You don’t go to bars in Ahmedabad – or anywhere else in Gujarat. There aren’t any. There never have been, in the forty-nine years that Gujarat has been a state.
For someone like me, it is difficult to come to terms with this notion. Gujarat is a dry state. What’s dry? How dry is dry? That’s why I am here. Just to see what it is like to be a drinker in a dry land; to see how, if one is so inclined, one gets around the dryness and manages to embrace the delight of alcohol; to carry out my own experiments with a certain kind of truth.
The bootleggers – critical to the social fabric of the upper middle class in Gujarat – have gone underground. They will surface in a few weeks, everyone is sure. In the meantime, people have the stuff at home. Things change, things remain the same.
“Sometimes,” says someone I shall call a friend of a friend, “we don’t even feel we are living in a state with Prohibition.”
“Oh?” I ask. The gentleman smiles. “Having a bootlegger is not enough. Having a reliable bootlegger is important.”
Otherwise, seals are tampered with, alcohol is diluted, toxic stuff gets in. I am told of how, only weeks ago, someone bought a bottle of whisky, and had the first sip to find a medicinal, alien taste overwhelm his palate. “I had to throw it away. It wasn’t my usual bootlegger. You need to be careful.”
Mere stealth won’t do if you fancy a drink here. Eternal vigilance is the key.
Unsurprisingly, the bootlegger assumes a position of primacy in the life of the social drinker. The reliable bootlegger, well-dressed, polite, often with a respectable job (such as being in the income tax department, say) comes home swinging a briefcase. He has tea. Like a family friend, he chats. He sends cards at Christmas. If he is to be away from Ahmedabad on work, he will let his client know in advance so that stocks can be piled up. Or refer him to a similarly friendly and reliable co-bootlegger. He opens the case, and leaves you with what you want. It’s pretty expensive. In 2009, a 750 ml bottle of Smirnoff vodka cost Rs 800 – nearly double the price in Mumbai. And the prices vary according to the scarcity.
Thirty-seven-year-old Suresh Parmar was in the business of bootlegging for two years. He got out in 2005. He now runs a business of imported ladies footwear. He comes to meet me at my hotel, wearing a blue half-sleeved shirt that is unbuttoned to his waist, a watch that is so heavy and chunky that it could pass for a potent weapon and with his feet shod in loafers.
Why did he get into this business? And why did he opt out? He tells me his long story.
“My auto-servicing-repairing business had collapsed and I was in debt. A client who owed me Rs 50,000 was into bootlegging. And got me in. He said he wouldn’t give me the money but crates of booze. I sold the bottles to my friends and made a profit of Rs 2,000. I was in.
“You don’t need marketing for this business. If, as supplier, I have the stuff, customers will come. Some bribe the police every month. I would pay Rs 50,000 to a lakh only if there was trouble. That is profitable; pay your way out of trouble, but no fixed hafta expense. The trucks would come with 400 crates to the state border.
“The main guy – the distributor – decided where and how the truck would be unloaded, and who would take the bottles. Twenty guys like me would pick up twenty-odd crates each into our cars. The distributor paid Rs 3,000 per crate to the guy sending it from across the border and sell it to me for Rs 3,300. A profit of Rs 300 per crate for him. There would be 20-25 deliveries in a month. So the distributor would make up to Rs 30 lakh a month. Of course, he had to give a lot to the police.
“I sold each crate at Rs 4,200. I wasn’t a huge operator. I would sell 100 crates per month and make a profit of Rs 90,000. I was lucky I never got hauled in. It was useful because it gave me starting capital for my current business. I got out once I had that. It is dirty stuff. I’m a god-fearing man. I have a wife and two daughters and my conscience is clear.”
As in every business, supply-and-demand dictates prices. In July 2009, days after the illicit liquor tragedy, supplies are really scarce. It was like that in the run-up to the 2009 general elections as well. “The politicians had asked for stuff to be hoarded for them,” I am told. “Supplies dried up.”
Everyone is in on it. Everyone knows. And the travesty is perpetuated. A senior police official died recently from heavy drinking. The money some policemen get every month from bribes is more than their salaries. People go to posh clubs, nudge-nudge-wink-wink, the owner has a suite ready for them, and they sit there the whole day on a Sunday and drink behind closed doors.
But surely, they also miss the pleasure of drinking legally?
“Yes, of course,” someone tells me. “There are three official watering holes for people in Gujarat. People in Surat drive to Daman. Those in Rajkot go to Diu. We, in Ahmedabad, head for Mount Abu.” Over there, it’s almost impossible to find rooms in hotels just across the border. People sit in bars, or in shacks on the seafront, or in chairs in balconies, and assert their right to drink without being surreptitious.
Four hours to get to a bar. What a life.
Then there are health permits that allow you a quota of alcohol every month if you can prove that you need it as medicine. “When I got mine two years ago,” someone with a mild blood pressure problem says, “I had to spend Rs 20,000 in bribes.” The rate in 2009 is said to be Rs 40,000.
Palms are greased for everything. “The police have a line with the kabadiwallahs. When you sell empty bottles, they find out where the bottles have come from. They turn up at your home, and ask for money. It is advisable to always have five or ten thousand rupees in cash at the ready. Paying people off is the only way.”
There is a reason why Prohibition stays on in Gujarat. Chunnabhai Vaidya, ninety-two, president of the Gujarat Lok Samity, an NGO that works for the uplift of the rural poor, tells me why – or at least tells me at length why he thinks so. “Drinking alcohol is bad. It is against our tradition. Poor people force their wives to give them money for this and the women and children suffer. Because of Prohibition, Gujarat has industrial peace. There is no labour unrest. There are no strikes. Our women are safer on the roads here because of Prohibition. You can see them out in hundreds, on their own, late at night, during Navratri. We abide by Gandhian values. No drunkard threatens our society’s peace. Can you say that for Delhi?”
From “Fear and Loathing in Ahmedabad: Drinking in 218 Prohibition Gujarat, Soumya Bhattacharya.
Excerpted with permission from House Spirit: Drinking in India, edited by Palash Krishna Mehrotra, Speaking Tiger Books.