Camphor in a ring of fire

Updated - November 16, 2021 05:23 pm IST

Published - August 09, 2015 02:23 am IST

Steeply priced, heavily taxed, unknown brands of liquor are thrust down the throat of the consumer in utterly squalid ‘bars’.  File photo: A. Muralitharan

Steeply priced, heavily taxed, unknown brands of liquor are thrust down the throat of the consumer in utterly squalid ‘bars’. File photo: A. Muralitharan

Europeans have their first drinks in public and when tipsy move into the confines of their homes; Tamils, on the other hand, drink under cover and once drunk are out on the streets rolling in the gutter with scarcely a vestment on them, or so C.N Annadurai once observed with characteristic insight. Historically, societies across the world have consumed alcohol. But, following Annadurai, we can draw the conclusion that societies handle drink in their own way. As the groundswell of >anti-liquor sentiment gains support across Tamil Nadu, we need to understand the history of drinking in Tamil society if we are to succeed in the battle with the bottle.

Sangam literature, our window into Tamil society two millennia ago, is replete with references to drinking. If there is a raging academic controversy in Indological studies about how the Vedic soma was produced, the numerous references in the Sangam poems still leave us in the dark about how was fermented and how much distilled. But there is no doubt that ancient Tamils enjoyed a swig. When the great chieftain Athiyaman died, the original Avvaiyar, the bard (not the grandmotherly author of moral epigrams) began her elegy with the words, ‘If there was a little toddy he would give it to us. And if there was more he’d share it with us as we sang happily.’ Drink was often consumed in social gatherings, especially in the orgy of undattu that often followed battle victories.

Drinking was clearly very much part of sociability. Though Roman wine was imported for the elite, much liquor was locally produced and consumed. Not for nothing do two primary terms for happiness in Tamil, kali and magizhchi, have their etymology in drinking.

However, in the centuries following the Sangam era, a marked shift in attitudes is evident. And finds its voice in the genius of Thiruvalluvar. Chapter 93 of the ‘Kural’, kallunnamai (abstinence from drinking), denounces drunken stupor and how it brings a man down in the eyes of family, society and oneself.

But it is not merely poetic conceit when Subramania Bharati likens kissing the girl-child Kannamma to ‘drink-fed frenzy’. It is this ambivalence between the pleasures of drink and the ills of excessive drinking that lies at the heart of the debate about drink.

From the Pallavas times, liquor was not directly taxed but levies like ezha poochi, ezha pattam, etc. were imposed on palm-tree climbers. Then came the British monopoly on liquor, playing havoc in peasant and tribal communities, with a licence fee on brew consumed locally and mostly seasonally. The outsider-trader infiltrated traditional society. Tribal revolts across India targeted the hated middlemen and demanded the right to make one’s own brew.

In the title of an essay by subaltern historian David Hardiman, drinking transformed from ‘Custom to Crime’. Abkari came a close second to land revenue in filling colonial coffers. In 1930-31, it yielded 31% (to land revenue’s 41%) of Madras Presidency’s revenues. In urban neighbourhoods, drink became a scourge. So alarming was the impact on productivity that factory owners advocated temperance and encouraged tea and coffee. But to no avail.

In the nationalist campaign under Gandhi, prohibition was the spearhead of the non-cooperation movement. Gandhi’s views found their greatest champion in C. Rajapopalachari (Rajaji), who established the Gandhi Ashram in Tiruchengode in 1925 and hired journalist ‘Kalki’ R. Krishnamurthy to edit a journal, ‘Vimochanam’ (deliverance), exclusively to propagate prohibition.

When the Congress assumed power in 1937, Rajaji implemented prohibition first in Salem. A tract he wrote on prohibition in 1931 makes for interesting reading, as it epitomises the moral (and medical) arguments against drinking. By 1949, Madras province had implemented a policy of total prohibition.

For a quarter of a century prohibition held, until Chief Minister >M. Karunanidhi , in August 1971, shortly after a thumping victory in the assembly elections, in a desperate bid to raise revenues, withdrew it. An aging Rajaji, with all the melodrama of a Tamil film, drove to Karunanidhi’s home in pouring rain to dissuade him but was met with a metaphorical reply: Tamil Nadu was ‘a lump of camphor amidst a ring of fire’. In other words, when liquor flowed freely in the neighbouring states, how could Tamil Nadu stay dry? Mr. Karunanidhi has been accused of casuistry but there is no doubt that preceding decades were no golden age of teetotalism. Nearly two million prohibition-related offences were recorded in the 1960s.

As has been demonstrated time and again, prohibition, far from being a panacea turns out to be worse than the malady. Periyar E.V. Ramsami, at the height of the non-cooperation movement, had cut down hundreds of coconut trees on his family farm in response to Gandhi’s call. Forty years later, in 1963, he presided over a conference demanding the lifting of prohibition. Prohibition, he argued, discriminated against the poor, and corrupted the police.

After a break in the 1970s, prohibition was again lifted in 1981 by Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, despite his electoral promises to his core constituency of rural poor womenfolk.

The years following liberalisation were the heyday of drinking. In the wake of the social and political turmoil of the times, many Tamil intellectuals began to celebrate drinking. Backed by post-modernist ideologies, they formulated fanciful theories justifying drinking. In older Tamil cinema, only villains drank. Now, it is mandatory to have one item number in a TASMAC shop.

But the determining factor that legitimated drink was the 2003 decision for the government to sell liquor. At one stroke it decimated any moral qualm that the drunkard might have had. Over the last decade, drinking has taken epidemic proportions. All the hypocritical noises do little to disguise the fact that strong vested interests have become well entrenched.

That major distilleries are owned by politicians is an open secret. That this wealth funds further vested interests in education and healthcare is apparently ironical. No quality checks or standards exist or are enforced on liquor manufacture. Steeply priced, heavily taxed, unknown brands of liquor are thrust down the throat of the consumer in utterly squalid ‘bars’. The biggest price the consumer pays is in terms of dignity.

Yet, the call for total prohibition is misplaced. Its champions little realise that the social and >economic costs might actually be higher. Banning liquor in the cultural context of a globalising India is not an option. The moral argument against drinking simply doesn’t work. Its killjoy attitude recalls what Macaulay said about the Puritan objection to animal-baiting: they objected not because it caused pain to the animals but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.

The state, in consultation with civil society, needs to work out a plan to contain the genie that is out of the bottle. Regulation, overseen by civil society, should be accompanied by a campaign of education. The anti-tobacco campaign and the polio-eradication programme can teach us much. As demanded by some peasant groups, the state ought to seriously consider legalising toddy tapping.

The cynic might not have much hope. But hope lies eternal.

A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian and Tamil writer. E-mail:

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