside of Pondicherry, I head to Mumbai, knowing exactly what I need to do. I look up a meeting and see there is one in a nearby financial sector. There are a lot of Westerners (which has become as much my self-definition as alcoholic) working in the area and I assume the meeting will be filled with a mix of Hindi, Muslim, American, Australian, German, and British, as I have found in the other meetings in India. But when I get to the building in question, I ask if there is a 12-step meeting there and the Hindi guards are confused by my question. So, in their heavily accented English, they start shouting out the word, “Alcoholic! Alcoholic!” while office workers leave through the lobby. I feel like I have just asked to buy tampons, and try to lower my voice so they’ll lower theirs.
“Yes, yes,” I practically whisper. “Alcoholic.”
They tell me to go down to the basement. As I head down in the elevator and find myself in a dingy basement straight out a horror movie, all I can think is, “Any lengths.” Because I learned early on, when my first sponsor lived on the same street in the San Fernando Valley as my first Los Angeles pot dealer, that if you can fight traffic to buy drugs, you can fight traffic to find recovery.
When no meeting is down there, however, I head back up to my embarrassing guards. They begin again, “Alcoholic! Park car!”
Now I am sure that being an alcoholic in India doesn’t gain me any points in the caste system, but I doubt that means I now have to park cars. The guards then all begin wobbling their heads at me in the typical Indian head wobble gesture that I've learned can mean anything from “I don’t know” to “No” to “You’re fucking crazy and I have no idea what you want from me.”
Finally, one of them sighs and leads me back into the scary basement, then on into the parking garage. Oddly enough, I have less fear about being abducted into the sex trade than I do about being forced to valet cars in Mumbai. But as soon as we turn a corner, I see them: Sandwiched between the valet office and the air conditioning units for the building is a small table, a chalkboard with the words “Live and Let Live” and 10 Hindi men sitting in a handful of chairs.
The meeting has already started, since I have spent the last 10 minutes looking for it, but the men all turn to me and smile. The one who is speaking switches swiftly from Hindi to English. He talks about how his wife brought him to the program and how when no one treated him with kindness, the fellowship did. They treated him like a human being, and he began to remember in the rooms that he was one.
The next man speaks only Hindi but it doesn’t matter; he could be speaking Martian and I would understand. I can tell when he is sharing the shameful parts, when he speaks about finding the program, when hope steps in and when he begins to live a sober life. As he speaks, I think of a quote I found in an Ashram in Pondicherry from the Guru known as Mother that said, “Our faith in the omnipotence of Grace never rises to the height of what Grace itself is.”
That is the Grace that I found in the fellowship and also in that parking garage in Mumbai, listening to the men share in Hindi. One of them asks me to speak, explaining to the others that there is a newcomer in the group. I ask if he speaks English and the man says, "No, but I understand" because if I talk more about what it was like, he will understand anyway. As I talk, I attract the attention of the real valets who are clearly mind-boggled about what this white girl is doing sitting in front of these Hindi men, talking about, “Alcoholic! Alcoholic!” I want to laugh at the scene myself, and then I realize that in no other circumstance on earth would a lone woman in a parking garage with 10 men feel safe. But I am safe. Safer than anywhere else I could be.
We end the meeting by saying the Serenity Prayer in Hindi and English and as I walk out alone into the Mumbai night, I feel the joy that someone in my situation should feel. A warm wind blows heavy through the palm trees, lapping itself against the Arabian Sea, rustling through this town I always dreamed of visiting but know I would not have made it to without my sobriety.
And though I don’t know why, I feel better. With every meeting, in every new town, I know that I am not alone. And though, when someone asks me where I am from, it has begun to sound like a laundry list of cities, I know where my real home lies. Whether it’s in Hindi, German, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Russian, French, Tamil, or English, that home is Grace—the Grace I found when I first got sober and the one that I am rediscovering as I cross the world today.
Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who has written about old timers in AA and sober travel, among many other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life.