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As Kerala heads towards prohibition, with the state government deciding to phase out nearly every alcohol bar and put a stop to the sale and consumption of liquor, Anand, Dayakaran, Manoj, Anil Master, Sanoj, Surendran and Vinay may no longer be the same people I met earlier this year.

They were strangers before they got drunk. Once past the tipsy threshold, they—perfectly temperate gents with crisply ironed mundus and neat hair—would open up with humour and banter, all conducted in impenetrable Malayalam for the Bengali from Kolkata. I would mostly understand the language of the back pat and the two English words that would be thrown at me dotingly every few minutes as an antidote to all feelings of alienation. No problem, no problem, I could have muttered in my sleep.

During a month-long visit in March-April to India’s southernmost state, these people had opened their doors to me on the recommendation of a Malayali film-maker friend in Kolkata. I was travelling through a wide network of not just long-standing bonds but—I soon came to realize—also through brandy-fired comradeship. Any time could be the occasion for the first shot of Mansion House—often as early as 9am, with the day progressively punctuated with their brandy-flavoured mirth.

Sobriety came in the form of a government decision in April to not renew the licences of 400-plus bars. The air was rife with news of a complete clampdown and in the minds of my Malayali hosts, already reeling from the hefty premium they had to pay for procuring a bottle at private bars, cumulonimbus layers of worry preceded the actual arrival of dark rainclouds over Kerala. “There would be no Kerala without alcohol," said one. He could well have meant that there will be no alcohol without Kerala. The Oommen Chandy government—Omen Chandy by then for some—in the state with the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in India was hearing something else though.

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A man enjoying his drink. Photo: Shamik Bag

Only the cash counters, but naturally, have overhanging bright lights. In some of the bars, tipplers are known to spend entire days without knowing which day it is. Others down a few quick ones between the daily rigour of office and home: The sooner the alcohol hits the bloodstream, the quicker the effect and the lighter it is on the pocket. Most Keralites I have seen do a quick bottoms-up, even allowing a stream to trickle down the sides of their mouth and on to their shirt. Nursing a drink, in all likelihood, is a wanton waste of valuable drinking time.

In a state with the highest scores on various human development indices, including literacy, the state’s 700-odd bars effectively bar women. Many don’t even have a ladies’ toilet.

Having done the rounds of multiple vociferously male bars in Thrissur, I thought I had spotted my first woman drinker at a bar in Malappuram district: The person turned out to be a mustachioed man with a long ponytail. Rarely did I find any drinking sessions within family settings. Indeed, I got used to watching wives glaring gloomily at drunk husbands when they returned home after a hard day of booze-bonding with the boys.

Bars, though, are for the wealthy. The joke in Kerala is that if you can’t find a person at home, you might find him standing for hours in the queues snaking outside the alcohol shops run by the state-owned Kerala State Beverages Corporation Ltd (bev shops, as they are sometimes called). The alcohol is sold through fixed quotas, the choice is often limited, but fair price is assured.

If it sounds distinctly like the ration shops run through the public distribution system, know that alcohol is nearly as essential a commodity as foodgrains in Kerala. Waiting in line, nevertheless, can take the mask off the solemn public persona of a drinker used to the murky machismo of bars.

Yet Kerala revels in tipple tales: the drunk film-maker who walked straight off a terrace and the mutinous poet who dissolved his liver in drink. A story that is often repeated is that of actor N.L. Balakrishnan’s father. Balakrishnan founded the pro-drinking Forum for Better Spirit in 1983. When his father died at 98, after a “lifetime of heavy drinking" as reported by the BBC, Balakrishnan wet the lips of his deceased father with liquor instead of holy water.

Along with the free flow of alcohol, this might be one of the last such urban legends in the state.

As Kerala waits to go dry, one less prohibitive, non five-star-hotel escape route may still be open: toddy shops.

Reports suggest that the government’s prohibition axe might not fall on the state’s over 4,000 toddy shops. The toddy tappers belong to a sizeable backward community and enjoy considerable power and influence. Yet other reports suggest that toddy will be accorded special status and treated as part of Kerala’s heritage—not for nothing is the fresh early morning produce of the coconut palm tree offered even to children for its nutritious value.

In his delightful book Following Fish: Travels Around The Indian Coast (2010), Samanth Subramanian noticed a change from 2001, when the Kerala government had suspended all toddy shop licences. “The toddy shop, long a part of authentic Kerala, has now become a part of Authentic Kerala, the tourist-brochure version of the state, and female visitors will not be denied their right to sit in cabanas and order toddy and karimeen (fish curry)," he writes.

I’ve always been a sucker for locally produced drinks during my travels, be it the mahua, chhaang, raksi, hariya, apung, tari or lugdi. To me, local liquor is part of an essential travel experience: cheap, largely chemical-free, potency assured, hangover-free, and with easy linkages to people.

So, in Kerala, I soon found myself gravitating towards those colourful huts, often situated outside busy city limits and within the state’s stunning canvases of green: the toddy shops. Fittingly, for toddy is a kind of pariah among a section of the urban IMFL, or Indian-made foreign liquor, drinkers in Kerala and I was warned often against its adulteration. People have been known to go blind after drinking the spurious stuff and Following Fish narrates a heard story of a man in a bar who thought he had gone blind after the lights went out following a power cut. I sensed too a sentiment of toddy being lower ranked in the class hierarchy of drinking in Kerala.

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Toddy shop food is a ‘subculture’ in itself. Photo: Shamik Bag

In yet another toddy shop in the beautiful district of Palakkad, I met Gaffur.

He was a stranger before we both got drunk. Beyond the usual clichés of Mallu-Bong icebreaking—fish, football, the CPM—I understood his language of laughter. It was 11am, we had already knocked back six glasses of toddy between the two of us, and I could feel a gathering rush in my veins and fraternity in my heart. I was treated to pork, beef and duck; I ordered chicken, crab and tapioca for Gaffur—all the while ordering more of the toddy which, once I had adjusted to its taste, went down smoothly.

Then we spoke. We drank. We joked. We thumped on tables as other toddy drinkers pored over newspapers or watched the news on television. Gaffur took out a pencil from his bag and intently sketched on my notebook: a bare-backed lady and a child with their heads down; the melancholia was distinct. I didn’t know where Gaffur was coming from but that sketch from my toddy days in Kerala continues to have an aftertaste as sweet as the drink.

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