Madhya Pradesh’s stunning Khajuraho temples, famed for their erotic sculpture and nagara-style architectural symbolism, suggest a tradition of acceptance and respect for diverse religious views in medieval India. Given the current wave of intolerance which spiked in the cold-blooded killing of the journalist and editor Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore on September 5th, it is hard to imagine that we were once a free society. While we may never have indulged in the dissolution portrayed in the last days of Pompeii, legend has it that we were once, ‘pretty hot to trot.’ What happened to our sense of fun, to our cosmopolitan values? Were they stamped out of us by the British, whose Victorian morality recoiled with middle-class horror from our mujras and nautch girls?
But why blame colonialism when our legislators cling limpet-like to archaic laws which prevent women being employed in places where alcohol is served? Verily was it said that we inherited British bureaucracy to which we added the fertile dung of desi red tape. Shatbi Basu, an authority on wines and spirits, who conducts national bartending competitions, laments this absurd colonial legacy.
‘It pisses me off when women are prevented by this archaic rule from giving Tom “Cocktail” Cruise a run for his money. Female bartenders are just a no-no.’ Obviously there are advantages to retaining a thicket of legislation, especially in excise matters: the rules can be selectively implemented as all the pub owners who have been shafted by the minimum upliftment rule will attest. Colonial hangovers are an excellent tool for that quaint custom known as hafta. As Robert Clive may have sung, “I just have to have some of that hafta halva.”
Ironically, the excise rules were framed by our former colonial masters on racist lines quite forgetting the noble tradition of buxom English barmaids. In the musical, ‘Oliver’, ‘Mr. Percy Snodgrass would often have the odd glass, but never when he thought anybody could see. Secretly he'd buy it and drink it on the quiet and dream he was an earl with a girl on each knee.’ Ignoring Snodgrass’s delusions, the mousy administrator probably justified it on the grounds that the British Tommy, fortified by demon alcohol, needed to be kept far away from native women. Stiff upper lip, old chap and if you’re in the mood for hanky panky, just toodle off to the military bordello, there’s a good fellow. Whatever the logic, the rule was implacable: no working gals where booze is served. Fortunately the courts have now reversed this chauvinistic legislation and women can now dish up a mean margarita.
Which brings me to a friend of mine, Prakash Nichani, who is sadly, no more with us having moved on to that great pub in the sky. Hoping to reignite his business which had taken a beating post 9/11, he decided to bring in a bevy of Phillipino beauties to dispel the gloom and doom and draw in the punters. Being a shrewd Sindhi, he decided to apply for official permission, to ensure that his expensive nightingales were allowed to ply their trade by the powers- that- be. Meetings were held with the police commissioner, the parks commissioner, the minority commissioner and the commissioner for the upliftment of doom and gloom, but the all important sanction remained as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel.
‘Anything else you want, you take it I say,’ said his fixer, in the elaborate, unctuous manner of the breed. ‘But this female band is banned item.’After much skipping and hopping through the loops of the great Indian rope trick, Nichani eventually got the permission and was mentally popping the champagne when he read the fine print: Male artistes only. Having come this far, he briefly fantasised with the idea of passing them off as transexuals, but then dismissed it since that would risk exposure at the first raid/ full body search.
Air tickets had been bought, visas procured and Nichani was all set to transform the pub scene with Manila Spice but was ultimately forced to abandon his plans by an unfeeling bureaucracy. ‘This stupid rule is hundred years old yaar, and they still haven't changed it,’ he moaned piteously. ‘Have you seen how they can change Bangalore to Bengaluru in one session but they can’t change any of these idiotic Angrezi rules for centuries.” In these mealy-mouthed, poisonously pious times perhaps what we need is a Ministry for the Promotion of Vice and the Suppression of Virtue?