On most days it is impossible to get two Malayali men to agree on anything. If a group of four men were discussing Obama’s politics, Mohanlal’s conquests, Messi’s recent lack of goals and the shameless doings of the young couple in the next street, one can be certain there would be 16 different points of view. Until the topic of alcohol comes up and a strange gleam enters their eye: a hushed reverence, an abject unconditional adoration and the manic happiness at the certainty of being at heaven’s doorstep. There is concurrence and there is steadfast belief. All of them wear the same face — of a zealot and a devotee. In fact, I’m quite certain I’ve seen the same expression in the video footage of followers of Jonestown and the Kofuku-No-Kagaku sect in Japan.
I grew up in a household in which everyone liked a drink. My uncles, grandmother and aunt liked their scotch. As did my great grandmother, I’ve been told. My father is a social drinker and my mother is a teetotaller. But, even she didn’t protest when they all sat with a drink most evenings under the mango tree when we were in Kerala for the summer vacations. Or, when they offered my brother and me an occasional sip. Alcohol was associated with family times, bonhomie and recycled nostalgic recollection of family lore. As children, it was also about the array of snacks that appeared on the table, from fried chicken to cutlets to tapioca sticks to peanuts. But, this lot, especially the men, were an anomaly I discovered when I saw how the Malayali male is when it comes to liquor and the touchings.
The Kerala government’s recent proclamation caught even the non-drinking Malayali by surprise. There’s just something that binds the Malayali man by his umbilicus, stem cell and DNA to spirits. The kind that comes in a bottle. There is the rustic youth who follows his father or uncle’s footsteps to the toddy shop, which is a men’s club with no sartorial rules, a wounded animals’ convention and a round table on world events you think you can sort when a ‘half’ nestles in your belly. To the suburban youth, it is the bar that offers the rite of passage. At an age when everything is a dare, stepping into a bar frequented by regular drunks is how you prove the man you are. Elsewhere, the Malayali youth might pub crawl or bar hop, but in Kerala, it is inevitable you’ll cut your egg tooth to manhood with a nilpan [a drink you toss down standing at the bar counter] that you might spew outside the shop by the end of the evening. You can let go of the cheap alcohol, but it won’t let go of you, for it will live in your breath and pores for the next 24 hours as a reminder of your path to manhood. That’s how cool a ‘small’ is.
In a matter of a few years, he is considered man enough to pour himself a drink at home. So, there he is in the evening after a shower, Yardley or Cuticura talc-ed, and he retreats to that corner room where his friends and male relatives will congregate for a round of smalls topped with water. No ice, of course, because ice gives him throat pain. Sometimes there is music, sometimes there is desultory conversation, but mostly there will be an endless supply of fried fish and bowls of mixture as touching.
The ‘touchings’ is a whole cuisine by itself, so much so that it is considered quite alright to take your wife or girlfriend to the posh toddy shops or bar hotels that have a family room, in which women can sample touchings without the stigma of being seen in a place of drink. Beef dry fry. Duck roast. Pork masala. Nathali fry. Shrimp and squid. Boiled tapioca and fish curry. Boiled eggs. And, if you can’t afford any of it, there is the pickle in a packet, which is how I guess the term ‘touchings’ emerged. Touch, lick, drink. Drink, touch, lick.
There is something to be said for the Malayali man’s ability to laugh at himself even when the joke is on him. In the mimicry circuit, which is as much a Malayali fixation as alcohol, there are countless jokes about the Malayali man’s love affair with the small. I once read in The Economist, “At 8.3 litres of alcohol per citizen per year, [Kerala’s] rate of consumption is the highest in India. Most Muslims and many Hindus in Kerala are teetotal, as are most women. This means some people are drinking far more than the average amount. According to the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre, an NGO, 25 per cent of all hospital admissions and 69 per cent of all crimes in the state are due in part to intoxication.”
But, here is the conundrum. There isn’t anyone better behaved or more orderly than the man waiting in line outside the Beverages Corporation [the state-owned liquor outlets] in Kerala. There is no pushing or jostling. In fact, I wish they displayed as much restraint and calm when they queue to enter Guruvayur or the Sabarimala temples. But, once he has his drink in his hands, the beast changes. From a pussycat, he metamorphoses to a panther. A howling, spitting, growling male who will regurgitate past hurts, imagined slights, tilt at windmills and think nothing of removing his mundu, tying it like a turban and walking in his underwear. A male Malayali friend describes to me what follows next with that particular brand of sarcasm so intrinsic to the Malayali man. “And, then he will pass out in the gutter. There is no merit to passing out in your own bed. It’s only when you lie in a drunken heap on the side of the road that you can show the world the mettle of your drunkenness.”
Starting an argument, getting into a brawl, throwing up, passing out, all of it is customary. There is neither embarrassment nor remorse the day after. A hangover, perhaps, but no self-censure. Nothing much changes whether he drinks in a bar hotel, a toddy shop or his own house. A man is a man when he drinks. Hey, he is doing what is expected of him. He earns a salary, gives a portion of it to his family and the rest must go towards healing the existential angst that is so part of his psyche. In other parts of the world, a man thus stricken might hammer shelves into a wall, grow roses, sail boats or climb mountains. But, the Malayali man will peer into his glass of rum and coke, sing old Yesudas songs or Talat Mahmood ghazals, reach out for his touchings to bring alive his ennui-stricken palate and then find reprieve in the alcohol that’s coursing a fiery trail down his gullet. The world is a better place, a happier place when a half warms your insides with a deep rosy glow.
The Malayali man will drink when he is happy to celebrate. He will drink when he is sad to forget. He will drink when he is angry to calm down. He will drink when he is confused about a decision. He will drink when he is ill, to feel better. He will drink on long weekends, hartals and holidays. He will drink to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and triumphs. He will drink to drown failures and erase stress. He will drink on a train, taking a pre-mix in a bottle with him. He will drink in a car, stopping by the road somewhere. He will drink when friends come over. He will drink when he is alone and has nothing to do. He will drink, for the Malayali man knows himself only when he has a drink swilling in him. The rest of the time he is merely role-playing.
Anita Nair is the author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress, Lessons in Forgetting and Cut Like Wound. Follow her on twitter @anitanairauthor.
Illustration by Sunil Raj P