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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.

XOXO Angela

© 2012 Angela Carson


Angela Carson

At 21 I left uni, jumped into my Jeep Wrangler, and drove from my native California to live an adventure in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I've explored 37 countries on 4 continents, residing in 8 of them (currently Indonesia's Riau Islands is my home). I even have a private pilot's license and was shot at once by bandits!

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Sam

    Great read! I think there is one more group of people you might be missing out on that go out and drink. Students are always at the mid level pubs and clubs( source: I am a student from the states here and these kids drink!. Lol) although Not everyone drinks, but we have a nice little group of the mixed gender that go out and drink!

    1. angela_carson

      Wow, okay you are soooooo right. But do I edit my post or let you be the grand marshall of the uni front and simply state it here for all to read? 🙂 hehe Hey, thanks for commenting. I’m too old to have noticed the uni group but you are johnny spot on! – ange

  2. Vikram S Dwarakanath

    The “Hole in the wall” places get women who are usually about 50 yrs or more in average…
    boy can they down it… they can beat the pants of any guy around them in terms of drinking AND ATTITUDE
    but they’re fast… they down a quart of the lowest branded hard liquor in under 20 seconds flat.
    these are “Day laborers”… working at construction sites. Hope this helps 🙂

    1. angela_carson

      Hi Vikram, been ages, hope you are great! Thanks for sharing your comments, I want to see these power drinking ladies in action some time 🙂

  3. Bettina

    Hi Angela,
    first of all I have to say thank you for your brunch reviews. Based on these I chose Olive Beach for today’s brunch location and it was great! I was a little bit worried if my Indian girlfriends would like it as they are not so much into the western style food but they all liked it a lot. And you were absolutely right about the pebbles, but thanks to your advice I didn’t wear high-heels 😉
    And interestingly today’s brunch experience also has a lot to do with your post: I was there with four Indian girlfriends who were all raised in the traditional way and therefore feel a certain reluctance towards alcohol because it is socially not commonly accepted. But one of these girls is a very open-minded curious one and I’ve been knowing for some time that she’d love to try drinking alcohol. So I thought today is the day, I will convince her to have a drink with me. As soon as we were seated I raised this issue and then to my big, big surprise all of them immediately agreed to cocktails! So we had one round of Cosmo, for some people there were more rounds, and we had such a great time! I mean nobody was drunk or something, we just had fun and what can be wrong about this? I appreciated it so much that for one afternoon they just left all these (wrong) judgements etc. behind and just went for it, loved them for this. So all you Indian ladies out there who might be in the same situation, try to forget all this stuff they’ve planted in your heads and just try it. Nothing bad will happen, probably you will just have some great fun time!
    Ok, preaching over 🙂

    1. angela_carson

      Wow, loved your tale of the brunch adventure. Thanks for sharing. I am so far behind and still have 3 brunch articles that I need to write this week for the Leela and 2 more Taj properties. Anyway, I fully agree with you and don’t find the shame in throwing back cosmos or champagne but this is not my culture and I come from one of the most liberal societies on the planet (los angeles) so I’m not exactly a moral compass that points due north, am I? haha Hope you will keep commenting as inspiration hits you. Was a good read. –angela

  4. da undertoad

    Hey Ange,
    I’m afraid that bartender was not being completely honest with you. He was probably making a differentiation between women who walk into his establishment openly, and women who [usually on a saturday night]] send someone male to pick up a bottle of the concoction that helps them hang on while they wait in the shadows, India’s women are not particularly shy about drinking alcohol as long as nobody is watching.
    just sayin’.

    1. angela_carson

      No no, this place is literally like a closet with shelves. It is not a bar at all but a licensed wine shop inside of Harry Potter’s room under the stairs 🙂 They are not licensed to sell drinks as they do…

  5. angela_carson

    Ohhhh that alcohol sounds like all shades of WRONG, haha. We had something called Everclear when I was in high school and uni back in Southern California and used to make this wild drink called jungle juice with it that knocked socks off and was potent as hell. Good times!!! haha -A

    1. Naveen

      You can compare “Desi Liquor” to “Jack Daniels” but that also depends on who made it and their expertise !!

  6. angela_carson

    Love the pic…looks any typical “chillout” in any country around the world except in Spain or California we wouldn’t sit on the floor 🙂 hehe

  7. snoopyandblossom

    This, I guess, is a pretty old entry, but I thought i’d add anyway..With respect to middle class women and drinking..those in their thirties and forties either consider it a vice or are just ok with it, either way they don’t really drink. I can’t easily write about how or why that is the case, its a combination of pre-globalization India and their idea of a good time (personally I don’t think they really even need any me-time!), its vastly different than how we see it, because most of their lives they’ve worked hard and they are amazingly grounded…I can identify with them at times, getting drunk can be fun, but its still not the healthiest option and that’s not the only way to have fun, I can do without it completely too..why harm your body unnecessarily? I guess its more of an indifference to it. Again this is with respect to middle class women, especially those I know, lol.

    1. angela_carson

      Hi, thanks for chiming in with your comments. Great view on the topic 🙂 -angela

  8. arindam

    why do you use ‘Not good or bad, right or wrong…just really different.’ so much! I am getting bored of this line 🙂

    1. angela_carson

      Hi! Well, you’ve read a ton of my articles but imagine if you only came in through a google search and read only this ONE. Maybe I need to find a different way to say it but I want my own feelings and outlooks to be 100% understood at times. Some people can be quite critical of a non-Indian writing about India, of my lifestyle as being “wrong” and assuming I think their lifestyle is wrong, etc… and I really do believe that one culture is not “right or wrong” but they are different 🙂 Any suggestions for an alternate but clearly understood version of that phrase is welcome 🙂 – angela

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