Drunk on wine at 2 pm, young men staggered and stumbled down a winding road that led up to a field where many more strutted about with dark brown bottles. Three men sat on their haunches in a semi-circle on the meadow, gulping quickly from paper cups labeled “Mizoram Grape Festival 2013”, each sold at the nearby stall for Rs 5. You could also buy a 650 ml bottle of Zo Wine for Rs 120, or pay Rs 10 more for a 750 ml bottle of Zawlaidi, which translates into “Love Potion”; both are variants of red wine.
Zote village and the hills surrounding Champhai town in Mizoram had not seen such a happening event in a while. In a state where the consumption and sale of alcohol is outlawed, the last “grape festival” had taken place eight years ago. Scores of policemen watched as the crowds hooted and cheered a fashion show on stage; those in exceptionally high spirits ran around with arms flailing; and at the parking area, a group of men played music and danced, confident that no one would be rounded up after a breathalyser test. They were celebrating the one festival that allowed them to drink in a dry state.
Drinking was not always prohibited in Mizo society. Till the advent of Christianity, animistic rituals, social and religious ceremonies and military triumphs were solemnised and celebrated with local rice beer. “Zu, Lushai beer … (alcohol prepared from rice, and sometimes fruits) was never a daily item of diet for the ordinary home, it rather having the mark of a real festa. The chiefs and more well-to-do people would drink it daily, usually to excess, but amid a very natural conviviality,” wrote Major AG McCall, the former superintendent of Lushai Hills (as Mizoram was then called), in 1949.
It was only in the mid-1990s that liquor was banned after sustained lobbying by the church and voluntary organisations. It was partly influenced by Christian missionaries’ teachings that alcoholism is a “sin” and the violence sparked by drinking sessions at home and outside. Its success was preceded by years of patrolling by community-level volunteers determined to maintain order in neighbourhoods — even now, volunteers keep vigil through long winter nights and reprimand drunkards on the streets, sometimes with violence. Recently, bootleggers, drug-dealers and foreigners (Myanmarese) were forcefully evicted from neighbourhoods and villages. In the first half of this year alone, 53,658