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Drinker in a dry land

He landed in Gujarat to discover for himself how dry is dry in a state with no bars. He did find a few swigs of alcohol in the end, but no satisfaction. Soumya Bhattacharya tells more.

india Updated: Jul 18, 2009 21:55 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

How odd it is, I think with a mixture of fear and loathing as the plane circles above Ahmedabad, a shining spittle of rain, like a glob of mercury, clinging to the window on my left; how odd it is, I think, to be not able to go to a bar on the first evening of my visit to a new city and get a sense of the place at which I have turned up.

You don’t go to bars in Ahmedabad — or anywhere else in Gujarat. You can’t go to them. There aren’t any. There never have been, in the 49 years that Gujarat has been a state.

India ka daru data

* Permits are granted in Maharashtra for foreign liquor. ‘Health permit’ is granted to anyone above 40 who requires this liquor for maintaining his health

* Wardha is the only ‘dry’ district in Maharashtra because Sevagram, Mahatama Gandhi’s ashram is located here. As for the rest of Maharashtra, you have to be 21 and have a valid permit to consume alcohol. In cities like Mumbai, there are hardly any checks conducted on whether a drinker has a permit. One-day permits are available at restaurants. A foreign passport is also your permit

* Tamil Nadu and Kerala are two south Indian states where liquor is sold through government outlets. In Tamil Nadu, selling Indian Made Foreign Liquor is a privilege of the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited to curb spurious liquor sale and organised monopoly

* All liquor outlets in Kerala are run by the state-owned Kerala State Beverages (Manufacturing and Marketing) Corporation Limited. But liquor smuggling from nearby Mahe is rampant because it’s cheaper and of wider variety

* According to the Delhi excise department rules, no liquor shop for consumption off/on its premises shall be located 75 metres from colonies of labourers and ‘harijans’ (as the excise department classifies Dalits). You’re forbidden from buying alcohol if you are below 25 years of age

* The Sikkim government levies educational cess of Rs 2.70 on every bulk litre of foreign liquor and Rs 1.60 on every bulk litre of beer manufactured in Sikkim and imported from other states for consumption in civil market and army units in the state

* UP has banned the sale of country liquor in plastic pouches since 150 crore of these were being dumped each year causing environmental damage

For someone like me, it is difficult to come to terms with this. What’s dry? How dry is dry? That’s why I am here. To see what it is like to be a drinker in a dry land; to carry out my own experiments with a certain kind of truth.

It is also a thought experiment, of making minor adjustments in my instinctive responses to things. “Let’s meet for a drink” or “What will you have to drink?” are phrases I begin to learn to not use. (No, not, can’t, aren’t… It seems to me very quickly that certain things here are defined entirely by negatives.)

At a kebab-and-biryani festival at the hotel, I know what’s missing: the beer. I don’t ask for it. I don’t have aerated drinks. I have never in my life drunk so much mineral water as I do during my stay in Gujarat.

It is an appropriate time for this experiment. A week ago, 130 people died from drinking illicit liquor here: proof enough — if any were needed — that while you may not legally allow alcohol to be sold or served, you won’t ever stop people from drinking it if they want to.

If they want to. If I want to. What should I do, then, if I want to have a drink? Like a participant in a big-money TV quiz show, I phone a friend. “The bars are mobile. If you can’t go to a bar, the bar will come to you.” I can hear the smirk.

“Everybody drinks in cars here. Buy a can of cola, take a swig, mix in the rum and pass it around between friends.

Even the soft-drink sellers know. So they’ll have colas ready on the counter at a certain time of the day for some, sodas for others. Drive around for an hour or so, and you’re done.”

“That’s disgusting,” I say. “Where’s the pleasure in that?”

“The pleasure is in the drinking. When in Rome etc. The choice is to turn teetotal,” my friend says, sounding grim.

My friend, like the dozens of people — and each of who had his own drinking story to tell — I spoke to during my stay, will remain unnamed. The police have got very strict since the tragedy. They have arrested 500 people. They want to be seen to be doing a lot. An amendment has been brought to the existing prohibition law, and the death penalty suggested for those involved in the making or distribution of spurious liquor that leads to deaths.

The bootleggers — critical to the social fabric in Gujarat — have gone underground. They will surface in a few weeks, everyone is certain. In the meantime, people have the stuff at home. Things change, things remain the same.

“Sometimes,” says someone I shall call a friend of a friend with a touch of boastfulness, “we don’t even feel we are living in a state with prohibition. We get booze delivered home.”

“Oh?” I ask.

The gentleman smiles. “Having a bootlegger is not enough. Having a reliable bootlegger is important.”

Otherwise, seals are tampered with, alcohol is diluted, toxic stuff gets in. I am told of how, only weeks ago, someone bought a bottle of whisky, and had the first sip to find a medicinal, alien taste overwhelm his palate. “I had to throw it away. It wasn’t my usual bootlegger. You need to be careful.”

Merely furtiveness won’t do if you fancy a drink here. Eternal vigilance is the key.

