So, the Kerala state government has had its way regarding prohibition. After some dithering in the courts, the resounding judgment was delivered a few months ago: the state government is well within its rights to curtail the sale of alcohol in the state. The counterarguments of the bar owners that selling alcohol constitutes a fundamental right to livelihood, that prohibition was applied in a discriminatory manner, etc., did not hold water in the eyes of the learned court, which, however, did not examine the question I wanted to pose: do adults in a democracy have the fundamental right to drink what they wish? Apparently not in what passes for democracy here. Sigh. I’d thought there’d be revolution in the streets if any government dared to impose prohibition in Kerala, which is a liquor-loving state and also the most politically aware state in the country; but I’m saddened by the docile way in which the drinking establishment has knuckled under. It’s not just the right to drink alcohol that’s at stake; thousands of workers have been rendered jobless overnight. Support for them on the part of the usually vociferous labor unions has been lackluster at best.
It’s a curious kind of prohibition, in which five star hotels continue to serve alcohol, and the state-owned Kerala State Beverages Corporation (note the interesting euphemism “beverages”) continues to retail alcohol to the masses. Besides, private clubs have not been barred from serving liquor to their members; on the contrary, they are gleefully dispensing barrels of alcohol these days, because those who drank in bars earlier and are fortunate enough to be members of private clubs now flock to their clubs to drink. It is the rank and file of the populace, the common man who used to drink in the pocket-friendly street-corner bar, who is being denied alcohol. And what happened to the bars in the state? Did they shut down? No, the government in its infinite mercy extended a straw to the drowning bar owners. Most of them applied for beer and wine parlor (BWP) licenses, and got them. Business is not even a fraction of what it used to be, but beggars cannot be choosers.
Enough of breast beating. Let us turn to how drinkers in the state are coping with the withdrawal symptoms. After all, this is the state with the highest per capita alcohol consumption in the country. The regulars here drink mostly brandy and rum, and the hardened drinkers start drinking in the morning (I suppose the past tense is in order now). Bars used to be open from morn to night, and I’m sure there were alcoholics who got drunk in a bar before noon, slept it off after lunch, only to resume drinking in the evening. The government could have clamped down on the working hours of bars if it wanted to decrease alcohol consumption in the state: allow bars to open only after 5 or 6 pm, for example. Or allow only beer to be served before 5 or 6 pm, though this may be impossible to enforce.
So, what do the drinkers drink now? As I said earlier, bars have reinvented themselves as BWPs, and drinkers have no choice; most (like myself) have reconciled themselves to beer. Now, I can’t put away more than a bottle of beer, but most drinkers consume two or three bottles in order to get a buzz. The desperate ones take the “beer and wine” on the signboard outside the parlor literally and mix beer and wine, the wine serving as the alcoholic base and the beer as the “soda.” It apparently gives rise to a dizzy, blurry high resembling the high produced by drinking cough syrup. I was told this by a regular at the bar (no, make that the BWP) I visit. He told me that one day there was a group in the parlor that was completely smashed and behaving weirdly; the beer and wine combo had done the trick. It’s not possible for anyone to get that wasted on beer, he said. And a few days later, I saw it for myself. A drinker ordered wine and beer, and carefully topped the glass of wine to the brim with beer. I’ve heard that in some establishments, waiters wink at customers who bring in bottles of alcohol. Beer has to be ordered, of course. Another solution is to convert an auto rickshaw driven by an understanding driver into a mobile bar. The vehicle stops at an isolated spot, and the customers enjoy their drinks. Perhaps another drink at the next isolated spot. And so on. Not many have the luxury of drinking at home, you see.
The other day I was on my way to the washroom in a BWP, a waiter preceding me. I found him standing at the door of the toilet, peering in apprehensively. I looked at him quizzically, and he explained. A customer had just visited the washroom and left. This customer had vomited in the toilet on consecutive visits the previous two days. So the waiter was checking to see if history had repeated itself. Thankfully, it had not. I asked the waiter how anyone can vomit after drinking beer. He said probably the man had drunk liquor outside before coming in. A more likely explanation now occurs to me; maybe the man had secreted a small bottle of diluted ready-to-drink alcohol in his pocket, and helped himself liberally during washroom visits.
One of my joys this year has been the discovery of the novelist Ishiguro. His novel An Artist of the Floating World is set in Japan, and the protagonist is a Japanese artist whose nationalist worldview is being turned upside down in the brave new Japan taking shape after the defeat in WW2. I interpret the novel as a masterly political novel about the clash of cultural values and the generation gap in post-WW2 Japanese society. I think I learned more about pre-WW2 Japanese society from this novel than I would’ve from a history book. Here, however, I want to quote one sentence from the book. The protagonist of the novel, a reputed artist, loves to drink in bars in congenial company, and this is his tribute to one of his favorite bars:
But for all the shouting and speech-making that went on into the night, real quarrels were rare at the Migi-Hidari, all of us who frequented that place being united by the same essential spirit; that is to say, the establishment proved to be everything Yamagata had wished; it represented something fine and one could get drunk there with pride and dignity.
Getting drunk with pride and dignity — in congenial surroundings. It has become all but impossible to do that in Kerala today.