On your toddy
Alcohol is a problem in Kerala. For a state with a population of just around 35 million they manage to knock back about 8.5 litres of pure alcohol per person per annum, about twice the national average of India as a whole but modest compared with the Brits’ average of 11.6 litres. According to the Indian Alcohol and Drug Information Centre alcohol (and drugs) accounts for 69% of crime, 40% of road accidents and 80% of divorce and domestic violence cases in Kerala.
What has sprung up is a pretty effective prohibition movement led by the Christian churches. We had been a bit iffy about going to Kerala because we had heard that there was a serious attempt to make the state dry by imposing a blanket prohibition ban. This has been moderated, mainly as a result of fierce pressure from the tourism industry, but the plan is still to achieve total prohibition by 2024. Part of the motivation for going there this year was to go there before we were forced to track down some moonshine.
Don’t get me wrong – we don’t go somewhere to get bladdered but after a day’s sight-seeing it is nice to relax with a drink or three and we find you can discover more about real life in a place by going to the local bars, sampling their hooch and talking to anyone who cares to pass the time of day with you. And it’s cheaper and more authentic than the ersatz hotel bars.
But getting alcohol in Kerala is a real problem. Where they are now (or were at the time of our visit – if you are thinking of going I would encourage you to check things out as it is a bit of a moveable booze up) is that you can’t buy alcohol on the first of the month or on major festivals. More problematically, the government has introduced a licensing system and have set the cost of licences at such a level that the ordinary bars can’t afford them. This has meant that roadside bars have shut and local restaurants are unable to sell alcohol legally with a meal -although you may find gaffs that offer it covertly poured out of a teapot.
Pretty much the only places where you can now get alcohol are government-owned liquour stores and four and five-star hotels who seem to be exempt from all prohibitions and charge a significant mark up because of their monopolistic position. My image of passing a happy couple of hours in a local toddy shop sampling the local hooch – a spirit made from the sap of the ubiquitous palm trees – was, alas, a pipe dream.
For our rice boat trip we were advised to buy our own alcohol. This necessitated a stop at a liquour store. We pulled up across the way from a wooden building which had a narrow passage way at the front and a large counter protected by thick wire netting. There was a long line of locals queuing patiently for their turn to get served. I was told by our driver to stand at the exit, at the head of the queue and I would get served immediately, something that the locals seemed to accept with their customary stoicism. The trouble was that where I was standing was at the very point of the narrow passage that the customers used to exit the place so their revenge for my queue jumping was squeezing past me on the way out. Still I managed to complete the transaction – no sign of any change for the note proffered – and escaped to the car.
Our trip to the local liquour store at Kovalam was a little more comfortable as it was on two levels, the lower one for the locals and the upper for foreign nationals, the layout doubtless reflecting the differential in pricing. Still for 400 rupees (about £5) I got a litre bottle of gin – a make I had never heard of but suffered no ill effects from consuming it.
So my advice is drinker, beware!