April 03, 2020
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Backwater Bacchantes

In the land of drunkards, women who drink are slowly getting accepted, but still face stiff resistance from the patriarchal Malayali male

Backwater Bacchantes
Illustration by R. Prasad
Backwater Bacchantes

When American ­television host Jimmy Kimmel retwe­eted the video of girls clad in Kerala saris dancing to the ­Jimmiki Kammal song with the words “Love it”, it ­created an instant internet sensation. But the lyrics also tell another story—the ­story of a certain normalisation of the idea, and images, of women drinking in ­Malayalam films. In 2017, at least 2-3 films show women in a pleasant drunken haze, not to mention the mother who downs a whole ­brandy bottle in the song. In ­Angamaly ­Diaries, Lichi does a happy-go-lucky tipsy walk, while, in Sarvopari Palakkaran, a very pleased ­matriarch is poured a drink at the onset of ­marriage celebrations.

All this seems to set a new normal, quite different from the past when ­liquor was blatantly used to cast women in a negative shade. A woman holding a glass of booze in a ’70s Mollywood potboiler needed no other ­embellishment or dialogue to frame her character as a slut. In contrast, Lichi, in Angamaly Diaries, is just an ordinary girl having a good time. Is this a case of art ­reflecting life? Is drinking a privilege only for the elite? Is there space for women in Kerala to drink as they do in the metros? These ­questions throw up ­paradoxical answers from a deeply­ pat­­r­iarchal society.

Take this: a couple of years ago, 45-year-old Meena (name changed) and her brother stood in a serpentine queue at a government beverages store in Kotta-yam to buy some liquor. The brother was accosted by an inebriated advisor who sloshed forth that Meena should be sent packing home. The ­liquor queue was no place for women, he sermonised. The siblings ignored the advice and stood on, defiantly, in that hostile queue, made their purchases and went away without having to suffer further unso-licited advisories.

Kerala’s notorious liquor queues, which usually extend all the way from the beverage-store counters out on to the roads, are not a place for the sober or the weak of heart—even the honourable Kerala High Court once felt compelled to issue obiter dicta on them! These queues would make for an interesting sociological study: tenanted as an all- male preserve, unabashedly misogynistic. Women rarely venture there for fear of courting the “righteous” wrath of male tipplers. Meena was lucky; not so an autorickshaw driver and his wife. The ‘queue’ pounced on them almost as a singular organism, all moral ­hackles raised, heckling them to leave the place. Finally, the cops had to intervene.

Malayalis, among the biggest consumers of liquor in India, seem to be oddly uneasy about women having an occasional swig. (Since 2014, Kerala has lost its top rank, falling to third place as a result of controls on sales.) During the 10-day Onam festival, sales saw the usual spike in consumption—totting up Rs 440.6 crore (up from Rs 411.14 crore during Onam ’16). But Kerala’s male drinkers, who make up 30 per cent of adult men, are sticking to their gendered bars and queues. Women drinkers? By the only available statistics (which can’t be entirely relied upon, as few women are likely to be forthcoming about this), regular drinkers constitute a minuscule 0.5 per cent of all women in Kerala. And just three per cent admi­tted to having tried out a peg or two at least once in their lives. But the men are just not having it. Of course, pointing this out is not meant to encourage women to drink—it’s merely an obs­ervation on the strange behaviour of males dri­ven by a fear of losing control. The ­i­n­­g­­r­­a­­­­ined patriarchy of Kerala, whi­­ch dictates different rules for the genders, obviously infects all spaces. Liquor is no guarantee of liberalism.

Despite the small numbers, women drinkers have been hitting the headlines recently—a fact that attests both to  their presence and the public’s ­conflicted res­ponse, simultaneously disapproving and voyeuristic. In Kollam, about a month ago, an inebriated woman at the wheels of a Mercedes Benz crashed into half a dozen other cars. There were no major casualties—three people were injured—but the media found the incident saleable and, like an item number that ­embellishes a film with song and dance, the incident garnished prime-time news slots for the remarkable reason that the driver was a woman and inebriated.

A similar incident ­unfolded on September 20, when three women got into a brawl with an Uber driver in Kochi—the media had a field day talking of how the ‘drunken female trio’ had manhandled him and reportedly even ripped his clothes off. These isolated incidents are lapped up by the mainstream and social media for voy­euristic consumption—shamelessly, the visual media allow TRPs (television rating points) to dictate the content of the news. One channel’s new clip has a crowd of males hooting in derision as the trio descend a flight of stairs at a police station, with the cameras practically feasting on them.

Their absence from queues and those darkened watering holes called ‘bars’ testify that women in the state generally don’t imbibe. And inebriated women intruding on public spaces and making a scene is not the norm. But the relish with which the media swoop down on stray cases hides a certain nervousness with the idea of women drinking.

“Ente ammede jimmiki kammal ente appan kattondu poyi
Ente appante brandy kuppi ente amma kudichu theerthu”

(My father stole my mother’s dangling earrings My mother drank to the bottom my father’s brandy bottle)

Lyrics of Jimmiki Kammal , the Malayalam film song that went viral this Onam with the above video, enacted at the Indian School of Commerce.

