A Case for Drinking, Hic!

During the turn of the millennium, Time magazine drew up a list of top 100s of various things. It compiled a list of 100 remarkable people, 100 greatest novels in English, 100 greatest movies, and son. A little known fact was there was also a list of worst things, 100 worst ideas of the century, and the idea that ranked 1st on the list was ‘Prohibition’.

Time claims that prohibition was tried almost every major part of the world in the last century, and almost invariably, except in some Islamic countries that are governed by draconian laws, it has failed everywhere. No democratic nation was able to successfully sustain prohibition.

Many of us might not know that it was tried even in the US. The Prohibition was in effect in the US from 1920 to 1933. During this period, the illegal liquor business flourished. People carried rum-filled flasks in their boots and transported it everywhere. The term ‘bootlegging’ evolved from there. Since these were contraband variety, the term began to be associated with anything not original. An unknown band singing Beatles songs on stage are called ‘bootleggers’, and a CD recording of an artist singing someone else’s songs, say Bob Dylan’s, are called bootleg version.

Prohibition was a spectacular failure in the US. Although the consumption went down, the cost to society was considered high; in terms of flourishing black market and associated crime-gangs, and the illegal bars (generally referred to as ‘speakeasy’) mushroomed everywhere causing serious law and order problem. Crimes increased by 12%, homicide by 12%, and drug addiction by 44%. Cost to the police department went up by 11%.

The black market competed ferociously with the white market causing huge pressure on the money. A pre-Prohibition drinker spent $17 per year on alcoholic beverages and during the prohibition it went to $35, without inflation. This meant that more than $3 billion was made by the illegal liquor industry that was, obviously, untaxed income.

When it was repealed, Rockefeller, Jr. who had supported Prohibition initially, said:

‘When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognised. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.’

I had a travelling job when Prohibition was in force in Andhra Pradesh. I never had problem getting access to liquor, although one wouldn’t have the brand of one’s choice. Prohibition also increased spurious liquor and country concoctions resulting in deaths and injuries. Prohibition also brings forth the acute inequality among people. A rich person can have liquor cabinet in his house and get his bottles home delivered. A poor person would pay through his nose to drink a spurious stuff in a dingy hole and lose his eyesight.

Prohibition throws additional challenges to countries like India where, due to our federal structure, it is virtually impossible to declare a country-wide ban. So only Tamil Nadu facing a ban is only going to encourage liquor sales in the neighbouring states, especially Pondicherry, which is already a haven for alcohol.

I am writing this because a new student protest has started in a small way in Tamil Nadu, ably supported by Ramadoss, one of the theatrical caste fanatics in India. The most ironic thing is this protest is being staged in the name of protecting the Tamil Culture, which should imply that Tamils are traditionally and historically against drinking. Meena Kandasamy, writer and activist writes:

‘In Tamil, there is documented evidence of toddy from the root of the fig tree, bark of the usilam (sirisa) tree, flowers of iluppai (mahua) tree, palmyra toddy, peepal toddy, coconut toddy and even paddy toddy. We Tamils were known to dig our drinks in its highly fermented form, so sour you would make a face just sipping it. My personal pick would be the mattu, distilled liquor from the sugarcane, a recommended aphrodisiac. Or, it would be the undaattu, an eponymous spirit that required you to drink, and then dance. Ideally, I would buy it from a patuvi, a lady who sells liquor.’

The relationship of liquor and Tamil culture is as old as the language itself. Just like how the Hindu fundamentalists claim of ‘morality’ without knowing our liberated past, exploitative politicians like Ramadoss are trying to lie to people about Tamil culture. Obviously you can’t expect him to know about the culture or heritage, or even if he did, when has truth ever come in the way of his politics!

The only change that can perhaps happen in Tamil Nadu is that of government moving out of the liquor sale allowing the private industry to flourish. It is actually silly that a state which is too sensitive towards prohibition is the place where the government sells alcohol and even boasts of sales targets in the assembly. On the other hand, Ramadoss’ prohibition is only a recipe for disaster; an open invitation for all the bootleggers to come and make merry. And I’m not talking about the Bob Dylan covers.