The reliable bootlegger, well-dressed, polite, often with a respectable job (like being in the income-tax department, say) comes home swinging a briefcase. He has tea. He opens the case, and leaves you with what you want. It’s expensive. A 750ml bottle of Smirnoff vodka costs Rs 800 — nearly double the price in Mumbai or Delhi. And the prices vary according to the scarcity.

Now is a scarce time. As were the period in the run-up to the elections. “The politicians had asked for stuff to be hoarded for them,” I am told. “Supplies dried up.”

Everyone is in on it. And the travesty is perpetuated. A senior police official died recently from heavy drinking. A crime reporter tells me that the cut money some policemen get every month is more than their salaries. People go to posh clubs, nudge and wink, the owner has a suite ready for them, and they drink behind closed doors.

But surely, they also miss the pleasure of drinking legally?

“Oh, yes, of course,” someone tells me. “There are three official watering holes for people in Gujarat. People in Surat drive to Daman. Those in Rajkot go to Diu. And we, in Ahmedabad, head for Mount Abu.”

Over there, it’s almost impossible to find rooms in hotels just across the border. People sit in bars, or in shacks on the seafront, or in chairs in balconies, and assert their right to drink without being surreptitious.

Four hours to get to a bar. What a life.

Then there are health permits that allow you a quota of alcohol every month if you can prove that you need it as medicine. “When I got mine two years ago,” someone with a mild blood pressure problem says, “I had to spend Rs 20,000 in bribes.” The rate now is said to be Rs 40,000.

Palms are greased for everything. “The police have a line with the kabadiwallahs. When you sell empty bottles, they find out where the bottles have come from. They turn up at your home, and ask for money. It is advisable to have five or ten thousand rupees handy. Who knows when you will be harassed?”

There is a reason why prohibition stays on in Gujarat. “Our women are safer on the roads here because of prohibition.

You can see them out in hundreds, on their own, late at night, during Navratri,” says Chunnabhai Vaidya, 92, president of the Gujarat Lok Samity, an NGO that works for the uplift of the rural poor. “We abide by Gandhian values. No drunkard threatens our society’s peace. Can you say that for Delhi?”

Industry estimates say Rs 2,500 crore is lost every year to the state exchequer because of prohibition. The Narendra Modi government is aware of it, although it fears a backlash from the women voters in Gujarat’s rural hinterland (where hooch is consumed widely, but still not as widely as it would be if the state were to be wet) if it does anything about it. The government has proposed that the state’s special economic zones will have no prohibition. A hesitant start.

But one does get lucky in Gujarat. Gliding along the magnificent National Expressway to Baroda, the wind whipping my face so hard I can barely keep my eyes open, I have the irresistible yearning to have a very cold beer.

Two hours later, a very cold beer is thrust into my hands. We are at the home of Rahul Gajjar, a graphic designer, and he has a health permit to drink.

We’ve been before to the University of Baroda’s department of fine arts, an old building ringed with eucalyptus trees. Jayanti Rabadia, who teaches there, tells me how he made a mural out of alcohol bottles. It was shown in an exhibition in Delhi in 2006.

Another teacher talks of how some of the ex-students got busted some days ago. They were having a party. Someone — was it a neighbour? Was it some other ex-student not invited? — called the police. The young men and women spent a night at the police station, were produced in court, and paid fines of Rs 20 each to be released.

“It stops nothing,” Gajjar says. “At farmhouses on the edge of the city, booze parties are held over the weekends. Senior policemen and politicians turn up. I have been too.”

His father used to have lavish birthday parties. “The booze would come in matador vans with a police escort,” Gajjar says. Someone else talks about the “wonderful evening” he had at the home of the Deputy Superintendent of Police in Porbandar. “He lived on the floor above the police station.”

Gajjar is a member of — now hold your breath — Baroda’s Alcoholics Anonymous society. I choke on my beer. An AA in a state that has prohibition? “Surat has a huge one. There is one in Ahmedabad. Ours has 40 members.” Oh. Right.

I want very badly to have a legal drink before leaving Gujarat. It’s like a memento, like those kitschy miniatures of the Eiffel Tower you buy to show that you’ve been to Paris. I can’t drive to Mount Abu or Daman or Diu. I can’t get a health permit.

“Get a visitor’s permit,” my friend says.

I go for my permit to a legal liquor store in the premises of a five-star hotel. I show proof of my identity, plane tickets, business card, and fill in a form almost as long and convoluted as the one you do when you are applying for a US visa. It takes a very long time, but I finally have it: a licence to drink in the state, within the confines of my hotel room, within the next week. Against it, I get a 750ml bottle at almost twice the market rate in Mumbai.

Elderly Ibrahim Ranwala, who sits at the counter, tells me with a gap-toothed smile: “Now you can consume much.” I feel like a fuel-inefficient car. “But only in your room. Or else,” he wags his finger, then makes a clinking noise that mimes the gate of a prison cell closing.

Later that evening, as the cubes of ice chime into a tall glass and the vodka is splashed in in the silence of the air-conditioned hotel room, I look again at the permit, and think: No, it’s too much hard work, drinking in Gujarat. It doesn’t seem like drinking at all.

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