As Kerala, the country’s hardest drinking state, stares at prohibition, E P Unny finds many a slip between the cup and the lip.
A good friend cautioned me against sketching in and around Kerala’s liquor vends. Under threat of impending deprivation, the mood in these parts is anything but friendly. Already feeling victimised and demonised, the imbiber would hate to be further targeted, however harmlessly, by a doodler.
Things could get nasty when the intruder is from the press, seen as an accomplice in orchestrating the current moral campaign against alcohol.
The state’s drinking scene under the circumstances could only be done from a distance. So I suitably shift modes, from portrait to landscape.
The landscape did yield a defining visual in suburban Palakkad. On a less travelled tar track that bypasses the highway into Tamil Nadu, stands a palm wine outlet built right into a giant old banyan tree. Every bit an organic extension of the ecosystem, the watering hole tells at least three vital things about the local drinking culture.
Kerala has a long and rooted indigenous tradition in the practice of tippling that stretches all the way to sacred spaces. As at the Bhairon temple in Delhi’s Purana Qila, devotees offer liquor to Muthappan, the local deity of Parassinikadavu in northern Kerala —pagan vestiges amidst every faith on an organising overdrive. The fall as it were from sacrament to sin can’t be older than decades, thanks to multiple factors, including a certain aspirational craving for middle-class respectability.
Again, the wooded wayside igloo sports a barely noticeable, tilted, paint-peeling signboard, no more than a statutory requirement. Far from welcoming. The thirsty find the potion nevertheless. In the face of such demand drive, the state government’s brainwave to cut off supply looks pretty futile.
Thirdly, a certain half-concealed, half-open mindset marks every aspect of alcohol consumption here — from abuse to abstinence. So be prepared for some delightful twists and turns as we go along.
To begin with, both the drunk and the un-drunk use statistics, as the saying goes, “like a lamppost — more for support than illumination”. Within weeks of the state’s 418 bars shutting down, impressive figures emerged on the steady dip in domestic violence. What magical methodology was employed to derive these insights is not clear. Rise and fall in per capita consumption have been similarly claimed with equal authority.
In Alleppey, a tourism official says the drink ban will hardly impact the 1,000-odd houseboats that cruise the Vembanadu lake. “Sixty per cent of the patrons are non-drinking families.” Just a breath away, the promoter of a hotel awaiting five-star gradation (read bar licence) is equally assertive that even women are no longer inhibited. “Fifty per cent of them are one-peg takers. They know it is good for the heart.”
“No one will come to these shores if liquor is taken away,” concludes this first-generation entrepreneur. And interestingly his benchmark is not Europe or the US. It is Dubai where he made his money. “If a Middle East port town can have bars in hundreds, including dance bars, what is our problem with a sundowner in lieu of anything like a night life?” he asks.
Tourist operators elsewhere acknowledge this inability to stretch the Kerala evening. Goa has its all-night casinos while Kerala shuts down well before midnight. “Even Left party offices have become a 9-to-5 business,” says a comrade. “We manage to keep awake once in four years when there is a soccer world cup in an ungodly time zone. In between, we settle for earlier evenings, which we invariably structure sipping or gulping away, alone or in company. What better can we offer the visitor? Forget the tourist, can we give our kids a quality evening?”
This in a land that evolved the colour scheme of a great all-night theatre like Kathakali, originally lit by no more than a tall brass oil lamp!
Forget such nocturnal classical art forms that call for cultivated taste to sit up and watch. Simpler group entertainment and evening sports have more or less vanished. You find fewer young people at a game of badminton, volleyball or plain relaxed swimming. The same authorities which swear by abstinence collude with realtors to gobble up open spaces and water bodies. Whatever is left of any sporting or leisure activity happens in the state’s exclusive clubs, which ironically survive cross-subsidised by the attached bar. If liquor gets phased out, these too will fold up.
A more immediate concern, says a doctor friend, are the mounting withdrawal symptoms of the country’s hardest drinking community. Medically speaking, individuals can be de-addicted only with consent and customised motivation. Here is a massive, mostly male, population ready to climb walls at sundown or earlier. A Malayali’s drinking curve peaks at noon as well. Which became more pronounced a while ago when the night watch on drunken driving got strict. The cops eventually got wiser and are out with the breathalyzer at all hours.
The issue has a medical dimension acknowledged by neither Chief Minister Oommen Chandy nor state Congress chief V M Sudheeran, who forced the CM’s hand. Both are competitively preaching, with the entire Cabinet in chorus, for all appearances. Neither realises that prohibition didn’t work under more heroic leaders like M G Ramachandran and N T Rama Rao. The Marxist opposition on its part is in no mood to utter anything remotely non-populist. The entire political class has painted itself into a lazy moral corner. Very comfy and no way out.
The financially reckless move could turn out to be irreversible, as happened when A K Antony banned arrack, the potent desi distilled drink, in 1996. None has since lifted the ban for fear of offending women groups. Fewer women though would today subscribe to the grand old narrative of helplessness.
A couple of years back, a hotel in Kochi came up with a happy hour offer for women. They could accompany men to the bar, and if they chose to drink, it was on the house. Only men were charged for their drink and eats. Women walked in and raised the glass largely on their own, wrecking the hotel’s combo plan in weeks. More than women the vote bank that roots for prohibition would be the state police and their counterparts in other enforcement wings of the government.
If you want a foretaste of their power, you only have to travel to the northern districts, where you cross in and out of Mahe. A 9 sq km land mass that is enclosed by Kerala, this municipal town is part of Puducherry, which as Union Territory levies low tax on liquor. Anyone who drives out of Mahe is a potential bootlegger in the eyes of the Kerala Police. If you aren’t one, it doesn’t help very much. You’ll still be stopped to answer nosy queries on where you are coming from, where you are headed, the purpose of your visit and so on.
The saddest part of this mega moral exertion is that the state failed to seize its moment of moderation, caught uncannily in a 2012 Malayalam movie, Spirit. Mohanlal plays a celebrity TV anchor with a chronic drinking problem reforming and reconnecting with his estranged son. Well received, the popular film couldn’t have happened without sensing a certain public mood in favour of moderating drinking. This is the kind of sentiment good politics should have built upon.
The state’s politicos showed no social patience. Instead they went in for instant gratification, much like the alcoholic they have vowed to discipline. They are on a moral high which can only get higher. My worst fear revolves around a fine heritage retreat in Munnar — the High Range Club. Planters had a custom of hanging up their hats when they completed 30 unbroken years at the estate. There are 51 hats behind the bar, which one hopes won’t be replaced by 51 snow-white Gandhi caps.