I found out about the BBC’s recent big story about Kerala when I was browsing in the Reliance World internet café below my office. One of my colleagues – a Malayali, same as 95% of the people who work in my Technopark office – came to me with a big grin on his face. “Hey, did you hear there was a story about Kerala in the BBC today?” I told him I hadn’t, but was quickly interested to know what it was about. Kerala in the news! Exciting! “Yeah,” he said, grin still fixed to his face. “It said that Kerala consumes the most alcohol in the whole of India!”
There it was on the BBC’s front page. ‘Kerala’s love affair with alcohol’ read the headline in bold type. I had expected an appreciation of the palm trees and backwaters seen in Incredible!ndia, or something equally charming and inoffensive, but this was an exposé of the state’s runaway drinking culture. Normally, when there is bad international press about your homeland, you tend to react with either shame, disgust, protest or a combination of the three. My colleague, however, seemed almost overjoyed to tell me that he and his fellow Malayalis were becoming world renowned for their drinking prowess. A typical reaction of a young male anywhere, I guess, but it neatly sums up the attitude here.
Many dichotomies can define a man here in Kerala, and chief among them is being either teetotaller or drinker. And if you drink, you drink. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to get away with a single quiet pint in the watering hole opposite Technopark. As a saip who fits into neither the teetotal nor the ‘drink to the maximum’ bracket, I’ve somehow learned enough tricks to avoid being plastered drunk for the long bus or train ride home after each drinking session with the boys.
Downing beer after beer (or brandy after brandy, as the BBC article accurately points out) isn’t so much a matter of individual pride as it is the only accepted and understood way to drink. Of course, it is more of a problem among the poor as they drink to forget their troubles, but my first-hand experience is with well-off salarymen for whom the influence of alcohol is just as much an escape as it is for those less fortunate. Example: office grudges are usually borne silently until there is a company party, where double figures of drinks are consumed, voices are raised and fists become an acceptable outlet for long-held rancour. For these men, often married with kids and earning a decent living, booze excuses any misbehaviour.
The BBC article draws attention to some interesting points, in particular the fact that the purchasing of liquor is fully controlled by the state government (officially, at least). If people are losing their jobs, beating their wives and killing themselves because of alcohol, and the government is completely in charge of said alcohol, shouldn’t the government take some responsibility and introduce some initiatives to promote intelligent consumption of liquor? Well, one thing stands in the way of that: money. Malayalis spend more on liquor than they do on rice (7500 crore per year versus 2800 crore), and every penny of profit goes into the pockets of the lawmakers. They have a vested interest in maintaining the somewhat ugly status quo, and so it will likely remain.
But who am I to judge? I love a cool Kingfisher on a hot afternoon after work, and there is no easier way to get to know someone better here than over a drink or three. I can’t judge the simple fact that people drink. What I can judge is the violence caused when people drink – to spouses, to friends, to familial stability, to oneself and to society at large. And I have to say that in Kerala, it’s not the drinking so much as how they’re drinking. Every time we go to the bar, another colleague’s words ring in my mind: “Every time I drink, I drink to the maximum. Otherwise I won’t drink.”