Toddy Shop Gandhi

4 Oct

This is a translation of a blog post from noted Tamil writer Jeyamohan’s blog.

Translation from:

Translated by: Gokul


11Last September 30th, I had gone to Vaikkom on a cinema related work.  My friend Madhupal and producer Sukumar were with me.  While returning, when wondering where to have lunch, Sukumar called up his friend Nandakumar to inquire.  Nandakumar suggested a toddy shop in a town called CherpuCherpu is the town where actor Mammooty was born.

We inquired and found out the toddy shop.  Situated on the banks of the Vemband river, it was built with palm leaves.  But it had several sections; even small rooms for sitting and drinking in privacy; and halls.  It was late afternoon when we reached.  Hence, there were no toddy drinkers.  Most of them had come for lunch.  Since Madhupal was a popular actor as well, our welcome was royal.

Steamed tapioca, appam.  Along with beef fry, fried pork, ayyakoora fish curry, saalai fish curry, fried karimeen, crab fry and oyster fry… they kept on serving us.  Sukumar is a gourmet, one might even say, an exponent of food. Toddy accompanied all this.

I hadn’t had such tasty fare in recent times.  Each dish was at its classical best.  All meat was fresh and tender.  The fish tasted as if it were taken directly from water.  Subdued spices.  Good coconut oil.  Sukumar said none of the dishes was old.  There was not a refrigerator on the premises.

We sought out the cook, embraced him in appreciation and then left.  Only an expert cook can correctly prepare beef fry.  If it is overcooked, it is coal; if undercooked, it is fiber.   Pork is complicated in a different way.  If undercooked, it is inedible. If overcooked, it melts.   These were cooked as if they were cooked for gods.

The reason is that in Cherpu, those who come to this shop are locals.  Even if the quality dips a little, they won’t come the next day.  One look at the shop indicated that it is used to milling crowds.  ‘They have shut down more than half the bars, sir.  Hence large crowds come here.  In the evening, four or five folk singers are here. If you can wait, I will ask them to come here immediately’, said the shop owner.  ‘No, we have to leave’, I said. ‘They also perform mimicry and comedy, sir’.   The shop was very clean as well.

It was a cultural center of that town.  Good drink, good food, good entertainment.  Drink acquires meaning only when it is associated with entertainment.  Tamilnadu’s TASMAC shops are repulsive places.  Always filled with bad tempers.   The food sold there can be burnt only by the spirits sold there.  Mostly left-overs from other places are reheated and sold near TASMAC.

There are places in Chennai where drink is a high class entertainment.   But it would cost at least five thousand rupees to even visit those places.  For a poor man, drink is a major torture, a vise in which he has been trapped.  The government seizes him, unclasps his waist belt and steals his earnings.  He is stuck with the chemicals given in return by the government.

I think toddy shops like this one is are not harmful in any sense.  A center of entertainment which is affordable to even a poor man.  Toddy doesn’t make anyone so ill that he cannot work anymore.  It doesn’t give one a blind drunken stupor.  Even a stomach full of toddy doesn’t empty one’s pockets.  A bottle of toddy was 25 rupees.  Even if one drinks all night, one cannot drink for two hundred rupees.

A major percentage of the money given for toddy reaches the farmer directly.  It forms the basis of the Keralite village economy.  In Andhra and Kerala, toddy is the major drink.  But in Tamilnadu, where there are three times as many palm trees and where a special ‘palm economy’ had existed, toddy is banned.   Molasses from sugarcane are procured, converted to spirit and sold with a government stamp.  The enormous revenues from it go to capitalists and politicians.

Since it has dry lands, Tamilnadu’s palms are of a high quality.   Such toddy is matched only be a few places in Rayalaseema.  Kerala’s toddy is extracted from coconut trees.  It doesn’t have the mild sweetness and scent of palm toddy.  In the last decade, a drying disesase called mandari affected Kerala’s coconut trees and coconut production was almost brought to a standstill.   But for toddy, Kerala’s farmers would have committed suicide.  The bar restrictions of today are further helpful to them.


We spoke as we travelled.  I told them about Gandhi’s toddy shop agitation.  It occurred to me that Gandhians today, if they hadn’t taken Gandhism as a rigid religious belief system, should support toddy.  It is rural produce.  It is consumed locally.  Its trade can only be done on a small scale. It is against centralized, super-profiteering organizations.  It is favorable to agriculture. It is an excellent substitute for the chemical spirits that are produced through large industry and sold for obscene profits. 

Madhupal asked what would Gandhi have said about eating beef.  Gandhi spoke all his life against the killing of cows.  But he would not have for even an instant agreed to it as a form of oppression by the majority over a minority, in the form of regulations laid by a government.   In the system that he proposed, all minorities were to retain complete freedom.   That was his rama-rajya.

I consider the beef ban brought by a few state governments as violence by the government and the mindsets that arise in its support as fascist.  I hope that a multicultural land like India will uproot and discard fascism.

Hence, I dedicate this day (Gandhi’s birthday) to that toddy shop.  In my mind, I think I have had lunch with Gandhi there.


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