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Message in a Bottle

What keeps the prohibitionists going,generation after generation?

What keeps the prohibitionists going,generation after generation?

Anna hazare recently explained his three-step de-addiction programme in Ralegan Siddhi to turn alcoholics around: “We will give three warnings because after all,they are our people. But after the warnings,we drag that person to the temple and make him promise that he will never drink again in his life. Even after all this if he continues to drink,we will tie him to a pole near the temple and beat him.”

Moral panic around alcohol is probably as eternal as the urge to imbibe it. In his time,Mahatma Gandhi warned about the ruinous effects of alcohol on individuals and families,and campaigned for total prohibition across India. Though “dry days” are grudgingly observed on his birth anniversary and a couple of other occasions,only a few states like Gujarat and Manipur have actually been scrupulous about prohibiting alcohol. Of course,that ban only redoubles the determination to get a drink — ask anyone who went to college in Gujarat.

We know that banning liquor leads inevitably to bootlegging,rule-dodging and moonshine markets. In the early 20th century,prohibition movements surged in much of the world. In the US,temperance campaigns urged people to get out of saloons and bar-rooms,and choose a more wholesome uplift and companionship in churches and clubs instead of in the “demon rum”. Between 1921 and 1933,the manufacture,sale,or transportation of liquors was made illegal in the US through a constitutional amendment. The minister Billy Sunday then told his radio audience: “The reign of terror is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corn-cribs. Men will walk upright now,women will smile and the children will laugh. Hell will forever be rent.”

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In cold fact,though,the business elite who drove these anti-drink campaigns had their own motivations: they didn’t really see alcohol as a moral canker as much as a productivity-impairing problem. They championed values of “industry,sobriety and thrift”,but really intended it as a form of social control over the urban working classes.

The US experiment was a spectacular failure,driving alcohol underground,but only sharpening the thirst for it. As vaudeville star Will Rogers joked,“Prohibition is better than no liquor at all.” In fact,crime syndicates,corruption and gang wars threatened to tear up civic life,until the amendment was finally repealed.

Except in many Muslim countries,drinking is now mostly a question of personal responsibility rather than the government’s nannying,but the rhetoric around alcohol remains unchanged — it is usually about fears of its corrupting influence on the underclass,or those who can’t be trusted to look after their own well-being. Abstinence advocates still exaggerate the evils of drink and present it in terms of sin and vice rather than a free,if addictive,choice.

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The battle against booze has always enlisted women — in the 19th century,emergent women’s movements were largely built around temperance. And it was an initiation into public life for these women,though couched in issues of spousal abuse and familial responsibility. All around the world,women have led fierce anti-alcohol agitations — in India,Uttarakhand and Andhra Pradesh have seen large-scale mobilisations of rural women. Despite the numbers of women fighting their own susceptibility to drink,alcoholism is still usually pitched as a man’s vice — self-help books like Robin Norwood’s Women Who Love Too Much are largely about codependency and alcoholism,and finding the spine to reject a man who cannot reject substance abuse.

But what prohibitionists refuse to understand is that just as it can lead to a self-hating,destructive spiral,there’s also a spiritual dimension to drinking. In Rumi or Ghalib,wine stands for thirst and dissolution,it is the spur to poetry and pain and oblivion. In Ernest Hemingway or Hunter Thompson,it signified hard living,experience,machismo. Obviously,boozy artists and writers were probably only as common as alcoholic accountants and teachers and mechanics,but liquor-sodden creativity is a large part of the legend of many modernist writers. Even later,in John Cheever or John Updike,a cocktail is a civilised ceremony,but also carries the potential to disrupt civilised facades.

The point is,no matter what Anna Hazare’s childish certainties might say,alcohol is a complex,worldly thing — it is illness as much as inspiration,it is sociability as much as it is loneliness,it is debasing as much as it is occasionally glorious. And all we can do is to negotiate it on our own terms.

amulya.gopalakrishnan@expressindia.com

First published on: 27-11-2011 at 02:37:52 am
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