"Pooja would be cooking and halfway through a wine bottle"
From hidden clues, secret drinking and being in denial, these are the true events of how Arun Chowla’s* girlfriend, Pooja*, turned into his alcoholic wife.
There’s no denying that there is a big drinking culture in South Asian communities, especially for men.
But, this can lead to a range of issues including alcohol dependency, even for women.
However, why isn’t this issue talked about in Desi homes? Now, that is down to many factors with the two biggest being silence and a lack of support.
In general, South Asian women who drink are often looked down upon. The ‘typical’ aunties and uncles see these women as rebellious, outlandish and even disrespectful.
There’s no hiding it. Weddings, parties, and functions are all beaming with bottles on top of heads, whiskey overflowing and beers being chugged.
Although the acceptance of South Asian women consuming alcohol is somewhat progressing, is the glorified nature of alcohol forcing more to carry on this ‘tradition’ of over-drinking?
In his own words, Arun shares the details of Pooja’s story in order to help others in similar situations. In hindsight, the foundations of his wife’s habits were hard to spot.
There is a continuous culture where alcohol is almost glamourised at celebrations and gatherings.
Therefore, Pooja’s experiences highlight why there needs to be more consideration into how alcohol is presented.
Not to mention, a more welcoming approach to alcoholic South Asian women and alcoholics, in general, to support them in overcoming such a torrid addiction.
The Hidden Clues
A scary thought and what most people fail to realise is that early habits and tendencies can lead to alcoholism.
Whilst the majority of people enjoy the occasional drink, many South Asians are brought up in a different fashion.
Children witness the usual events at parties, seeing family members cheering each other, knocking drinks back and repeatedly pouring until the bottle is finished.
So, when it is their turn, they usually end up doing the same.
Whilst women usually see their mothers, aunties and grandmothers distancing themselves from these circumstances, it doesn’t mean they still aren’t exposed to these happenings.
So, when it comes to these women having more freedom and the ability to experience things they usually wouldn’t be allowed to, it’s very exciting for them. Arun explains:
“I met Pooja at university, we both lived in the same accommodation block so would run into each other at parties and before the clubs.
“Over the year we had a solid friend group of 20-30 people, so we would always see the same people every day or night out.
“Of course, we’re at university and away from parents so all the girls would drink.
“Wine, vodka or gin would usually be their choice and then of course the boys would drink vodka or whiskey because that’s what our dads drank.
“We loved drinking with the girls because we hadn’t really seen that before.
“At weddings and stuff, our aunties would maybe have a glass of wine, but proper drinking was left to the guys.
“So anyway, Pooja and I were close and would always be around each other. One thing led to another and we got dated towards the end of our first year.
“Our habits continued, partying and drinking but working when the end of university was coming.
“We actually shared a house with our other mates in our final year.
“Sometimes Pooja would say lets stay in and get drunk.”
“So we’d have the house to ourselves, drink and chill. At the time it was fun.
“All I’m thinking is I feel so independent, I have a girlfriend I can chill with and it felt different to how I saw most Asian relationships.
“After we finished university, Pooja went back to London to work for a bit and find her feet. I stayed in Birmingham as I found a graduate job.
“We would call every day of course but I noticed maybe 3-5 times a week, she’d be out.
“She’d call me from a bar or say she was getting ready to meet her friends and was pre-drinking.
“Me being me, I thought she was actually cheating being out so much. But sometimes I’d get a call from her friend saying she’s passed out drunk and she’s at home now.
“So I wasn’t really seriously worried about anything, I just thought we’re young, we’re still enjoying life and just experiencing things.
“Even the drink wasn’t an issue, if anything I thought it was good because in the long term, I’d have a partner who wasn’t typically shy for an Asian girl.
“I used to think at parties and weddings, she’d be one breaking down that kind of taboo that Asian girls can’t have alcohol or a good time like the guys.”
Whilst this seems like an innocent and relatable time for many people, it shows the early foundations of how Pooja was drinking, maybe more than usual.
But, in a progressive society, it still didn’t alarm Arun or Pooja’s friends. However, this is how alcoholism forms itself.
Whilst it would have been hard for Pooja to even realise her own tendencies at the time, it shows how she hardly disengaged from partying or drinking.
