Moving to Delhi in the middle of the lockdown, Maya S. found distraction, comfort, and a sense of identity in the unlikeliest of places.
While the first winter of 2021 was horrible on the outside — so cold, so terribly cold — what was happening on the inside was worse. In the middle of the lockdown, I moved to Delhi, where I couldn’t meet people’s eyes. The thought of being alone in a new city was petrifying, as if I was trying to jangle a bath stopper while the water continued to overflow.
My new flatmate would often talk about how she went to 4S after work. It was a great place to meet people, get to know about their work. And, of course, the abundance of alcohol and the environment of a bar helped move things along smoothly in a way that the coldness of professionalism or competition wasn’t immune to.
I’ve found it to be true: If you throw a stone, it will land on a lawyer, and you can always spot a newcomer. “Think: a journalist and lawyer bar and restaurant,” she’d said while describing it to me once. She was a journalist. I wasn’t.
In the middle of the Defence Colony Main Market, 4S sits quietly. A Chinese and Thai bar and restaurant, it offers an assortment of fast food and cheap alcohol for that part of town. It’s about 25 feet long and 12 feet wide, with a smaller, darker repetition of these approximate measurements on the second floor. There is also an empty aquarium at the entrance, which used to house goldfish before my time.
It can get busy to the point that there are no seats, like you’re on a train drinking with everybody in your compartment. On one of these days, when I was having a beer and glancing at the TV, a stranger tapped me on the shoulder to ask, “Are you new here?” I’d gotten so comfortable at 4S that the idea of looking like an outsider was highly offensive. After a year-and-a-half of coming here incessantly, each week, and smoking with the lizards and cockroaches outside, I had earned the right to be identified as a regular — I was, and wanted to remain, on the inside.
He was holding an orange cocktail. “No, but you clearly are,” I said without menace. He was handsome with a great head of hair. You don’t order cocktails at 4S; everybody knows that.
What was it about this timeless hole of a place? The usual stars of a good review — alcohol, food, and decor — are hardly remarkable.
Drinking alone was easier than eating alone, but alcohol is not the star of this story. It was the realisation that our desires are alive after all. It’s the ability to go and exist outside of your life, hoping for a chance, a glimmer, a flirt. An empty glass is inviting; an empty plate, damning.
I do not know what it is that makes a place special, but I imagine it is the way in which it can convince you of being special. 4S is spectacular because of its myths and supposed magic — a temple that features in stories that speak of moving to a new city, coming of age, finding a romance. It effuses a lack — the soft pain of loneliness that we’ve come to know so well. And it sells. Desire is peddled by longing, and there is a lot to want in a city.
Moving to Delhi was a dream I held onto throughout university, and when the pandemic hit, it offered me a roadmap to my desires. I do not know what I’m supposed to do now, but at least I know where to go. I knew that I loved someone who lived there, and that I needed bookstores, a living city.
The capital is the best seat in a country; how could I be lonely? And what will you be looking for while you’re feeling lonely? Of course, other people — a life to inhabit that is decidedly not yours.
How do cities maintain their perpetual busyness? Is it a question of offering lucrative jobs, great roads to drive shiny cars on, or the ability to house hundreds in an apartment complex? The answer can only be an ever-renewing stream of lonely people and ebbing desires.
Dive bars like 4S allay the loss of meaning. Their gutter-like openness welcomes all our depravity, atrocious vulnerability, and inappropriate drunken behaviour that is often a result of things aforementioned. No one can see you like strangers in a bar can: a totem of all that is inherently human, somewhat in pain, and usually in need of a drink.
Bars like 4S exist everywhere. The delight is in finding one that makes your loneliness more livable and liberating. Under this dimly lit solitude, surrounded by bar-goers that I love, my world as I know it could come to an end, and I wouldn’t notice. Why would anyone be interested in settling for less than a perfect distraction?