Gujarat's guilty pleasures

Donald Trump is an avowed teetotaller, so abstinence of alcoholic spirits in Ahmedabad would not have occupied his mind, yet it does beg the question: Why should a state the size of a European nation be penalised for being the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi? India’s relationship with spirits is at best ambiguous and at worst hypocritical — the state frowns on liquor at official functions, and even some private ones where prominent leaders might be present, while reaping the benefits that come from its taxation. It is a guilty pleasure that comes with high office, since the subsidised watering holes of the Gymkhana, or India International Centre, are at least as popular with bureaucrats as with their counterparts from the political class, if never openly referred to.

Contrary to popular myth, the Gujarati enjoys his tipple and will go to any length to obtain it. The medical permit that allows a certain quota is discriminatory and restrictive, which is the reason the Gujarati (next only to the Bengali) is the most mobile of Indian travellers — driving across the border to neighbouring states for an evening of binge drinking without fear of falling foul of the law. Adjoining parts of Rajasthan and Maharashtra enjoy high revenues from this lucrative tourism.


Now, it seems, Goa is mining Gujarat for yet another vice — gambling. Goa is no Macau, and its gaming industry is largely sustained by Indian tourists, among whom next-door Gujarat tops the list. So profitable is the business that flights cater specially to this segment with connections to Panjim perfectly timed for sundowners, and departing on incredible early red-eyes, allowing revellers enough time to drink and play the slot machines or roulette before heading back home for work. Over a weekend in Goa, I have it on good authority, the Gujarati sleeps by day and gambles by night. 

If a large majority suffer from alcoholic austerities in Gujarat, for a minuscule minority prohibition brings no deterrence to their consumption of rare vintage wines, or, indeed, selected malts and other alcoholic beverages. Last weekend, as Trump was on his way across the Atlantic, I was being offered evidence of Gujarati wine snobbery with the last pour of a 1979 red of which, alas, no more bottles were available. But there was plenty of wine, if of a slightly inferior label; the following morning began with a champagne breakfast, and, indeed, the flow of alcohol did not cease through the day — remarkable enough for a dry state, but even more incredible in the presence of officials of that state.


The mind makes its own connections, associating prohibition somewhat organically with vegetarianism. Gujarat is no more vegetarian than adjacent Rajasthan or Maharashtra, but chicken tikka, like a gin-and-tonic, tends to be consumed surreptitiously rather than openly. The Gujarati thali is a delight, but one to be enjoyed occasionally rather than frequently. Which is why my host’s ability to serve the finest seafood served with all the flourish of a Michelin-rated kitchen was the more startling. The following evening’s smorgasbord of lamb, chicken and fish would have put any Delhi wedding to shame. If at all anyone was surprised by the lavishness, it was us out-of-towners who’d been anticipating less inspiring fare. Despite its evident availability, great food, like alcohol, remains one of Gujarat’s guilty pleasures.



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