Last month I was on a holiday in Italy with my family. Of the many charms it has to offer, and to be sure the place has many, one is the excellent quality of wine. Even for budget tourists like us the wine quality was exceptional. Small local restaurants selling house wines at about the same price as water could give some of our top end hotels, with their super expensive wine list, a lesson or two. Quantity and variety on offer was staggering too.
Walking down a street in the non-touristy part of the city we encountered a shop selling wine to the locals. It was around 5.30 PM and the place had a longish queue. They were mostly people returning from a day’s work and were buying food and drink for the evening meal. The shop’s modus operandi was simple. Bring your own bottle and have it filled. The whole operation was more akin to a Mother Dairy booth in Delhi than the sleezy desi theka/daaru shop that I have come to associate with alcohol sale in India. In the supermarkets wine was being sold in bottles, bag-in-box and even in tetra packs sitting right next to packs of orange juice. In fact the multiple packaging options reminded me of our own lassi on a supermarket shelf. In short wine was everywhere. With the minimal of fuss people were drinking or not drinking the stuff the way we would quaff water.
So, being a good Indian balak brought up on moral science lectures and sermons about the evils of alcohol I kept a lookout for obvious signs of decadence. Alcohol brings out the devil in man and all that sort of thing. To be honest I even felt a little smug. After all I was armed with the right education and cultural moorings. Bollywood had done an excellent job of reinforcing those beautiful moral science lessons by painting vinos as villains. Surely the crime levels must be very high in Italy due to their wayward policy on alcohol. The streets must be overrun by drunkenness and resulting lewd behavior. The men must all be wife beaters. Alcohol consumption must be leading to higher incidents of rape and other crimes against women. It must be unsafe to step out of the house after dark. So on and so forth.
Boy, was I disappointed. In a fortnight of tramping around Rome and Florence I didn’t meet a single drunken-wife-beating- rapist- eve teasing degenerate. Not one. I met many happy people going about their lives peacefully. I met some people who may not have been too happy but I think that was mostly because they didn’t like my asking if they were drunk and might be planning on indulging in some dodgy behavior. And yes, I met one self-righteous woman (I think I’ll call her Medha for want of a better name) who was making everyone very unhappy because she was blocking the way to a bridge, shouting loudly about the sins of alcohol, whilst distributing pamphlets that messed up an otherwise clean walking path.
So, what does one make of it? None of what I was told to expect was happening. The higher moral ground that I thought I was on wasn’t so high (pun unintended) at all. In this society a glass of wine is the same price as a cup of coffee, and is sold side-by-side, and still there is relative calm on the streets. There is no prohibitive sin tax on wine in Italy. The government is not actively campaigning to wean its citizens off wine. And sale of wine isn’t restricted to special jail like structures. In short no Nitish or Amma making moral promises to rid their citizens off the curse of alcohol. And even though I am sure the Italians have their own well meaning but slightly stupid NGOs (remember Medha from the bridge?) nobody seems to be listening to them and allowing them to influence government policy.
On the way back we flew over the Gulf with those wonderfully rich oil countries. Thankfully we didn’t land there so I can’t really profess to possess any great insights into their culture. But from second hand knowledge acquired from books and papers I knew that most of them have banned alcohol consumption in their vast and beautiful lands. I am assuming they’ve done this for religious and social reasons. Probably believing, like we in India do, that alcohol is the devil’s tool. I am sure due to this astute decision there is no crime against women in this part of the world. Nobody must worry about lewd behavior on the streets that’s the work of drunken louts. Addiction to substances- Alcohol or others- I’m sure does not exist. And wife beating is surely unheard off as I am sure are other forms of domestic violence. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw a video about a preacher teaching his flock how to beat a wife. YouTube has this in the form of a full instructional video. As I learnt from the video some people in beautiful Arabia weren’t beating their wives enough or even doing it right. I couldn’t help but wonder -What the hell is going on?
Humor and sarcasm aside I think we in India have our lines mixed up. Our attitude towards alcohol has been shaped by many assumed truths. While a correlation does exist between alcohol’s role in the above mentioned social ills there are other factors that play a role which go uncorrected because we focus solely on alcohol.
