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Kerala: Drinking to the Max

Kerala: Drinking to the Max

April 30, 2010

In India’s number 1 alcohol-consuming state, it’s not the drinking; it’s how they’re drinking.

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.”


  • J.Killian
    01.02.12 10:46 AM
    Donot blame the habit of drinking in Kerala. In Kerala the only entertainment available is drinking. It is a means of revenue for everyone - The Government is getting revenue to pay off the salary for employees, the lawmakers are getting their share from vendors, the law-enforcers get their daily buck. The Bar licence fee in Kerala is 2.25 Million Rupees every year. Malayalees spend 7500 Crores every year for drinking, another 1500 Crores as fines and penalties and 3000 Crores on medicines and treatments. Alcohol is the life-blood of Kerala economy.
  • Rajesh
    06.01.12 05:37 PM
    This data is not correct because liquor distrinbution is handling by kerala govt only.but in other states like delhi it is more than the actual count.
  • Surendranath
    04.11.11 04:59 PM
    @jovin..that's self proclaimed statement.I have seen many of your so called 'Well educated' ppl and hear them speaking 'very good' yeenglish.None of you have actually good vocal-berry when its comes to speak good English.if you know what does that means.
  • jovin
    03.11.11 11:15 AM
    why this people blame always kerala people.answer---- because this people highly qualified and well educated. not same - bihar, up, rajesthan, and other northern state, so don't angry with kerala people. try to overtake to kerala. okay
  • Anish
    02.10.11 07:48 PM
    Very well written and does bring to fore, the cultural mores of a place. As you rightly said, who has the right to judge whom?

    But did I connect with this post? Totally. Today I even referred to this post -
  • SurendraNath
    27.09.11 11:52 PM
    I have a question...Why we should call 'Kerala' a god's own country?god doesn't stay where most of ppl are in to drinking too much.second even they says it's god's own country then why they don't want to live there and always looking to go to the foreign country...?
  • Vaidya Prasad M
    Vaidya Prasad M
    27.09.11 10:41 PM
    See, the latest release connects the death-toll by weil's disease and alcoholism. Keralites will be the martyrs of alcoholism in the near future.
  • LeoPaw
    22.09.11 07:32 PM
    I know a keralite who works in the gulf for 6 months a year- well paid. Spend the rest of the 6 months back in kerala drinking with friends almost throughout the day.
    When we have people like this, we will never lose that rank.
  • Kirklops
    21.09.11 08:52 AM
    Not everyone in Kerala drinks. But with Kerala's drinking repute, people outside find it surprising when one says 'I am from Kerala' and 'I don't drink' in the same sentence.
    Pretty accurate picture posted here.
  • Joshua
    15.09.11 12:55 PM
    Hey Dude,

    It was a brilliant read, great to see a guy from outside understand our general unwritten culture. :)

    Me not a drinker though!!:)
  • Mundu Madutty
    Mundu Madutty
    12.09.11 04:53 PM
    Okey,to all drunkards keralites!How many of you are having Liver problems and abusing your wife for drinking?
  • umesh derebail
    umesh derebail
    13.08.11 08:10 AM
    RAIN OR SHINE WE SHALL HAVE OUR WINE, seems to be motto of Malayalis, if you research the roots, than it is obviously fuelled by NRI funds Lol
  • Interesting
    13.06.11 09:41 PM
    Forgot to mention - especially the women!
  • Interesting
    13.06.11 09:32 PM
    Interesting article. But it sounds like any UK town on any day of the week! I think the Keralites must have picked it up from the British.

    You want to talk about binge drinking go to any British town centre on a saturday night - now that's real drinking!
  • matheikal
    13.06.11 09:25 PM
    As a Malayali who takes a drink occasionally I found your article extremely interesting. I think you've understood the Malayali psyche - a great escapist psyche!
  • Cutting Kahlua
    Cutting Kahlua
    01.06.11 01:31 PM
    Drinking and buying lottery tickets and tying and untying the 'lungi'/'mundu'. My parents were born in that state. I am glad they left it for better avenues.
  • Dishit
    12.05.11 08:48 AM
    Nice post. It is said that in Kerala, the only thing that does no wobble after 6 PM is Gandhi's status. On a separate note, kerala state govt. receives the biggest chunk of revenue in forms of tax from consumption of liquor. So from their perspective it will be very difficult for them to give up this cash-cow as there are very few other avenues where you can mop up such large revenues.
  • Blue Lotus
    Blue Lotus
    16.03.11 06:14 AM
    I'm not surprised by the news.I don't mind drinking.But then misbehavior and addiction is something people need to work out on.Why can't government increase the taxes on alcohol and cigarettes so that people definitely would have to go a bit controlled?In kerala,I'm not very sure this would work as people might end up borrowing money and drinking.That would be worse.
  • Mathew Mathew
    Mathew Mathew
    30.08.10 07:15 PM
    @Abhijith, "Adhikamaayaal amruthum visham," is a popular Malayalam adage. Moderation, not regulation or prohibition, is the answer to abuse of alcohol or other drugs.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    30.08.10 05:11 PM
    @Chandrashekar, that gooseberry pickle sure is intriguing. Took a long time for me to appreciate it. It definitely goes well with a Kingfisher.

