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Head to the watering hole

Over the years, the good people of Gujarat have adapted to Prohibition in innovative ways. Illustration: Satwik Gade  

I am jolted awake as the van swerves suddenly. The May heat has rendered the landscape bare, save for a few trees with unruly branches, exactly how my hair looks as the hot wind blows in through the window. The van bumps along NH 8, cutting across the arid Gujarat-Rajasthan border. As Rajasthan nears, I push forward and briskly take my place next to the driver. We are leaving Prohibition-ruled Gujarat to enter a small village called Ratanpur on the Rajasthan border.

Around 140 km from Ahmedabad, Ratanpur is a metaphorical oasis for dry Gujarat, where alcohol has been banned since the State was created in 1958. Not that this has disheartened believers in the bottle. Over the years, the good people of Gujarat have adapted to Prohibition in various ways: country-made hooch, an intricate network of bootleggers or ‘folders’ who operate across all corners of Gujarat, clandestine door delivery of the tipple of your choice, drinking that is allowed on ‘medical’ grounds by flashing a doctor’s certificate. But of all these, the safest and most law-abiding option has been to drive over to the nearest border town. Ratanpur in Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district is one such, a beneficiary of its neighbour’s abnegation.

Though just a most commonplace highway halt, one that would never otherwise attract notice, the village of 300-odd people announces its incongruity in one conspicuous way. In the middle of the road, a large flex board suddenly announces the arrival of a bar. Gujarat hasn’t signed off with a ‘Visit Us Again’ sign just yet but we must have already crossed over into Rajasthan. Clearly, the canny Marwaris can’t wait for business, dhandha, and the residents of Gujarat can’t wait for a drink.

In full sobriety, I get a revelation, the kind that only arrives when inebriated: Arabian Nights wasn’t just a tale, and wish-granting genies do exist in deserts. In Ratanpur, they exist in various avatars.

I find the first genie in the form of a genial officer at the check post. The RTO representative is nonplussed when I accompany the driver for the routine paperwork that’s a part of all border checkpost activity. But two minutes later, he and I are discussing whether Prohibition is a good idea after all.

Rajkumar* is over-dressed for a remote RTO checkpost. Clean shaven in a pressed red linen shirt, he speaks impeccable English and within minutes is trying to find me on Facebook. While scrolling through his phone, he asks, “What do you think of Prohibition? See, my funda is simple; when people drink they are happy. What’s the harm in that?”

I give the quintessential Indian nod, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Rajkumar thinks I agree and invites me in for a drink. Of chilled Maaza.

Inside, unlike Rajkumar, his superior Jagan* is lying askew on an upholstered semi-divan staring at the ceiling of the dingy office. He fits into the milieu with his unkempt look, and soon starts asking me probing questions. It turns out my father and Jagan have a mutual acquaintance back home in Chennai. And like that, we are suddenly good friends. Over mango nectar, a free-flowing discussion on soma follows.

The village, obviously, attracts a lot of visitors from Gujarat, says Jagan, which means good money for the locals. “The prices are four to five times higher. And why not? It’s basic demand-and-supply.”

He explains how groups of men get together in a car and drive over from various towns of Gujarat, returning home around daybreak. Those who can afford it, drive a little further, over the hills to the posh places inside Rajasthan. For now, there are four or five modest bars in a roughly three-kilometre radius across this stretch of the highway. But more are coming up, the officials exclaim, afraid I might be disappointed.

A little past the check post are slightly more upmarket ‘family’ restaurant-cum-bars; many named after famous liquor brands. From a wide selection of food and alcohol to AC/ non-AC rooms to paan shops, these motels have it all, and stay open through the night. Some have private rooms and halls for parties, and on good evenings, the parties move to the lawns.

These are transmuting public spaces, taking on different forms with each passing hour. It’s mid-afternoon when I step into Signature Family Restaurant. There is a family dining in one corner, its women in full ghungat (veil). When I ask for the menu, the waiter picks from an assortment on the desk and hands over the one listing only food. This is clearly the ‘family’ menu, but it is plastered with pictures of an air-conditioned bar. It is the bait.

That evening, the place takes on a new avatar. It teems with tipplers, young and old, who stay until dawn is well under way.

These remote Ratanpur bars are now so popular that the big liquor brands have them listed on exclusive Facebook pages. So, Beer Garden’s Facebook page has many happy customers recommending it as “the best place for a party”, while Kingfisher Bar has 8,390 Facebook check-ins. Many visitors to these pages have pressed the ‘a’ and ‘y’ keys really hard, so we have no doubts that the Amdavadis are having a real paaartyyyy.

Interestingly, the only liquor shop listed on the Rajasthan Excise Department’s website is the first establishment across the border: the RTDC bar in Ratanpur Motel, which appears even before the RTO office. The website is resourceful, advertising not just rooms but also informing us that its “well-stocked bar offers Scotch, wine and beer.”

Back at the RTO, I am getting none of the RTDC hospitality, but the officers are kind enough to let me know that they do allow people to take a couple of bottles across the border, “for private consumption only”. As I take a final swig of Maaza, I give another Indian nod-shake.

Just then a bearded man peeps in with a heavy suitcase and a handbag. I wonder if he’s a ‘folder’. There’s no way I can ask discreetly. So I watch. He greets the officers. There’s conversation in Hindi about granting favours; Jagan asks the gentleman to have lunch and return. The man smiles, leaves his suitcase suggestively on the doorstep, and walks away. I can only guess what the favour is.

The RTO genie is about to grant a wish.

*Names have been changed on request.

Mahima A. Jain is a journalist with The Hindu Business Line , and writes on history, culture and issues of identity.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 10:00:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/Head-to-the-watering-hole/article14481539.ece

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