Take for instance wife beating. Which is, to be fair to the anti-alcohol campaigners, a horrible problem. But I am going to argue that alcohol cannot be the only reason for it. Of course alcohol does embolden a person to do rash things and might impair his judgment. But to say that because a person drinks he is going to beat his wife is silly. The real problem lies in the society’s attitude towards women. Men in India feel they are vastly superior to women. They also feel that they are the providers and in some way the woman ‘belongs’ to them. Ownership or this subconscious equating of the woman to property gives the man a sense that he can hit/humiliate his partner without fear of social and/or legal repercussions. The same man is unlikely to attack another man after a few drinks. The same man is unlikely to hit another woman. And the same man is most unlikely to hit a cop or his boss or anyone perceived to be stronger than him. So clearly alcohol may have impaired his judgment and emboldened him but not enough for him to do something that might have serious repercussions.
Much is said about domestic violence and it is indeed a very serious issue. I don’t want to trivialize it here. But it is my contention that governments in India have been barking up the wrong tree all along. Tokenisms like banning or attaching a sin tax upon alcohol haven’t achieved desired results. When a government takes the easy way out and blames everything on one evil they don’t deal with the issue in its entirety. Banning alcohol is far simpler than education or changing how society thinks. And we know that most politicians will take the easy way out. Denial of access to alcohol is automatically equated with a solution to a social problem. At best this is an ill thought through measure. At worst, as a conspiracy theorist I believe that this part is truer than anything else, it is a cynical manipulation of the stupid, as well as opening up of a new business vertical. This business vertical allows managers of the state in a different avatar to become businessmen and provide illicit alcohol to the needy. Creating a parallel monetary system. So, instead of cleansing the system of the problem they create a more profitable, for themselves and their cronies, version of the problem.
When confronted by the European example I’ve often heard powerful people say something like – “it’s not in our culture” or “Our people don’t have the sense to drink responsibly”, whilst sipping their favorite whiskey and soda or something similar. This is the worst kind of response. It assumes a patronizing attitude, which is offensive to all Indians.
Indians are like humans anywhere else. Humans are unlike any other animal. We seek enjoyment beyond the bare necessities. It is in our DNA to seek out sensory pleasures. We seek pleasure in food, smell, drink, music, art, humor and even in intoxicants. Coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, marijuana etc. are all recreational drugs. To say one out of them is not a part of ‘Indian culture’ is stupid. And if you deny humans one sort of intoxicant they will find a replacement. An example is in the form of Cigarettes. They’ve been made so expensive in the last few years due to the sin tax imposed on them that now most poor people have started chewing tobacco, which is cheaper. A walk down Mumbai’s roads will convince you if my saying so doesn’t. Public spitting has assumed epidemic proportions thanks to the habit of chewing tobacco.
So, why then does alcohol get such a halo (unhalo?) when compared to other intoxicants? Is it because Gandhi was against it? It might well be. Or it may be because of religious slant against this one intoxicant. But it is my opinion that Gandhiji and religious teachings are just a convenient crutch for many very poor administrators. Having failed to do their jobs in the field of education they’ve always looked for the first available fall guy.
Nobody can deny alcohol’s addictive effects. There are people who are more prone to addiction. And the sad fact is they will find alcohol or other substances no matter how many bans you hide it behind. One of the reasons alcohol attracts such a large number of youngsters is because of the mystique created around it mostly by government policies. Getting drunk is a big deal for many youngsters because it shows off their ability to challenge social mores. It’s almost like a challenge to the male ego- a Mardaangi test of sorts. One of the easiest solutions is to demystify and dismantle the halo around alcohol. This can be done very easily by segregating alcohol into categories. The higher concentration of alcohol in a beverage could still attract a sin tax. Drinks like wine and beers which are low in alcohol content should be taxed and sold under a more liberal regimen. Once you club beer and wine with other non-alcoholic beverages you make them reasonably unattractive to an adventure seeker. This is exactly what the European countries have done. While they have their own battles with addiction they have at least reduced the crime related to illicit liquor. And they’ve got a more honest and less hypocritical relationship with alcohol than we do in India.