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Boozy Kerala: The French Connection

13/06/2015 3:12 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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This article is from Open Magazine.

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By Shahina KK

As you travel from Kannur along National Highway 17 in Kerala, clusters of wine shops suddenly spring up on either side of the road, signalling that you have now entered Mahe. A small coastal town, Mahe stands landlocked by Kerala's Kozhikode and Kannur districts but is under the jurisdiction of the Union Territory of Puducherry.

As you make your way to the town's iconic Tagore Park, you can't help but notice hordes of young men on park benches holding up empty bottles of booze. The Statue of Marianne, an emblem of France, propped up in the middle of the park is more than just a symbol of liberty; it also provides shade for those who want a quiet place to sit and drink.

"A floating population is habitual for any city, but what if a population floats to a city only to consume liquor?"

Mahe, where alcohol is said to cost only a third of what it does in Kerala, faces a peculiar challenge as ever-increasing crowds come to drink at its bars and buy booze from its liquor stores. While the town's reputation as a thriving booze destination is not a recent phenomenon, the number of outstation drinkers has shot up in the past few months. The sudden spurt in popularity is said to be a reaction to the alcohol ban imposed by Kerala on all bars except those attached to five-star hotels. As P Sudhakaran, a Kerala-based journalist, puts it, "A floating population is habitual for any city, but what if a population floats to a city only to consume liquor?"

The tiny town is already home to 64 liquor outlets, including 32 bar-cum- restaurants. But that is just the official number; many claim that there are five times as many watering holes.

"There is a crisis," says Chandradas, a businessman and native of Mahe. "Most of the youngsters in Mahe are frequent consumers of cheap liquor. There are hardly any measures to control the quality of the liquor that is sold. A lot of low-quality alcohol is supplied to Mahe by distilleries in Puducherry." Even before the ban was implemented in Kerala, drinkers from Kozhikode, Kannur and Kasargod would pop down to Mahe in search of a cheap drink or two. The reason? Taxes on alcohol in Kerala were far higher. "The situation is worrisome," says D Marimuthu, Mahe's superintendent of police, "but controllable."

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Stories of the abundance of liquor in Mahe go back to its freedom struggle. The independence movement reached Mahe only after Mahatma Gandhi's visit in 1934. His speech incited local residents to rise against French occupation. "I have heard that liquor was shipped to Mahe in huge quantities as a strategy to cool down the protests," says Varun Ramesh, a journalist now writing a book on the history of the town.

Varun is the great grandson of IK Kumaran Master, the leader of Mahe's freedom struggle and its first head after France ceded control over it in 1954. Inspired by Gandhi, an organisation called Mahajana Sabha was formed in 1937 to fight for freedom. Varun says his great grandfather's diary entries from 1934 to 1947 paint a vivid picture of the resistance put up by the Mahajana Sabha against the French colonialists. "He along with others were savagely beaten up several times during their struggle for freedom. Appan [my great grandfather] was always sad about just one thing. He really wished that he could have taken more steps to curtail the prevalence of alcohol in Mahe," says Varun.

After the French left Mahe for good, the 'tradition' of heavy alcohol consumption continued. "Mayyazhi (as Mahe is known in Malayalam) has changed drastically. The new Mayyazhi does not inspire me to write. It is very sad to see Mayyazhi being drowned in liquor," says M Mukundan, the renowned Malayalam writer, whose novel Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil ('On The Banks of The River Mayyazhi') is a literary classic about the town and its history. "What we see in Mayyazhi today is drunken people sleeping in public places. A lot of youngsters come from neighbouring districts in Kerala and pass out on the streets after drinking all night long."

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A group of men sitting near the St Theresa's Church do not want their identities revealed but are not hesitant to admit that they had come all the way from Kasargod, 120 km away, only to drink liquor in Mahe. "Before the closure of bars, we used to come once in a while, only on special occasions. We come here much more often now. All the bars in Kasargod are closed. What other option do we have?" argues one of them.

The church was built in 1736 and is of historical value. It was demolished in 1779 during a brief battle between British and French forces for control of Mayyazhi and rebuilt later. Within, it has a shrine to Joan of Arc. Outside, though, the group of youngsters have no clue about her or the statue. They admit they have never been inside for a look; the only reason they have any interest in Mahe is the availability of cheap alcohol.

Some social activists fear that such abundant alcohol has also led to an increase in crime, even though the town's official crime records might not reflect it. Pallian Pramod, a social activist and former councillor of Mahe Municipality, says, "Mahe is a platform for offenders; they need not commit crimes within Mahe itself. Nowadays, residents cannot leave their doors or gates open; a drunken person might just walk into the house at any time. There is no security for women at all either."

"The impact of alcohol in Mahe is yet to be investigated," says Sudhakaran, who has reported extensively on the area. "Often, we come to know of un identified corpses found in and around Mahe. People dying along the sides of roads are not natives or locals. They come from different locations in Kerala only to consume alcohol," he adds.

E Valsaraj, Mahe's MLA, however, maintains that there is no connection between crime and alcohol. "The crime rate is very low in Mahe. The natives of this region are peace-loving people," he says. There is also much denial of any spurt in alcohol consumption. "There is no drastic increase in sales, nor do we face any problems that are beyond our control," says M Baiju, secretary of Mahe's Liquor Merchants Association.

The story put out by shop owners is markedly different. "Customers from Kerala generally prefer to purchase rum and brandy," says a wine shop vendor. "There has been a boom in sales after the ban in Kerala. To meet with the rise in demand, we have had to improve our security measures." The closing time for liquor shops, for instance, has now moved from 11 pm to 10.30 pm.

"There has been a boom in sales after the ban in Kerala. To meet with the rise in demand, we have had to improve our security measures."

Pallian Pramod says that the main players in the liquor industry here are not from Mahe and the official numbers cited are not accurate. "Officially, there are only 64 wine shops in Mahe, but what we don't know is that owners often run three or four counters under a single licence and these are all counted as one. For example, there are three or four shops in a single building which are not counted in the official statistics. My own estimate is that there are no less than 400 liquor outlets in Mahe," he says.

A journey on the local buses that ply through Mahe offers a picture of the effects of alcoholism here. "You cannot find a single man who is not drunk," says Sunitha Mohan, a textile shop worker who travels everyday between Mahe and Thalassery in Kerala. "This does not mean that everything was perfect before. But it has certainly worsened, that's all. The stink of liquor [on men] is intimidating."

Rameshan S, a cleaner in a private bus service between Mahe and Kannur, says that the situation has become unmanageable. "Many of the customer who board the bus cannot even stand upright. These days it has become extremely difficult for us to manage people."

Pramod does not think there is any easy solution to this crisis. "If you talk to political leaders, they will all express deep concern, but no one will do anything proactive," he says, alleging that politics has its own stake in Mahe's booming liquor business.

Images have been provided by Open Magazine.

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