Kerala bar ban: Listen to The Voice
I, like guys anywhere, have some of my fondest life-defining memories revolving around the bars in my hometown. In one I threw a bash after losing my virginity doling out the Marlboros she gave me which was also my first smoke, in another I celebrated a university rank, in yet another I drank to a divorce; much anticipated get-togethers with childhood buddies – couple of them out on parole – were always held in this one with spacious, smoking booths with the obsequious bearers fussing over the VIP guests, I one by extension. In another I bonded over a brother-in-law brought home for the first time by my sister where he revealed they were married already. Must have been the Bogart-ambience – sinister dim lights, cigarette smoke floating like fluid curtains, a pervading burly bonhomie – that kept me from upper cutting him. Or maybe it was the loud music that drowned out most of what we were saying. We hit it off instantly and in no way the bar is any less responsible.
So during this visit I stood outside another where historically the waiters were hired from outside the state – stoic, non-communicative ones who left you alone. In Kerala you don’t go to a bar if you want to be alone: If you want to drink by yourself you could buy your booze from a state-owned Beverages Corporation (pet named ‘Bevco’) outlet and slink into that dark corner in the library park facing the river. Or slide over any of the numerous cemetery walls, sit on the white concrete plinths and use the engraved marble slabs as tables. I had done it even though I could drink at home – my room was upstairs and I would send out an intermittent drone of a lesson being read aloud. I had been to this particular bar whenever I needed to be alone but was in no mood to slink or slide. Or read aloud. But now the place was closed. And as always there were a few dark shadows loitering about, who always seemed to move from one unlit corner to another, slithering silhouettes. Their presence signalled by the orange glow of their cigarettes.
“The bar is closed,” The Voice said, seemingly coming out of a dark contour on the periphery wall.
“Oh but why? What happened?” I asked. The staff of the other bars used to joke that this one should ideally be shifted to Nepal.
“You don’t read the newspapers?” The Voice asked sounding miffed.
I didn’t confess that I really didn’t as coming from Delhi I could never persuade myself to believe that there was anything newsworthy happening anywhere else.
“I didn’t… today.” I said looking the other way.
“The government has closed most of the bars in the state. Soon all of them will be shut.” The Voice said and added pointedly, “And this was a month ago.”
I stood there, agape, unbelieving. Unblinking.
Shutting down a bar in Kerala is as improbable and incredulous as closing a cathouse in Kamathipura – both are going great guns historically and doing well financially. Social be damned. But this was politics. So The Voice informed.
“But why did the government do that?” I suppose my quivering query sounded more like ‘Isn’t the government supposed to ensure our happiness?’
“A labourer earning Rs 700 a day spends Rs 500 in the bar.” The Voice spoke like it was the undisputed truth. It was indeed the truth – Kerala throws back more than any other state in India; per capita consumption is over double the national average. But attempts to dry up the state – by immediately shutting all the 700-odd bars and pulling the shutter over nearly-400 state-owned liquor outlets, even if over a decade, sounds as grandiosely stupid as forcing a Monaco resident to forego his yacht. Drinking, like yachting, is crucial for him to relax, is a status augmenter and indispensable for peer bonding.
“So what, he should be taught to spend Rs 200 in the bar.” I wasn’t looking for an argument but it was an earnest opinion. Daily labourers constituted 15 per cent of drinkers – the ones assumed to be the hard core consumers. For all I knew the ban would bite big into tourism, a top thriving industry in the state notorious for its crippling trade unionism, and this very daily labourer could be jobless soon. What he needs is help to curb his appetite and not snatch his tipple.
“It is too late, he is already in the gutter, face down and his wife is contemplating suicide. After killing the children.” The Voice took a solemn note.
“If it is too late already what makes the government think that forcibly taking away the bottle will change the man-in-the-gutter? By depriving him of his essential commodity he will only go berserk…” I had seen it happen first hand; family and friends running amok unleashing violence and other unspeakable acts because somebody hid their alcohol. Those who were packed off to religious retreat centres against their will returned to sing aloud divine songs all the time, all the way to the madhouse. Those who were brought bound and screaming bloody murder to de-addiction centres returned home to replace their bed coffee with brandy. Caught in the crosswinds of dogma and family, spurious tonics and caveman technics, many even chose to end it all.
“Like everybody from a big town you too sound like nobody else knows better. What’s your opinion, oh Big Brother-Who-Forgot-to-Wear-Mundu?” The Voice scoffed. The other slouching shadows emitted an array of mirth-conveying sounds: a soda pop, a cobra hiss, a hoick-snort…
“The government should ensure that the man-in-the-gutter gets enough to drink for Rs 200. There ought to be a subsidy system, dispense alcohol like kerosene through ration shops – a quota has to be set depending on the income levels.” There were grunts which I presumed to be signs of approval egging me on.
“See in Rajasthan, opium is…” I continued.
“If… If…” The Voice butted in, silencing me. “If the government can allow bars in five-star hotels then it has the moral obligation to ensure supply to the economically weaker sections of society. For once a city boy makes sense.” There were more grunts of approval. The orange butts were all glowing in my direction like livewire microphones; I suspected in the past few minutes they had also grown in numbers, a netherworld citizenry.
“See big brothers, downing a few pegs after a day’s work is so ingrained in our blood – our forefathers used to do it after toiling in the fields. We all grew up seeing it ourselves or hearing about those wonderful days. And now telling us to just go home after work and start with the litany, even god won’t forgive.” My audience had indeed swelled – which I figured only later from where – and soon we were all mock-meriting the ban.
The endangered paddy fields could see a revival with the state’s own version of rice beer so popular in Nagaland and Jharkhand (I supplied, to which many enquired the procedure), movie writers will have no dearth of bootlegger-to-billionaire stories (many Richie Richs from my town were those who struck it big during past bans; movies inspired by their run have enjoyed a good er, run) and there will be a rush to join the Excise Department (whined an off duty policeman). All the while there was a yellow light flickering from somewhere inside the beleaguered bar; what I thought was a flicker was actually the heads of people milling about a counter. The bulb went off after a while and The Shadows began to rise from their haunches, stamping out the orange glows.
The Voice emerged from the wall, faceless and swaying. It wore a mundu that rode above a chequered long underwear – making my Bermuda shorts look indeed like I had forgotten my own mundu. The legs beneath clopped ahead with a life and a command centre of their own and soon entangled around each other.
The Voice was his own alter ego and bête noire – the man-in-the-gutter.
The photographs are taken from outside a Bevco outlet – probably the only place where the Keralite awaits his turn patiently. The purchase sequence is in chronological order.