New Life, Old Habits
As Arun and Pooja moved their relationship to the next step, it would seem their lives would change forever.
Whilst it did romantically, alcohol was propping up every so often which would intrigue Arun.
Even so, he didn’t think much of it but it is this oversight that many South Asians tend to do.
This comes from the stigma attached to alcohol misuse so Desi’s presume it could never occur to someone they know, let alone love:
“In 2012, me and Pooja got married. It was such a happy day and I remember us feeling so excited about our life together.
“Of course on the wedding day, we both drank openly, she had champagne but she would ask me for a proper drink every so often.
“I could remember seeing some of the aunties looking at her. So I told her to calm down a bit but she reacted quite angrily.
“After the whole ceremony and honeymoon, we started a life together. We started renting a flat in Birmingham and would go about our daily lives as normal.
“We would typically have a drink every other day with dinner.
“I always finished later and sometimes I’d get back and Pooja would be cooking and halfway through a wine bottle.
“Then on the weekends, we’d spend time together, do chores, go out and then on most Saturdays, we’d end up meeting friends.
“Pooja loved when we did that because she’d have her girls drink with her and everyone would be on one – similar to university days.
“I remember that following Monday, I was off from work and Pooja came home tipsy. She didn’t tell me she was going out which she normally did.
“I confronted her about it and she said she went for after-work drinks. Of course, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary.
“Then that weekend, we had a family wedding and she would ask me to get her a sneaky drink.
“She didn’t want the family to catch on so I had to pretend to pour one for someone else and give it to her on the sly. Then it would be another one and another.
“I had to tell her to slow down and then the day after I asked her why she was drinking so much.”
“I told her about the weekend before, then the Monday and then the casual drinks and now the wedding.
“She said it was nothing and told me ‘you do the same exact thing so why can’t I?’. I saw it from her point of view but I wasn’t getting drunk as she did. So, I left it.
“But I said that we’ll go on a detox for a month, both of us and she agreed but wasn’t happy about it.
“She’d become a little aggressive, start shouting and trying to argue. I was worried but again, you don’t overthink these things at the time.
“The next day she said sorry and said a detox was a good thing. A week or so passed and Pooja went out with a work friend for dinner.
“I got a phone call from her friend to say she was outside but needed help to carry Pooja in because she’s drunk. I was so angry.
“There I saw her stumbling over, pushing me off, arguing and talking jibberish. I didn’t even know what was going on.
“After I carried her in, her friend told me how they shared a bottle of wine but then Pooja started ordering shots.
“I told her about the detox and her friend said that was weird because they’ve gone out a couple of times after work for a drink. That just pushed me over the edge.
“When you love someone and they betray you or suddenly become a person you didn’t think they were, it leaves you so conflicted.
“Why was she drinking so much. I questioned myself like was I doing something wrong? Have I done something to her?”
Pooja’s secrecy had gotten too much for Arun but he was more concerned about why this was happening in the first place.
He realised his alcoholic wife was a person he didn’t recognise.
Alcoholism can affect people in different ways. For Pooja, it seems she wanted to be on the right track but kept getting sucked back in.
For South Asians, this kind of dependency is pushed under the carpet, especially for women.
They already battle a catalogue of hurdles within their lives, so for this to be stacked on top must have been so unbearable for Pooja.
Open and Honest
As Arun was battling his own worries and an alcoholic wife, Pooja was obviously facing her own internal conflicts.
However, this is why it is so important for there to be a platform and understanding to discuss alcoholism.
But the labels of shame and dishonour put on it by Desi communities mean people are less likely to talk openly:
“The morning after I was sad, upset, frustrated and worried. The worst thing is I couldn’t even turn to anyone and say ‘help’.
“We’re Indian, if anyone gets news of this, even my parents, they’ll treat Pooja like a criminal – one for the drinking and one because she’s a woman who drinks.
“But I had to face I had an alcoholic wife. She had to be.
“Pooja woke up the day after that incident and came into the kitchen as if nothing happened.
“I told her we needed to talk and get her help, she replied with ‘help with what?’. I said ‘the drinking is out of control, you blacked out last night and I had to carry you in’.
“Then, I told her I knew about the drinks after work, this fake detox bullsh*t and how she’s been drinking all the time.