And if a drunken woman happens to walk in a public place, immediately men crowd around her with an unwritten ­licence to leer. YouTube videos on the subject—and there are scores of them—are horrifying displays of voyeurism, where men surround inebriated women and film them with their mobiles. These are then uploaded; it is a collective ritual of shaming. Film actresses ­drinking at parties is another ‘hit’ ­­­category.

It’s indeed a strange paradox that the ­inebriated Kerala male, who is a common nuisance, hardly ever makes it to the headlines, let alone prime-time news. Only an odd extreme case here and there generates some excitement, like the tippler who, fully blown, decided to steal a state transport bus recently in Kollam. He was caught out when he drove into an electric post. The reports go that he stole the bus because he had tired of waiting for one.

In the words of Malayalam newsreader Lakshmi Padma, “There are ­numerous inebriated men causing accidents but they are hardly ever shown on television. One cannot comprehend why ­images of a drunk woman should be shown over and over and celebrated by the media. The media should refrain from this kind of shaming. Though I don’t drink, I feel there’s a lot of prejudice against women drinking.” The arc­hitecture itself is forbidding. “The bars are constructed only to accommodate men. Most of them don’t even have res­trooms for women,” Padma adds.

An accident garnished prime-time news slots for the remarkable reason that the driver was a drunk woman.

The issue with the aggressive, ­intrusive attention that women ­receive is that it complicates a smooth passage to a space where they have the freedom to drink if they so wish. The idea that only “loose” women drink was a prejudice reinforced by popular cinema—with its stereotype of a woman with hair curling down her shoulders, downing some heady stuff as she readies herself for bed with her lover, loose morals and booze lazily coupled. The 2001 B-grade film Layam is a fine exa­mple, where the protagonist ­oscillates from the bar to the bed. And Shakeela, the epitome of all that’s ­forbidden in South Indian cinema, with her hair loose of course, and a tray laden with glasses and a bottle of rum in the frame, bites her lips in a weird twisting motion before proceeding to seduce her boss who is wounded and lying in bed.

In the imagination of popular film directors, a seduction scene is often ­boringly bereft of nuance. It’s absolutely commonplace for male characters in films to have a drink after work, or meet in a bar to discuss matters—these scenes are part and parcel of the narrative and may not be used as a signifier to portray a particular character of the male. A scene of a woman with a glass of booze, on the other hand, comes laced with subtexts.

Perhaps that is about to change. Lijo Jose Pelliserry, director of Angamaly Diaries, has a refreshing take. “I think it’s one’s individual choice. I don’t see ­anything wrong with women drinking. I guess people’s exposure too is changing with the times. Women drinking is now much more casual than before,” he says. Latter-day expat returnees are ­contributing to this new ease with their less stuffy views, harking back in an ironic way to ­pre-modern traditions that had a space for women drinking.

Women drinkers say that change in real life is very slow and that negative ­perceptions persist. Battling this perception is television personality and actress Ranjini Haridas, who regularly cops a lot of sexist abuse on social media. “Yes, I have a drink when I’m chilling with friends but that doesn’t mean I do ­nothing else. I’m not sitting all day and drinking. I’m happy with my life and I’m not really bothered about people’s ­opinions about me and I have a very supportive family. There’s a ­social stigma...the immediate conclusion is that if a woman drinks, she is bad. Many women I know are afraid to say they drink. But the same society seems to ­accept men drinking.”

A cautionary note: “I know many women who drink who have had no qualms about dowry being given at the time of their marriage. ­Society is still very regressive.”

Gargi, a feminist activist, has acautionary note: just as with men, the fact that a women drinks does not necessarily imply that she has modern ­attitudes in general. “I know many women who drink who have had no qualms about dowry being given at the time of their marriage. Society is still very ­regressive,” says Gargi.

Kochi-based psychiatrist C.J. John says social drinking has been on the rise. “It’s quite normal for a woman to drink at a wedding, but compared to the metros Kerala is still not open about such ­behaviour. Most women have ­internalised the moral boundary and they restrict themselves. But this may be beginning to change.” De-add­iction ­centres have only very ­recently—in the past two years—seen women joining, and the numbers are minuscule, just one or two, most of them middle-­­­­aged NRI returnees.

Kerala’s drinking problem (on the male side) has affected marriages in a big way. According to Johnson J. Eda­yaranmula, general secretary of Alcohol and Drug Information Centre, an alarming 70 per cent of Kerala’s divo­rces are ­because of male alcoholism. “Men don’t know how to hold their drink and seem unaware of social drinking,” adds Lak­shmi Padma. But some marriages are quite different. A regular woman drinker, who does not want to be named, says she picks up her liquor from the only government-run alcohol supermarket in Kochi. “Both my husband and I enjoy a drink or two every evening and I usu-ally pick up the drinks but I wouldn’t dare stand in the queue.” “Yes,” says another woman, “Women eat, drink liquor, work and have sex too. It’s time men accepted all this.”

By Minu Ittyipe in Kochi

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