Jhilmil Motihar: Why is it hard for a woman to buy alcohol in Mumbai?

Jhilmil Motihar: Why is it hard for a woman to buy alcohol in Mumbai?

Mumbai is a fantastic city for women. Except when getting your hands on hard liquor

Jhilmil Motihar“Madam, rose?” the man behind the counter asked.

Now I’m not particularly gooey for flowers, but had someone offered I’d have asked for carnations.

Except that the man looking expectantly in my direction wasn’t handing out any bouquets. I was, instead, being given a crash course in the merits of a fine French rosé.

I was at a Mumbai wine shop and I was intrigued.

Before the rosé, I had been asked if I liked red or white; Chilean or South African; sweet or spicy.

Maybe it was the fancy air conditioning at this Bandra store that did it, but it was the first time that I was actually being asked to choose my booze.

It’s been said enough times but I’ll just go ahead and proclaim it once more: Mumbai is a fantastic city for women.

In my eight years here there are very few things (if any at all) that I haven’t been able to manage on my own.

Buying booze, however, isn’t one of them.

Not that I’ve ever been denied. As a wine drinker, I’d always found most wine shops to be rather democratic.

Sure, none of them have had particularly meaningful conversations with me but they never judged me either.

Till a friend pointed me to the non-wine racks -- the ones that women must not name.

In the women and liquor shop hierarchy I learned, wine sits comfortably on top.

Ask for anything more spirited and eyebrows arch in unison.

Not particularly good at being subtle, most men at the store will follow the now perfected routine of stop, stare.

Some may pretend they don’t care but remember they do. Those are the ones who really, really want to know if you’re a vodka-OJ or a rum and Coke girl.

This feels really shady

The level of discomfort, of course, varies geographically.

An impromptu Whatsapp poll (which may not be completely accurate I agree) revealed that wine shop owners in areas like Andheri, Juhu, Bandra, Malad, Colaba, Powai don’t care if you’re man, woman or Harry Potter Veela -- if it’s legal, you can have it.

Move to Kandivli, Ghatkopar, Mulund and the staring peaks.

Parel is especially unforgiving I found.

Don’t let the fancy glass-fronted buildings fool you. The wine shop guys are ruthless.

For a house party in the area, two of us were assigned booze-buying duties.

Three bottles of wine appeared without any bloodshed. A Bailey’s Irish Cream bottle was placed neatly too. But as soon as the V word was spoken, daggers were drawn.

Our man retreated behind the iron racks and emerged with a bottle so small, we were surprised these were even manufactured.

My friend, the brave heart, demanded the bigger one. When the man surfaced from his cove this time, he was holding something larger in size. What that was though, we could only guess.

The bottle had been neatly wrapped in an entire edition of the previous day’s newspaper and was now being stuffed, rather hurriedly, into a black bag.

This is what contraband dealers must feel like every day.

Now some might say I’m getting too emotional about this or that it’s no big deal. But it is discomforting if, as a woman, I get the same treatment as a pill peddler.

If you're doing it, do it alone

I will say this though, if you are buying alcohol, do it alone, with another woman but never with a man.

Because even of you’re in a first rate place like Worli, you’ll feel rather third rate in the area’s wine shop if you walk in with a guy.

All my demands of being handed the Absolut Raspberry bottle were met with a carefully planned strategy of ignorance and insult. The bottle was taken off the shelf alright, but was placed straight into my friend’s hands.

While theories on why women-must-not-demand-hard-booze are multiple, I have come to believe in two.

Most liquor stores in Mumbai are handled by men -- owners, workers, delivery boys, eyebrow archers. Their abrasiveness is often their inability to deal with customers who aren’t men.

The invisible male code malfunctions when an unknown entity appears at the shop front and they look for a familiar anchor to resume balance (refer above Absolut incident).

The second theory is infinitely simpler. And it has to do with simple urbanization.

We’ve moved away, at least in cities like Mumbai, from believing women don’t or at least shouldn’t drink. But we’re still stuck somewhere between the former and women-like-to-drink.

Which is why till it’s wine women ask for -- pretty liquid, served in a pretty, delicate glass -- it’s ok, though not ideal.

The problem begins when they start asking for the non-pretty bottles. Wrapping these in paper and stuffing them inside opaque bags is the wine shop man’s way of maintaining limbo.

This is why when the man at the Bandra shop offered me a rosé recommendation two weeks ago, it was my turn to raise the eyebrows.  

Can I get that bottle -- without the black bag and the newspaper -- please?

Wine shops on my reconnaissance mission

Rustom Wines, shop no 62/A, ground floor, Chawla House, Wodehouse Road, Nathalal Parekh Marg, Colaba; +91 (0)22 2218 9509

King’s Wine, shop No 232, Kangra Bhavan, Dr AB Road, opposite Podar Hospital, Worli; +91 (0)22 2493 8470

The Vineyard, 240 Homai Abad, Linking Road, opposite Amarsons, Bandra (W); +91 (0)22 2643 2988

Living Liquidz, Juhu Tara Road, opposite Mahesh Lunch Home, Juhu; +91 97027 15706

Juben Wine, 329 / 330, Adarsh Nagar, Oshiwara, New Andheri Link Road, Andheri (W); +91 (0)22 6671 3535

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jhilmil Motihar.

Jhilmil Motihar is a freelance features writer, people-watcher and traveler -- often all three at the same time.

Read more about Jhilmil Motihar