“It all came out in rage and anger. It’s so hard because you want to be supportive but you’re so disappointed and I just wanted her to be truthful with me.
“She started crying but was so in denial. I asked her why she drank so much but she couldn’t even open her mouth.
“I calmed down and asked her again why she was drinking and what I could do to help. She told me drinking is her escape, her enjoyment.
“She loved it at university and felt free because she felt like she fitted in.
“Her family were strict and alcohol was seen as a luxury but something done by ‘bad people’.
“She carried on and said once she saw how social it made her, she became dependant on it.
“It gave her a new lease of life and when she was sober, she felt she couldn’t enjoy life and people wouldn’t enjoy her company. Alcohol gave her confidence.
“But obviously as a husband, I had to disagree because of all the times we’ve shared, but she was too upset to listen.
“Pooja carried on talking and I let her because I wanted to get the whole story. She said how she would think about a little drink here and there.
“Like that old saying ‘one wouldn’t hurt’, but for her it did. Once it was one, she wouldn’t stop. She felt she was in control but her actions were different.
“She said she would go to work, and have a little sip with coffee. It gave her a boost, a little pick me up.
“It was so heartbreaking to listen to your wife having to say this all.”
“She said she tried to talk about it more before but how could she come forward about it.
“Family would have treated her differently and friends would have seen her in a different light. I asked her ‘what about me?’ and she said she felt embarrassed.
“She said if she mentioned it then it would seem as if it was a bigger problem than it is.
“But this all seemed in denial and although she was finally saying something, it felt like she was deflecting as well.
“I looked up some information on where to get help from and found a few websites.
“Pooja did admit she felt better and straight away I disregarded all the bottles of alcohol we had in the house.
“She told me I didn’t need to do that but you have to do whatever possible to help the person you love.”
Having an alcoholic wife within a South Asian family comes with a lot of unneeded backlashes.
People criticise and judge someone suffering from this addiction. Especially Pooja who remained silent because of this type of narrative.
If she was exposed to more resources or guidance from other South Asians then the extent of this issue could have been prevented.
An Urgent Need for Progress
Arun’s actions show a shift in behavioural patterns towards alcoholism
Someone from the outside looking in may think ‘an alcoholic wife? Why put up with that?’. But, this leads to more South Asians staying silent on their issues.
Whether it’s drinking, drugs, mental health, it all needs a non-judgmental approach:
“The reason I wanted to talk about this is that alcoholism can come from any place and you can’t even see it coming.
“Pooja is still getting help at the moment but there have been times when she has relapsed. Whether it’s one glass or more, it’s a very tough process to get out of.
“I think the most important thing is Punjabi or Desi culture, in general, promotes alcohol but also embarrasses those who develop problems.
“Especially for women, even though times are different, some aunties and uncles would see a woman drink and deem it punishable – it’s so stupid.
“But this dependency is preventable. You just have to look for the right signs.”
“Alcoholism can force people to be in denial, but the first step is helping them admit there is a problem.
“Pooja still doesn’t see the bigger picture but hopefully sharing this story will help others see it.”
Pooja’s drinking habits stemmed from an extremely impressionable age.
But whilst university students are prone to drink, Pooja’s dependency and you could argue a lack of intervention from her friends led to this unhealthy habit.
Not only did this give Pooja a lot of mental strain, but left Arun conflicted about what to do with his alcoholic wife.
This is what many people experience if they live with someone dependent on alcohol.
As much as they want to support them, they cannot if the person doesn’t admit what’s wrong.
However, even before that, this problem can be entirely hidden for periods of time.
As was the same with Arun and Pooja’s story, there were instances where work and social meetings allowed her the freedom to carry on drinking.
But as Pooja highlighted in her confession, her family, friends and community would have reacted in a certain way.
That is the main issue when it comes to South Asian women and alcohol.
Of course, developing a habit is one thing, but the judgemental nature of Desi women drinking makes them move more secretly or deters them from alcohol completely.
But, it shouldn’t be like this. Therefore, as Arun urges, there needs to be more change and support from South Asian communities and society in general.
More open and honest discussions will improve the aid given to those in need and help them receive the guidance to overcome this unimaginable process.
If you or another person are suffering from alcohol misuse or are personally affected by any of the themes in this article, do not suffer in silence, reach out for help immediately.