When a battle of spirits rocked a Kerala village

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on July 30, 2020


In Kombodinjalakkal, a tippler had to visit ‘Kargil’ or turn to ‘Gandhi’ for his daily fix. An eyewitness recounts the turf war that brewed in the village 21 years ago

* In May 1999, Subran announced that he’d name his watering hole ‘Kargil’

* Gandhi was perhaps the world’s only bootlegger with such a name; we affectionately called him Gandhi-ettan

* Gandhi in the Buddha pose under the banyan tree meant business was not good

Subramanian (alias Subran) was a patriot — in both letter and spirit. No one would dispute the spirit part, especially the tipplers of Kombodinjalakkal, a village in Thrissur, Kerala. Subran was indeed very vocal about his patriotism and he held soldiers in high regard. Almost everyone in Kombodinjalakkal knew it. When I say almost everyone, I mean the menfolk and children. The women didn’t care. They knew their men bothered way too much about Subran and his ramblings.

In the late 1990s, a Malayali man ignored the local bootlegger at his own risk, particularly one of Subran’s clout. Arrack had been banned a couple of years earlier. Legit country booze was non-existent. Imported or smuggled foreign brands were indeed a rarity. If at all one came across foreign liquor, the exorbitant price was enough to turn one either into a revolutionary or a capitalist. Under such circumstances, listening to Subran’s babble was the least one could put up with to get potable spurious liquor that fit the budget. Like the village drunk Pradeep, I, too, would have endured Subran even if he were to wax eloquent about algebra, or even Archimedes.

For someone who already enjoyed such unstinting support in the village, it came as a surprise when, in May 1999, Subran announced that he’d name his watering hole ‘Kargil’. Evidently, the christening was inspired by the ongoing violent face-off between India and Pakistan at the border. The entire country was rooting for the soldiers and patriotic spirit was in the air. Kombodinjalakkal was no different, though it is usually the kind of place pulp writers would lazily dismiss as a sleepy village.

Frankly, everyone and everything appeared lethargic before the Kargil face-off happened. The men blamed then chief minister AK Antony for the inertia; his United Democratic Front government had pulled the plug on the sale of arrack. Arrack made us what we are, the drunks told each other. Without it, we’re finished, they rued.

But ‘Kargil’ jolted everyone out of their slumber. No one had thought such a name befits a watering hole. Except Pradeep. “I’ve figured it out,” he told me one day, standing under the huge banyan tree in the middle of the village. I was almost an adult and the villagers who had seen me since I was a toddler were just beginning to take me a wee bit seriously. On my part, I made it a point to pay heed to everyone except my parents.

Pradeep and I would go on to build a lasting association. But I digress. Getting back to Kargil, Pradeep gave me, and whoever cared to listen to his famously witty sermons (delivered with a straight face), his two bits on the shop’s name. Subran’s move was hardly a patriotic act, more a psychological one, Pradeep insisted. In fact, it was intended to checkmate Gandhi. Before I go on, let me introduce Gandhi, not the father of our nation, but Subran’s rival. He was perhaps the world’s only bootlegger with such a name; we affectionately called him Gandhi-ettan.

Interestingly, until then, no one had noticed the irony. It was surprising, for at Kombodinjalakkal, villagers loved to poke their nose into other’s affairs. Strangely, the fact that a middle-aged man named after the icon of sobriety was selling rotgut had never been a subject of discussion. Subran’s master stroke made it difficult to miss the connect. He had at last found a way to beat Gandhi in the patriotism race. According to Pradeep, Subran believed that no one should be named Gandhi in the first place. Gandhi, Pradeep pointed out, is a surname. It was, even for MK Gandhi. I agreed.

Interestingly, ‘Kargil’ worked. Tipplers thronged the watering hole and drank to their heart’s content thanks to the discounts Subran offered when nationalistic fervour took over. Nights at Kargil were reportedly boisterous, filled with sloganeering and chest-thumping. Cuss words, it’s said, flew thick and fast. Everything was on the rocks. Or so it seemed. Sales at Gandhi’s shop took a dip. We figured business was dull when he was spotted more often under the banyan tree. When the going was good, he rarely appeared in public places. He would sleep through the day and spend the nights making the brew away from the probing eyes of the excise department. Gandhi in the Buddha pose under the banyan tree meant business was not good.

But Gandhi hadn’t given up. In a few days, excise department personnel raided ‘Kargil’. Eyewitnesses say Subran did nothing to halt it but was seen shouting nationalistic slogans all through the raid. It was anybody’s guess as to who had informed the authorities. But when Subran confronted Gandhi under the banyan tree, the latter denied any involvement. “A patriot never betrays another,” was his cryptic reply. Soon, a kirana store run by Subran’s wife Ammini came up in place of ‘Kargil’. She called it peedika (the shop) and did just fine.

(Post script: This is a partially fictionalised account. Strong resemblance to people and places is intentional.)

Jinoy Jose P

Published on July 30, 2020

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