Booze, Bars and Judgement – India’s Drinking Culture is Opposite the U.S. and EU
I had been living in Bangalore less than two weeks the first time I truly understood how different my experiences in life are when compared to many of my work mates. At the time I didn’t have any friends so my only real-life conversations were with colleagues. I’ve lived in other countries and I love the way that every place is different and special, with nuances that set the people apart. Typically these distinctions are seen in the manner in which people speak, their style of dress or how aggressive they are in normal daily encounters. But here in India there is a whole new set of differentiators that had never even occurred to me…like whether or not someone drinks or goes to a bar.
To say the least, it is interesting to me that people have never drank a cocktail or sipped wine ever in their life. Not because everyone should drink or that the world is a better place because of cosmopolitans (okay maybe a little!). But until I moved to India I had never personally known a single person – EVER – who didn’t drink or who hadn’t had a drink. Yet here more often than not it is night and day flipped the other way around. Not good or bad, right or wrong…just really different.
We start pretty early in California, and in fact my first drink was with the kids from my Baptist church youth group out in the back hills in the town where I grew up. It was whiskey, and disgusting, but nevertheless it is an experience I will never forget. Then living the past decade in Spain, which is one of the top wine-producing countries in the world, we drank wine daily, even at lunch with superiors or in business meetings. It is simply a part of everyday life. So coming from that environment to this one is a pretty big shock to this white girls’ system!
At least in Bangalore, what I’ve seen is that alcohol is consumed by two categories of people. The first are the men and women in the elite upper society and page three party crowd who hit the chic and hip clubs or have private parties with wine, champagne and spirits flowing. From everything I’ve witnessed so far, this appears to be an accepted behaviour. At least I have never seen evidence to the contrary. The second group also appears to be accepted as a norm and that is the men – and I say men because I know that there are no women at these venues – who hang out and drink at the hole-in-the-wall liquor and wine shops around town. Although I’m sure the wives would like their husbands home and away from the liquor shops, they are there night after night out in the open so my guess is that these guys also have some invisible seal of approval to throw a few back at night.
What gets my goat isn’t whether people drink or not, I’m not trying to push alcohol and I truly do subscribe to the “live and let live” mentality. What makes me stop and think is the supposed judgement placed on women with respect to alcohol outside of the jet set crowd. It’s tough for me to wrap my head around why it is only okay for a man to have the green light for something so simple as a drink. I understand that this is India and things are different, which is a lot of why I love living here, but every once in a while the differences are tough for me to get my head around. I’m 41 years old and have only ever lived in a society where it is culturally accepted for men and women to socialize AND drink if they wish. With no judgement and no stigmas. So this is a night and day difference from anything I’ve ever known, and certainly makes me stop in a way that than simple differences like having to cover up my shoulders or eating with my hands never has.
My driver Shiva is someone I count on daily to act as a sort of hybrid real-life Wikipedia and moral compass for my questions about Indians, Indian culture and life in general here in Bangalore. I brought this topic up with him. I was telling him about how interesting it is to me to meet so many people who have never been inside of a club and never sipped alcohol. Shiva’s reaction was that this is completely normal, which immediately made me instantaneously understand just how out of skew my ‘real life’ is with India.
I live a life here in Bangalore which is – to me – 100% real life, and with almost no difference to what I’ve always known with respect to my social life. As we continued our discussion, Shiva confessed that he hoped that his children never see the inside of a swish dance club or bar. Because of the way that Indians view other Indians who frequent these places, especially the girls, is not a positive pastime. Most families want nothing more than for their children to find a good spouse and settle down and “do the needful” with respect to their lives. It’s actually a wonderful outlook and wish because, in all honesty, there is zero benefit to clubbing and drinking…although it is a completely normal pastime for people in so many parts of the world.
As for the judgement, maybe boys and men also experience it but not to the degree that girls and women do. I know this because of chats I have had with friends and colleagues. But oddly I know it first-hand for a very funny reason too. I like wine and champagne and try to always have some liquor at home just in case I have friends over. Well, the funky little hole-in-the-wall shop where I stop to buy my supplies in Frazer Town always has the same friendly guy behind the counter. The first time I walked up jaws dropped and the whole place went silent and heads popped out from around the corners. It was really interesting to see their reaction to a woman buying alcohol, which at the time I didn’t realise was a no-no for ladies. I asked the manager a few months ago how many women come into the shop and he said that I was the first one EVER. EVER! It’s been open for years, honestly how is that possible? But it is. Anyway, now I do know it is a no-no now but I like rebelling against the system and refuse to let Shiva buy booze for me. So now when I walk up the ‘regulars’ nod hello and are all very sweet to me.
I like comparing the differences between what I’ve always known in my life to the traditions of my new home. Lucky for me, my Indian friends and colleagues also enjoy swapping tales and adventures too. Do we always see eye-to-eye? No! But that is where the fun lies! Just imagine how boring life would be if we were all the same.
© 2012 Angela Carson