If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, 8 November 2009

God’s own countrymen

We were in Goa on a holiday, with two small children. After a blissful week on the shores at Miramar and Calangute, the evening before we were to leave, I told my wife it would be sacrilege to leave Goa without tasting feni.

Alone I walked into a bar teeming with clients and found an empty table. When I asked for a drink, the waiter was apologetic: it was the 2nd of October; they wouldn’t serve alcohol. Then, after watching the shadow of disappointment cross my face, he added, ‘Sir, if you don’t put the bottle on the table, I’ll get you one.’

Looking around, I found that every single person in that crowd was enjoying their drink, but the bottles were all on the floor. Abstinence: Goa style!

Further down south, men of Kerala too are reputed for their devotion to the bottle. Throughout Kerala, you find dimly lit joints selling arrack or toddy. At a temple near Kannur, people offer the presiding deity – a pagan God – meat and toddy: God’s own country liquor. Crowds of mostly economically disadvantaged people throng the temple on holidays. Kannur is dominated by Marxists; even religion there seems divided across class lines.

In much of semi-urban India, hotel means restaurant, just as an inn means a pub in England. Once, a colleague and I stopped for lunch at a hotel around two in the afternoon on our way to Ernakulam from Idukky. It was one of those small market places around a bus stand, a beehive of activities. Each of the two floors of the restaurant had rows of eight-by-ten-foot rooms on either side of a long corridor. And every room had two tables. A rather unusual design for a restaurant! My colleague, who was from the area, said the building had begun its life as a hospital, but the owners had shifted to a more profitable line of business. Almost all the tables were occupied by men holding glasses containing liquids, the colours of which ranged from sunset yellow to dark red. My eyebrows rose, ‘At 2 PM?’

My companion said contemptuously, ‘These fellows start drinking before they brush their teeth.’

For the sake of completeness, I must add that none of my numerous friends from Kerala imbibe a drop more than they should, although I have come across many alcoholics elsewhere.

Bengaluru / 22 September 2009 / 393 words


  1. My husband is of the breed who feel that drink is God's greatest invention. Although I have never visited Kerala, Goa is a favourite with us, and not just for the feni and the laid-back attitude to life. Wonderful read.

  2. There are many in Kerala who brush their teeth with alcohol. Your friends from Kerala must be people working outside Kerala and send money to Kerala. People who live in Kerala enjoy their life with money those friends send with alcohol from dawn to dust.

  3. As you enter Kottayam district by road, you have a hoarding that declares “Welcome to Kottayam, the land of Lakes, Letters, and Latex. I had always wondered how they failed to mention the more visible “L” of the district - Liquor.

    I was sitting at a "hotel" in Palai having a sumptuous lunch of large red par-boiled rice and Karimeen fish curry, when I happened to eavesdrop on a dialogue between two obviously rich elderly gentlemen who had just walked in. They were seated on the table next to mine. This hotel, as all others in that picturesque town nestled in the hills, serves not just food, but also the fourth “L”. They were apparently arguing, or rather discussing the merits of having lunch and then going to their respective homes, or going home and then having lunch there. The game went on for a good 10 minutes throwing up the pros and cons of the two options. Finally, as if by magic, they came to a consensus, and their faces lit up. The decision (best quoted in rustic Malayalam) would translate into English as - Let us set up the “background” here, and then go home for lunch !

  4. Thanks, Sucharita, Anil, and Damu. Damu, your story tells us much about Malayalis. If I rewrite this piece, I will surely add it, of course, with acknowledgement.


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