There is absolutely no denying the fact that alcoholism is a major problem in Kerala in the 21st century, but few can agree on how to deal with this issue at the moment. Liquor, in the form of toddy, was something that became a unifying force in a complex social structure in northern Kerala in the 18th century.
The arrival of the East India Company and Tipu Sultan to Kerala led to a considerable degree of deforestation and the subsequent cultivating of virgin land. A large part of this cultivation was undertaken to meet the insatiable global appetite for pepper and coconuts from Malabar.
Sheer economics created a necessity for people from different castes to cultivate the land together. “Even more significant was the fact that an upper caste man would, at times, work the land of a man belonging to a lower caste,” Dilip Menon wrote in the 1995 summer-monsoon edition of the India International Centre’s quarterly publication. “There was no inherent, unvarying connection between caste and landholding or labour… At the same time, it gave rise to what may be termed a community of labour involving landowners and cultivators.” Essentially the younger male members of a landholding family would work in the fields with those employed to cultivate the land, creating a sense of fraternity.
After a hard day’s work on the fields, cultivators and landowners, upper and lower caste residents would get together for several glasses of toddy, a drink that contains around eight per cent alcohol. Historians clearly state, for the record, though that such an event did not end social prejudices. “This mix of uneasy intimacy and formal hierarchy was transcended only within the community of drink,” Menon wrote. Such camaraderie and socialising had few parallels in any feudal society. It was unimaginable in Japan, Europe or Russia at that time. It is clear from the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekhov that this would have been impossible in Tsarist Russia.
Toddy had other uses in northern Kerala at that time. Around harvest time, the promise of toddy was enough to mobilise labour. Landlords also raised small armies to deal with rivals when it came to land disputes and access to wetlands. “Drinking was seen within the context of work and lubricated enthusiasm for work,” according to Menon. “An ethic of work and an ethic of drink went hand in hand.”
Thanks to alcohol, wealthy landlords developed relationships with toddy tappers and tribals. The latter would brew alcohol from flowers and herbs for the rich landowners, who would generously give grains, clothes, oils and other gifts during festivals such as the New Year.
“The interaction between settled agriculture and forestry characterised the region, imparting such a rich diversity and eccentricity to the pantheons of gods worshipped,” Menon wrote. “Upper caste ancestors, tribal deities, local heroes and heroines, Brahmanical deities rubbed shoulders and coexisted in perfect amity.”
Many a family in Kerala will have a story that was passed down from previous generations about the revelry between drunken members of different castes at temple festivals. These stories are by no means pleasant given the fact that rowdy behaviour was the obvious offshoot of camaraderie beyond caste barriers. For the more conservative devotee of famous temples, the sight of drunken men and women and the sacrificing of animals would not have served as a happy memory.
With Malabar coming under British domination and Narayana Guru’s reforms having a profound impact on the Ezhava and Thiya communities, which is where the toddy tappers hailed from, the drink started to be seen as a social evil. Unfortunately, with the end of the toddy drinking community culture, caste divisions began to grow stronger once again in northern Kerala till the time of Indian independence.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, toddy helped loosen the tight caste restrictions in northern Kerala and showed that a post-caste society was indeed a possibility in a future India. Perhaps the message of moderation should be conveyed to the people of a state that has made a good amount of social progress since the time Swami Vivekananda called it a lunatic asylum.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island')