“Beewine”, the new prohibition inebriation.
Beer after wine is fine and wine after beer makes you queer, or so goes a saying.
But for Malayalis used to gulping their Mansion House brandy and state manufactured Jawan rum inside dimly-lit with `optional AC’ attached bars in Kerala, there’s no before or after these days; in fact, they don’t give a coconuts’ ass as long as their nether nerve gets the “fit” required. In short: sloshed and primal.
So taking away their brandies and rums and rite of passage for beer and wine is like the crack equivalent of asking Charlie Sheen to chill the f*** out with well, a glass of beer and wine.
To top it off, dry days have been declared on the first of every month, dry days every Sunday (now scrapped) and the barrage of hartals and bandhs.
This exercise has simply led to people stocking up the previous day.
Ironically people now spend more money and piss away all the beer with subdued shenanigans.
But what has spawned out of this “so-called” moral conjuncture of political ineptness is the growing cult of what I like to call “The Beewine” culture in tipplers own country.
Come to think of it, beer and wine figures at the bottom tier of the Malayali alcohol repertoire; and when you’re forced with choosing between the two, a reasonable Malayali goes for the hail-Mary-I’m-all-for-making-the-best-of-it-by-mixing-the-two.
A carpenter unwinding with a mixture of beer and wine
At first I didn’t think much of this trend during my infrequent (ahem!) visits to the bars in my hometown, Thrissur.
But while tending a Tuborg strong at Bini, a city bar, I struck up a conversation with a guy sitting opposite me nursing a beewine.
Anurag, a carpenter who moonlights as a folk singer, looked almost anxious when I dropped the question as though he was feeling guilty for mixing the two.“I don’t know. I just mix because those are the only drinks available here,” Anurag laments.
That the phased-out prohibition was a result of political nitpicking and ego tussle rather than a moral obligation was not lost in the public consciousness. A political hustle even, some people say.
When Kerala congress president V M Sudheeran cornered the government over its leanings to the liquor lobby, chief minister Oommen Chandy retorted with the ridiculous master plan of phasing out liquor in Kerala by 2023 and ordered immediate closure of all the bars. Thanks to small mercies, most have reopened now as beer and wine parlours.
Prohibition must have hit the revenues, you think? For the people dependent on this, like the carpenters, labourers, electricians, businessmen, artists, bhujjis (the pseudo intellectuals and wannabes), yes. For the government, who now has an almost total monopoly? No.
“I used to drink only brandy. After prohibition I’m spending more money than ever,” Says Biju, a gravedigger.
“Both sides are screwing us”. By that he means the government and the liquor manufacturers.
“All beer does is make me piss more.”
A KTDC beer parlour
He is one among the growing beewine cult who is pissed off literally and figuratively due to the prohibition and its ensuing effects.
“They (the government) have increased the price, but it’s not stopping anyone from drinking,” Biju says.
When the bars were forced to shut, Biju had quit drinking and sought rehab in an ashram in Pala near Kottayam district.
“The father (priest) there said I will get back to drinking,” Biju says clutching to his Carlsberg strong.
Thanks to the government, the footfall of people going for a hit of beer mixed with the cheapest red wine is on the rise.
Not to mention, the impending beer bellies.
One of the powerful bar owners from Thiruvananthapuram, Biju Ramesh, has been crusading for the fraternity with cases in the Supreme Court and other complaints against ministers for allegedly taking bribes, especially against the mighty Finance minister K M Mani.
But the poor guy, even with all his clout, is being hounded by the government, a la the Modi government hounding Teesta Setalvad episode.
The pre-prohibition bars used to buzz with people downing their drinks with hydraulic precision in quick succession whether sitting, standing or by the counter. Their glasses are filled almost to the brink, all neat, gulped into inexistence followed by a swig of water and a lick of pickle or “touchings” as they are usually called.
So one can only wonder how beer and wine will pacify this crowd and for how long. It’s like trying to keep Ozzy Osbourne on a diet of milk and cookie when what he really wants is to snort some red ants.
People who can afford, meanwhile, have the privilege of diving into members-only clubs, the last remaining bastions for hard drinks along with the five stars.
It is this disparity that has the court and people questioning the pious judgment of the government.
Queue outside a wine shop a.k.a beverages
Antony, an electrician at a local hospital, is nettled with this kind of humiliation and labour of waiting in queue to buy liquor after a hard day’s work.
“It’s the government playing with us and degrading us. Why can’t they have more outlets to segregate the rush,” he questions.
“Either ban everything or let people drink whatever the damn they want to,” Antony feels. The government can’t get away saying the women are in favour of the ban because women drink too, he adds.
Sego, one of the iconic neighbourhood decades’ old bars in Thrissur city, has shut shop for good. One of its partners, Jinu, who also has other businesses, says, “It was a family business and we don’t plan to reopen it as a beer and wine parlour.”
After the government refused to renew the license they had no choice but to shut and fire the employees.
Anthony feels people are drinking more to reach the slosh meter and paying more due to the hike in rates, almost 30-40 percent. “Politicians are getting money from the beer and wine companies and the state’s coffers have made it up somewhat if not more by increasing the tax that ultimately has to be borne by us,” Antony reasons.
And that stands true because according to reports,after the closure of over 400 of the 700 odd bars in the state, the government’s beverages corporation (Bevco) recorded sales of Rs 9,996 crore in 2014-15 registering a jump from Rs 9,350 crore earned in 2013-14.
So more money for the government, cash drain for the common folks, unexpected loss of jobs for thousands of bar tenders and waiters that has resulted in some suicides and a big blow for some of the iconic bars and their helpless owners.
Bravo! Kerala government. Slow clap.
Photography: Mohan K K and Manoj Parameswaran