Bootlegging in Gujarat

We’d made it to Mandvi, settled into a hotel, and had a look around town and at the boats they build there.

Then it was decided that a booze run was in order. We’d had a casual glance around for a wine shop the night before without any luck, but now that the sun was out and we were lounging around writing diaries, beer was fast becoming a necessity. I left Maria in the hotel room, hailed a tuk-tuk from outside reception, and asked if he could take me to the nearest wine shop. He looked unsure of himself, but we set off anyway. A minute later he pulled up next to a kiosk selling cigarettes and biscuits and motioned sheepishly, with a questioning look to see if I was satisfied. I shook my head and said ‘Beer? Whiskey?’ He drove instead to a line of parked tuk-tuks and singled out a driver who knew some English. ‘No no, no beer in this area’. He explained to my driver what I’d been after and we set off again – I assumed back to the hotel. 

Not so; we wound our way through some narrow back streets thronged with school children, my cabbie navigating with one hand, while he made a couple of calls with the other. A friend, presumably the guy who’d been on the other end of the phone, reached out and swung himself into the tuk-tuk as we passed. He passed a lit beedi over his shoulder to me with a knowing nod and a smile, and got stuck into some phone calls himself. I recognised the signs; this wasn’t a trip to the off license – this was a drug deal!

We parked up in a quiet alley while my new cohort ducked into the back of a shop, but came back five minutes later empty handed. We headed instead to the seafront, where a few dodgy looking characters were unable to help. My driver was undeterred though, and he dropped me back at the hotel after taking my phone number and telling me to wait for his call. Exciting.

I passed the time checking out a theory. As I’d guessed, Gujarat is a dry state, so the beer I was trying to hunt down may as well have been heroin. There’s something to be said for prior research I suppose. A few hours later I got a call from my new friend – listed in my phone as ‘whiskey tuk-tuk guy’, and I headed back downstairs. He had another friend with him this time, and they shared a look that told me they were holding. I slid into the front seat and we drove round the corner, out of sight, where we quickly exchanged a bottle of whiskey for 1000 rupees. Not exactly cheap, but they’d earned it.

A few days later we were in Bhuj, waiting for some repair work to be  done on the bikes. We’d heard that at a certain hotel tourists could apply for a permit to buy and consume alcohol. It was a chance not to me missed. The lobby of the Prince Hotel was cavernous, air conditioned and staffed by perfectly groomed porters in matching uniforms. It was not the kind of place a couple of scruffy bikers go to get beer. They quickly ushered us round the back to a little shack labelled ‘permit shop’. In a typically Indian display of logic, a notice on the door proclaimed ‘no entrance without a permit’. We went in anyway.

We were seated at a desk and treated to even more bureaucratic bafflement. It started simply enough with a request for a passport. They glanced over my visa, and told me that unfortunately, since it had been issued more than a month ago, I couldn’t have a permit. But I’ve only been in Gujarat for a week. Have I got a copy of my flight confirmation? No. I managed to fish a wrinkled receipt out of the bottom of my bag that showed we’d been in Rajasthan three weeks ago buying a replacement battery for Maria’s bike. It was duly accepted, photocopied and stamped, and we got to move on to round two.

After filling out a two page form and signing in triplicate, I was told that the last obstacle to drunkenness was a signed letter from my hostel, confirming that I was staying somewhere in the town. The number of our guesthouse was procured, and I was handed the phone to speak to the manager. He was obviously familiar with the process, and told me to meet him back at the hostel.

We put our application on hold, jumped back into a tuk-tuk and raced back to the hostel. I chuckled at the permit officer’s departing words, ‘Please do come back to finish the process, as we have already completed the application’. Yeah, I know how much you guys hate unnecessary paperwork.

We got back to the hotel, where the manager was waiting to tell us that he couldn’t issue our letter till that evening, since the headed paper was in a safe, and the key was with someone else. I was starting to get thirsty, and annoyed. I pointed to a sheaf of papers on the desk with the hotel’s name printed on the top. Why wouldn’t those suffice? Nope, in typically Indian fashion, we would have to wait for the guy who’s job it was to open the safe to come back, then the guy who’s job it was to write notes on bits of paper could get to work. It’s India, and you have to just go with it or you’ll go mad.

At eight in the evening we were finally back in the permit shop, with unlimited access to their plentiful stores. I say ‘unlimited’, but our permit allowed us a finite number of units. No matter, we only wanted enough to get drunk for a night or two, so we got ourselves a big bottle of rum and a handful of beers. While we were ringing that up the manager sidled over to us and asked if he could piggyback on our permit and use the remainder of our units for himself. Yup, fill your boots mate. We’re going home to get drunk.

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