Travelling through South India

Beer in paper bags and other ‘spirited’ adventures in Kerala

I’m a Goan Catholic girl who loves her beer. My itchy feet have taken me across India, from Shimla to Bengaluru to Hampi, and unwinding over a cold mug in a new town has always been one of life’s simple pleasures. But in Kerala, I discovered this can throw up a few challenges, and unexpected surprises.

Ever since the state government restricted the sale of alcohol in 2015, only a few licensed five-stars hotels, permit bars and state-run shops are operational. However, God’s own country still has the highest per capita alcohol consumption in India. If you spot a really long line of men patiently waiting on the street, it is probably a wine shop. Attribute this to social acceptance — because of the influence of early Dutch, Jewish and Portuguese settlers — and how home-made spirits like toddy are an integral part of society. You’ll rarely find women drinking in public, though, let alone a women-friendly bar. I find this censure quite ironic because Kerala is a huge tourist destination, and rates high on pretty much all human indexes, including literacy.

Beer in paper bags and other ‘spirited’ adventures in Kerala

But things are slowly changing now. In 2016, while chasing a story on the origins of Onam in Thrissur, I’d found it difficult to find a bar — not least because it is a religious city. The Guruvayur temple complex is on the outskirts. A year later, however, backpacking in Thiruvananthapuram, I downed beers in coffee mugs at a seaside café in Kovalam, one of my favourite beach towns in India, with a side of perfectly-roasted kallumakkaya (mussels) and cashew prawns.

Across the border
  • While exploring the food scene in Thalassery, I also took a detour to Mahé. This tiny 4 sq km town is bounded by Kozhikode and Kannur, but is a district of Puducherry. So, alcohol is freely available here. In fact, every second block has a wine shop or a bar. I arrived at lunch time and my helpful autorickshaw driver spent 20 minutes scouting for a ‘good’ bar. Like all the ones I’d been to in Kerala, I was the only woman there, but it didn’t matter!

Now I know better than to let ‘reputations’ put me off. On a recent assignment upstate, I assumed that getting my draught would be a challenge — the demographic is mostly Hindus and Mappilas (Muslims), the tourist influx is comparatively lesser, and the locals more conservative. But, on ground, my experiences were to the contrary. One sweltering afternoon at Kappad beach in Kozhikode, where Vasco Da Gama landed in 1498, I checked into a restaurant and asked the staff if I could get a beer. My request wasn’t met with surprise and, within minutes, they brought over a couple of Kingfishers, concealed in brown paper bags.

Of course, there are still startled looks, but most men try their best to guide you to ‘decent’ bars. For example, in Kannur, while covering the Theyyam festival, I grabbed dinner at a resto-bar near the new bus stand. The watchman insisted I go to the ‘safe’ AC section. Inside, men sat in groups, sipping their Kingfishers and eating salted peanuts, while watching Malayalam songs on a wall-mounted TV. A few curious glances aside, no one bothered me when I sat down to a chilled Tuborg and some beef chilli fry. But by 10 pm, I consciously decided to leave because the bar, and the street outside, were empty.

Beer in paper bags and other ‘spirited’ adventures in Kerala

The next night, my lodge manager suggested another ‘decent’ bar: a 1,000 sq ft room on the seventh floor, with tacky lights in blue, green and pink. It felt like a spaceship. I could barely read the menu in the dark, but it didn’t matter as, by then, I knew what I wanted — Malabar mutton biryani and chicken 65, with a bottle of Budweiser — and that it would be okay.

Edwina D’souza is a Mumbai-based travel writer, who mostly rambles about culture, food and films. She tweets @wannabemaven.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 6:50:51 AM |

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