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The Alcohol Genie

The Supreme Court has clarified its order on banning liquour sale within 500m on highways, and many parts of India are sighing with relief. That such a ruling caused such anxiety is a sign of the role alcohol has come to play in our lives today. Social legitimacy of alcohol has increased significantly and the idea of ‘catching up for a drink’ has become a social standard in many circles. And yet, the Indian relationship with alcohol today is a conflicted one. If there is an India where alcohol has become the social accelerant of choice, there is another where Prohibition seems to be a popular choice.

That was a time when the place that alcohol enjoyed in the lives of middle class Indians was that of a malevolent stranger, glowering with seductive deviousness, intent on destruction. One didn’t just drink, one Took To Drink. In the vocabulary of the times, everything had consequences, and Bad Habits spelled doom, from the first sip downwards. Lying to one’s parents was a sure sign that a life in crime was to follow and a taste of alcohol, meant saying goodbye to the prospect of living a decent life, populated by sunmica dining tables, mufflers and Efficiency Bar increments. The connection between initial descent and eventual doom was linear and swift. Alcohol was seen as a kind of moral weakness, that rendered the individual helpless, unable to exercise any meaningful influence on his life. Even now, being a teetotaller is a badge of honour in some circles and it gets flashed with the greatest pride in matrimonial ads. In the world of match-making  being ‘non-smoking, non-drinking’ comes just behind ‘only son of rich industrialist’.

The fear of alcohol was in some ways the fear of the unedited self. Alcohol loosened the tongue and greased the path between feelings and articulation, and did so in unpredictable ways. It unlocked creatures that were otherwise safely trapped within- both the lachrymose and needy adolescent as well as the repressed beast needed little incentive to come out raging and bawling at the mere whiff of a drink. In a tightly ordered society, with rules for everything and conventions for what remained, alcohol was the great spoiler that attacked order sideways. By making an individual temporarily unmindful of the social codes by which the world operated, the drunk became a loose cannon, capable of saying or doing anything.

The idea that any form of lubrication, however small the quantity. could only create an unsettling effect was a deeply embedded one.. You could become a clown, a lecherous beast, regress into childhood or a maudlin peddler of overwrought nostalgia, but you could never just enjoy a drink or two and let it rest at that. Alcohol etiquette and norms being highly underdeveloped, for most drinking was learnt the hard way, involving a lot of trial and an exceedingly large amount of throwing up.

Cinema provided clear clues to the meaning of drinking. Heroes took to drink routinely, and sometimes coughed their way to a tragic death. If there was one particular genie that sat primly in a bottle of Vat 69, it was that of self-pity. It took very little for this creature to come out of hiding; the Indian man may not have mastered many arts, but that of sobbing inconsolably in a glass and whining about bewafai, judaai and dard in dulcet verse was clearly one of those. It is another matter that the woman he was cursing so mellifluously, was able to pine for him just as effectively, in alternating verse, without the malign influence of the amber liquid. Getting drunk out of self-pity meant that one often needed to make a spectacle out of oneself in public and heroes did so at parties with unfailing regularity. A bunch of awkward guests stood around, while the hero humiliated himself in front of his lover, who waited, as is only decent, for him to finish singing before stomping off, bursting into tears or slapping him, depending of course on the demands of the script.

The idea of alcohol today is less about loosening a tightly held self, and more about hitting the highest notes of existence that one is capable of. While the pent-up masculine rage associated with alcohol has diminished, both because alcohol is no longer as illicit as it once was as also the fact that with the inclusion of women and the youth in the ambit of alcohol, the associations around it have evolved. Instead of reaching inside into repressed disaffection , alcohol connects allows for the outward projection of one’s imagined self and expresses the insatiable appetite for ‘having a blast’. The idea of life as a perpetual party needs alcohol as a lead player. There is an edge of to desperation to this idea, this need to live fast, and drink young .

The other role that it plays is that of helping connect a person with another, rather than with his own recessed self. Here alcohol serves as a gentle bridge that makes conversations lean into each other, greasing social interactions. It is not that unusual to come across adult members of families having a drink together, a sight could not have been imagined in The India in which my generation grew up. The idea that alcohol is a mild indulgence, a little excuse to open up the more interesting side of a person is gaining ground, albeit in limited sections of society.

The austere and somehat puritanical ethos of the current government is at odds with the inroads that alcohol has made in middle class life. The interaction between the return-to-vegetarian value system in vogue today, with the recently acquired fondness for alcohol is likely to be an interesting one. One has political tail-winds powering it, and other is a vehicle for contemporary self-expression. The alcohol genie is out of the bottle; it remains to be seen if it can be put back that easily.

(This is a version of an article that has appeared previously in the Times of India)

Santosh Desai
31 Oct 2017
Santosh Desai Before taking up this assignment, he was the President of McCann-Erickson, one of India's premier advertising agencies. A post-graduate from IIM Ahmedabad, Santosh spent 21 years in Advertising and was strategically involved in building key brands for a range of local and multinational clients. He has been a guest lecturer at various national & international universities and has addressed the global management boards of several multinationals including Microsoft, Philips, Hershey's, Unilever, Coke and Reckitt Benckiser. His principal area of interest lies in studying the relationship between culture and brands. An academic at heart, he writes regularly on contemporary Indian society and on subjects related to Marketing. Recently he published his book on India titled "Mother Pious Lady".

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Santosh Desai
31 Oct 2017
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