Alcohol and Bengalis: A troubled relationship

A journey through the drinking culture of Bengal

By Tathagata Bhattacharya

To rightly gauge the relationship between Bengalis and alcohol, one needs to start right from the liquor vends. In a not-too-distant past, liquor stores all across West Bengal, Calcutta included, used to remain shut on Thursdays. Today, things have changed. Within a radius of a km from any home in the City of Joy, you will find at least three to four such shops, most often owned by the same Johnny. Each one will have long queues of Jacks and Mollies jostling to get to the counter ahead of one another. One or the other is bound to be open on any given day. Calcuttans no longer have to go to the bootleg vend operating in the garb of Alambini Utensil Store. You do not call up Bhulu for him to arrive at your doorstep on a rickety scooter with the bottle carefully tucked in the small luggage carrier in the front. Everything has become easier now.

Alambini’s business now is completely dependent on nocturnal creatures for whom life begins after 11 PM. Bhulu’s ashes have been immersed in the Ganges, he is now a ghost. Nowadays, colourful bottles sparkle under brash neon lights in the house of pints seven days a week.

It never used to be so. The average drinking Bengali would walk for miles with a sling bag (jhola), collect his bottle of Farini 50 UP Bangla (a drink made from fermented rice) or Old Monk Rum, carry it back home like his child and consume it with a devotion which is hard to find in the most religious of people. Ginger strips dipped in salt, poetry, good friends and heated political debates used to be the usual accompaniments. If the woman of the house was in a good mood, fish fries would also join the party. Apart from the clatter of glasses, there would be Vividh Bharti on the radio for music. Those days, low-powered bulbs would glow at liquor stores. However, on Thursdays, there would be no light.

To understand this mystery of ‘Dry’ Thursdays, one needs to go back to the era when Charyapadas were being penned by the poets between the 8th and 12th centuries in Abahatta. Bengali, Maithili, Oriya and Assamese would emerge from this language. At around this time, Savarna Bengalis (upper caste Bengalis), in search of greater material riches, started worshipping Goddess Lakshmi on Thursdays.

Vintners and brewers were no less greedy and they soon started following the practice. So, on Thursdays, breweries and pubs would remain closed.

Their prayers might have been answered by the Goddess but the simple publicans were no match for the social machinations engineered by the conniving Savarna Bengalis. In Arthasastra, Chanakya wrote that prior to building a castle or a fort, it was important to determine the location of the brewery. But in the snake and ladder game of socio-economic mobility in the medieval Bengali society, the ladder remained out of reach for the poor vintner. Savarna Bengalis managed to erect their palaces sitting in which they would cement their dominant position in the pecking order and build slides for others to slip down. So the brewer who used to hover somewhere around the middle of the caste hierarchy in the 13th century when Brihaddharma Purana was penned suddenly found himself rolling down the slide of social mobility. He would eventually become a Sudra in the 15th century when Brahma Vaivarta Purana was composed.

In medieval Bengal, tantra, specially the practices of voodoo and witchcraft of the Vam Marga school of the Shakta and Shaiviite gharanas became popular. Savarna families would use that to devastating effect to jack each other’s fortunes. One of the most important ingredients of any Vam Marga ritual was rice-fermented alcohol. So, again the vintner found himself supplying and aiding caste Bengalis in the latter’s mundane, internecine conflicts without being a party to any caste struggle.

The average middle class Bengali nowadays usually refrains from drinking ‘Dheno’ or ‘Bangla’ (from dhan, which means rice in Bengali). The ‘detestable’ fun of the drinking holes of Khalashitola and Barduari is unable to attract him anymore. It is way too dirty, vulgar and rustic for his free market sensibilities. The wails of a reject filmmaker, a failed poet or an unsuccessful playwright are a sheer waste of time for him. When the only measure of success is material wealth, he is intelligent enough to float with the Bacardi tide of the times.

But this was not how the script was supposed to play out. The Mexicans never abandoned their mezcal and tequila but the Bengali middle class conveniently forgot their Bangla. Certain shops are now selling a distant watered down cousin of Bangla under various brandnames like Dada and Pincon. But they are not the real thing.

Today, Bangla is consumed by those Calcuttans who cannot afford other stuff. Actually, the culture of drinking has completely changed when it comes to Indian manufactured Foreign Liquor (IMFL) as well. The Belgian glass mirrors at Tripti bar, which are a repository of reflections of the tallest figures of the world of Bengali literature, art and cinema for more than half a century no longer have their pride of place in the watering hole. Can the ancient handfan bring the comfort of an airconditioner? Can the melifluous alap on Vilayat Khan’s sitar invoke the raw twists that a Rihanna number can induce?

These Bengalis won’t know about Bhetki. And I am not talking about the fish here. Bhetki was a legend till he met his horrible end. Each and every wall, each and every brick of College Street, which houses more than 350 new and second hand book sellers and is also home to Presidency College, Hare School, Hindu School and other educational landmarks of pre-Independence India, used to know him. With his sailor’s cap, worn-out tie, high-powered glasses and beteljuice-red beard, if College Street was a museum, Bhetki would be its only curator. I have heard that in the early 2000s, he was assaulted by some Students Federation of India cadres. He was pushing towards 50 then.

But Calcutta was not always like this. It had its teeth and claws. But like a cat’s soft paw, it also provided succour and warmth. You were not afraid of getting bitten or scratched every now and then. There was no culture of calling ‘bekar (unemployed by choice)’ youths ‘wasters’ and ‘good for nothing’. There would be no dearth of shoulders if someone had to be cremated or buried. Blood donors would be arranged within minutes. Every locality would have local book clubs and libraries.

As night would set in, in every nook and corner of the city, the city’s dark underbelly would come alive in the bootlegging vends of Harigopal, Mondol and Qureshi. The city would transform into a mega Rabelaisian carnival.

Not that every Calcuttan of those days had read Paul Lafargue’s ‘The Right To Be Lazy’. But still, such people existed in almost every Bengali household, mixed with other members of the society and lived a life of dignity. Today, that city is gone. And those few of these relics of the past who still exist have become a marginalised, insulted and silent minority. They are fully aware that they are not wanted in this new dazzling metropolis.

The stand of the West Bengal government vis-à-vis alcohol is not very clear. On one hand, if you die after consuming illicit hooch, you may receive compensation. On the other, a movement by students in Jadavpur University can be tarnished by saying it is inspired by liberal dosages of ganja and alcohol. Even the ruling Patricians of ancient Rome were victims of such dualism. Soon after, Rome burnt and the Romans could hear the music of Nero’s fiddle. Calcuttans are lucky that way. They get to listen to Rabindrasangeet at crossroads. The city has not caught fire yet.

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