You can’t go out to a bar in Gujarat to catch a brew after work, but getting a drink in the state is a lot easier than you think.
Years ago, when I worked at a business magazine, I was sent to write ‘that’ annual story on the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, winning the top spot in ‘that’ annual marketing supplement that masqueraded as an issue called ‘India’s Best B-Schools’. One of my seriously overqualified friends from St.Stephen’s had decided to follow up his MCA degree with a degree from IIM-A. This guy is a genius, and has an unnatural fondness for Hentai, but when I went to his room after a day’s worth of pointless interviews, the first thing he asked was whether I’d like a rum and Coke. This is Ahmedabad we are talking about – booze isn’t supposed to be available. This wasn’t my first visit to the state or city, either – as a child, I had spent several weeks in Ahmedabad and done a tour of the state, because my mother used to work with the National Institute of Design. Even back then, when I was way below legal drinking age, I saw adults enjoy a drink or two, but they said that a bottle was tough to find. Gujarat was a deeply conservative state in the early 1990s, but in the late 2000s, things were different.
When I took a few seconds to answer in the affirmative, my friend, who I’ll keep nameless here, quickly asked me if I wanted something else. Vodka, perhaps? Or cheap Indian whisky? My first thought, however, was that most of these buggers were going to graduate into multimillionairedom – and they drank rank booze. Every second dormitory room in IIM-A that I went to had a decent stock. “We have our guy”, one chap told me, the same guy the teachers use.” I was shocked that it was that easy now. Then again, it was none of my business, since I lived in liberal Delhi. One thing struck me, however – one of the students from IIM told me, “From what I understand, things have become a lot easier. Investors have to be lubricated with booze.” The joke about getting a permit to drink in Gujarat was true, but every time I visited Gujarat over the years, it became easier and easier to get alcohol. On a visit to a McCain potato factory in Mehsana a few years later, I saw an authorised booze shop next door. I went in (it had, after all, been a long day visiting potato farmers and seeing how McDonald’s fries get their delightful golden colour – they’re coated with a layer of glucose/fructose, that is caramelisation you see). I wanted a beer, but there was none, and anyway, as the sales guy told me, I could not drink in the open. I did get my permit and got a quarter of vodka and a small bottle of a fizzy lemon drink – it was awfully easy (Gujarat isn’t unique in requiring permits – you need those in Maharashtra, too. Next time you’re in a bar in Mumbai, remember that). A few months after that, I was in Daman – I’d gone to meet a friend with a factory in Silvassa, and as you cross the border from Vapi in Gujarat to Daman, instead of the five petrol pumps you’d normally see, you see five booze shops, and tens of Surtis on the bonnets of their cars, drinking. Daman’s economy was essentially surviving on Gujjus coming in for their legal tipple.
Last year, I went to visit a sister-in-law and her family in Ahmedabad, around Holi. My brother-in-law loves his drink, and we had brought in a couple of bottles for him. “The booze shops in Delhi airport? Half their business is Gujarati passengers”, he joked. The next day, we were at a Holi party, and there was everything you would have expected at any Holi party in Delhi, even chilled beer. Then, when I looked at the label on a bottle of Kingfisher, it said “For sale in Gujarat Only’. I was like “WTF?”, but nobody else was shocked. “That is the way it has been for a few years now. The problem here is that there are no bars, and there is some control on quantities, but you can legally buy everything – the state exchequer doesn’t lose out to Daman any more.”
Back to my friend from Silvassa, who had to attend a conference in that fancynew GIFT complex in Gandhinagar, a city named after that arch-prohibitionist whose picture is on high-value banknotes. “Dude, you have foreign buyers coming in for an international conference, you can’t serve them Rooh-Afza – you need to serve bloody good wine and whisky, and the state understands that. You can get permits done in bulk now.” When it comes to prohibition, the Gujarati model is a rather unique one. Booze is available but expensive, and the cops have managed to control the illicit trade, so most of the people who drink have some money (usually lots of it). But, let me honest, it is a joke – unlike Bihar, where some 5,000 souls are rotting inside jail because of Nitish Kumar’s madcap order, where you can be arrested if you enter the state drunk (no, really). If you really want to experience what prohibition is like, don’t travel to Ahmedabad – go to Patna instead (not that you’d want to).