    @Abhijith, interesting perspective, but I think your suggestion is a little extreme - that would mean no liquor of any kind for anyone, effectively tarring the whole of society with the 'irresponsible drunkard' brush. I find that repression of this sort almost always leads to greater problems.
  • Abhijith
    29.08.10 09:51 PM
    Ask UB and other distellieries to stop its liquor production.Most of the distellieries are situated outside the state of Kerala. Will the Karnataka Gov and other state gov take initiative to do something about it. We just cannote put the blame on one state or mallus for consumption of alcohol. Other states are equally responsible for this.
  • chandrashekar
    21.08.10 11:00 AM
    I totally agree with you Morris.Been to a couple of watering holes on MG road Ernakulam.At 8pm on a typical day,the place would be jam packed.Difficult to get a seat.You are given your drink with the gooseberry pickle to bite.Strange but good combo to beat the bitterness,
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    25.07.10 03:02 PM
    Yeah, deregulation would surely be of benefit. That and better education, and more transparent policy all round. Ha! While we're at it, let's have a fully sustainable colony on the moon.

    What I'm understanding is that in Kerala, most things that are generally viewed as socially undesirable - excess drinking, polyamory, drug use etc - are very much done, but only surreptitiously. I think that secrecy might be the root of most problems.
  • Mathew Mathew
    Mathew Mathew
    20.07.10 09:11 PM

    You have said it. Drinking is a problem for many Keralites whether they live in Kerala or elsewhere. They would have been drinking "to the maximum" if it were not for the rule of law in most other "responsibly drinking" states of the world.

    I know friends and relatives who have succumbed to the bottle and died prematurely leaving behind hapless spouses and children.

    P.S. In developed countries such as the USA, drug abuse (alcohol included) is a major health issue.
  • vinod
    27.06.10 12:17 PM
    Oh, and good post. as always. keep typing!
  • vinod
    27.06.10 12:03 PM
    Hey, me too a 'Mallu'. Grew up in Kerala, but now living in Bangalore. I too have seen people in Kerala drink and get plastered. It sucks. I too, drink, but never in the way these guys do. Excuse: "If you dont want to get drunk, go drink milk. Men drink alcohol and get drunk." That is why Mallu men on 'tour' get regularly thrown out from Bangalore pubs.

    Oh and to the government: deregulation helps. It teaches people how to drink responsibly. kudos to the govet. of Karnataka for that.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    22.06.10 01:21 PM
    Thanks for the kind words Dr Roshan, Rajani and Rinzu. RRR!

    Nithin, you at first seem to be espousing a libertarian ethic in which people require only the freedom to choose what they will or will not do... then condeming the government for their focus on cash rather than their constituents. If the people make choices which cause damage to themselves and their peers, should the government not to take some responsibility and seek to make a positive difference on the situation? Especially if they are encouraging said choices?

    One way to make a difference is education, in the various forms it can take. Bring the" rel="nofollow">DARE program to Kerala!
  • Nithin
    21.06.10 12:25 PM
    Well,even when kerala is the number one liquor consuming state, not all the people drink.Those who drink,they spend lot of money on it.Its their choice.Well blame is on government for just thinking about burgeoning their wallet than the welfare of people.Well,i think maveli has to take birth again to make this state a perfect one without alcohol,sex raquets and hartals.Until then cheers.
  • Rinzu Rajan
    Rinzu Rajan
    18.06.10 08:58 PM
    Bang on target. Such things make me feel more embarrassed. Feel pitiful for the people who burn their hard earned money for buying a venom for themselves.

    Keep Penning.


  • Rajani
    20.05.10 11:35 AM
    thank goodness the malayalis can blame the "sarkar" for their drinking along with bad roads, bad politics, and worse prices. Just looks at mallu films - every single film I have seen so far has to have one drunk scene - and if you see them drink - I swear you'll never touch alc again! just my pov! anyways, glad to have spotted your site. good job :)
  • Dr roshan
    Dr roshan
    07.05.10 07:14 AM
    hehe.. from one Mallu to another, good post.. and totally accurate too :)
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    03.05.10 01:03 PM
    @g2 - yeah, reminds me of my own college days... I wonder if having better quality liquor would get people to want to enjoy it for its taste?

    @Journomuse - ah, the Gelllf - the real Kerala, haha! I'm glad I struck the right note. Seems like lives are very conflicted here for many reasons.

    @Nishant Singh - I too have never been abused by drunkards, but I've seen otherwise docile folk turn pretty vicious after a couple of brandies, like different people almost. All this isn't to say it makes them bad people, though, I've met some fantastic guys here. Sure is hard to keep up, though.
  • Nishant Singh
    Nishant Singh
    01.05.10 11:35 PM
    Thankfully the malyali friends I have do not get abusive when they are drunk though yes they all say this one line before drinking “Every I time I drink, I drink to the maximum. Otherwise I won’t drink.”!!
  • Journomuse
    01.05.10 12:44 AM
    That's a pretty accurate picture from a Malayali Saip..:) I think you caught the pulse right..The next 'expose' as you dubbed it needs to be of the growing number of psychiatrists in the state which are supposed to be the highest in India too - reasons? Highly educated unemployed young men with only 'the Gelllf'( Gulf states) to escape too and when that too doesn't happen, takes happily to downing copious amounts of alchohol to swallow down the frustration of conflicting life....

    Cheers, from a Malayali whos been there and seen that...:)
  • g2
    30.04.10 04:48 PM
    “Every I time I drink, I drink to the maximum. Otherwise I won’t drink.” -- well that's how sophomores in my college drink ;) ... but by the time they get to the fourth year, they get wiser and drink judiciously and learn to enjoy the high rather than get wasted ... hope the men (and women?) of Kerala get to the "fourth year of college" state of mind...
  • Slag
    30.04.10 01:55 PM
    You sure he's not just talking about a toast?

    Maybe he never takes a sip unless he first raises his glass and says, "to The Maximum!", presumably causing his drinking companions to raise their glasses and shout in unison, "The Maximum!"

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