RAGHUNATHAPURAM, India -- It was a momentous event: Women by the hundreds rampaged through the local liquor store, throwing the inventory into the streets and smashing the bottles with broomsticks. For added measure, they shaved the heads of a few soused men.
The motive was self-defense.
In India's vast countryside, where most of this nation's 930 million people live, getting drunk is a common way for a man to finish his day. Drinking all too frequently leads to wife-beating: A husband wants some of his wife's scant earnings for more drink. A quarrel erupts when she chooses to put food on the family table rather than liquor down his gullet.
Now, the women of a thousand Indian villages have gone to war against booze. Their uprising has attracted the attention of politicians, so temperance has become a national issue. In 1995, liquor was banned here in Andhra Pradesh, the state where the revolt began. In 1996, another state, Haryana, went dry as well.
But declaring whiskey taboo is not the same as making it disappear. As fans of American gangster films know, prohibition brings along its evil twin, bootlegging. Criminals cannot wait to play bartender, and crooked policemen are content to look the other way. In "dry" hamlets like Raghunathapuram, the men still come home with liquor on their breath.
"We were better off before," says Balla Kausalya, the forceful woman who led the attack on the liquor store here in 1993. "Before, there were two whiskey outlets out in the open; now there are 40 off in the shadows. And the liquor is more expensive. Our men are wasting more money than ever."
On a recent day, the forbidden drinking began as darkness came. Day laborers had returned from the cornfields and rice paddies with their $1 in pay. Weavers were no longer at their looms turning out simple white cloth. The oxen had been uncoupled from carts heavy with grain. Dinner fires glowed beneath red earthen cooking pots.
Kadkam Tulasidis eased into his liquor the way another man might put on a comfortable pair of slippers. Sitting on a log, he took a swig and relaxed.
"I drink because it gives me a good sleep, and it makes me wake up fresh," Tulasidis says, using an excuse so common here that it seemed to be the village motto.
At 50, he was a decayed-looking man with poor posture. The whites of his eyes were cloudy with brown. His face was wrinkled like the binding of an old book. He has eight children, including the one who brings liquor home on her bicycle, hiding it beneath her shirt as if it were poached game.
In India, the moonshine is called "arrack." Most often, it is fermented from sugar cane; sometimes, it is flavored with overripe fruit. Tulasidis' half-bottle cost him 60 cents. It packed the same sudden fire as tequila but left the aftertaste of a cheap brandy.
Tulasidis explained the beating of his wife. "When she pesters me about money, it goes against the very reason I drink in the first place," Tulasidis says. "Her nagging provokes me. It makes me feel rage. I have to shut her up."
For a while, this answer satisfied him. He was content with his cleverness, a man who knew to avoid his conscience. But finally, as his wife looked on, he grudgingly showed a trace of shame.
"Actually, I only hit her maybe one in 10 times she nags me," he says.
Modern India has never quite known what to do about liquor. Mahatma Gandhi called drinking a "more damnable vice than thievery and perhaps even prostitution." India's Constitution calls upon states to "endeavor to bring about prohibition," and several measures have been tried: dry areas, educational campaigns, consumption taxes. But, always, booze finds a way.
Morarji Desai, the nation's prime minister in the late 1970s, had a near-manic hatred of liquor, though his personal taste in beverages was itself suspect. He began each day with a steaming glass of his own urine, urging others to tap into their own "healthful" supply.
The odd temperance of Desai was followed by the expedient tolerance of his successors. Liquor, amply taxed, kept the states flush with revenues.
In Andhra Pradesh, the state's chief minister during the mid-'80s was N. T. Rama Rao, an actor who had played so many Hindu demigods in the movies that he seemed one in real life. Rama Rao brought the government into the liquor business, manufacturing state-approved arrack and selling it in state-approved stores. Drinking was almost a mark of good citizenship.
"Even the nondrinkers became drunkards then," says Balla Kausalya.
With 60 million people, Andhra Pradesh is the fifth largest of India's 25 states. The poor and landless fill its villages. Women work right beside their husbands in the backbreaking toil of the fields, but by custom only the men consider liquor a tranquilizing rite at the end of a hard day. Men drink until their minds fog up. By some estimates, 40 percent of the state's rural men are alcoholics.