Not every restaurant in Varkala has a licence to sell alcohol, but that doesn't seem to discourage them from doing so, and it's one of Varkala's more amusing traits. 'We also have beer, yes,' is a common enough introduction to the menu, at least at those restaurants whose menus completely fail to mention alcohol. At restaurants such as this, the waiter is only too happy to bring you a bottle of slightly chilled Kingfisher, though depending on how jittery the restaurant owner is feeling, it might either be served in a glass, or if there's been some recent interest from the authorities in the illicit selling of alcohol, you might get a large ceramic mug with a big handle that's large enough to hold half a bottle and a generous head.
'Please,' says the waiter as he delivers your beer, 'in case of police,' and with that he puts the bottle on the floor by the side of your table, winking at you conspiratorially.
This is all fine and dandy, until the police actually come a-calling. We were enjoying an under-the-table beer at one of the sea view restaurants in Varkala one evening, when a policeman wandered past and started talking to the Tibetan shopkeeper below, his neatly pressed khaki uniform with its black shoulder braid looking even more authoritarian when surrounded by the slapdash lungis and dhotis of the local businessmen. The wave of gentle apprehension that swept through the restaurant was visible, the diners exchanging looks and wondering what was going to happen next.
'Police,' whispered the waiter, stating the obvious as three more khaki-clad heavies wandered down the path.
'So what do we do?' asked Peta. 'Do we drink all our beer? Or pretend that we brought it in ourselves?'
'Maybe they will not come up,' said the waiter, surprising us with a big grin. Meanwhile the police chief waved up to the restaurant and the owner, an old man in a particularly well-loved dhoti, wandered down and started talking to the policeman's shoulder braid, avoiding the officer's eyes and looking for all the world like a naughty five-year-old who's hoping his mother won't find the empty cookie jar.
'They came last week,' whispered the waiter, 'and gave us a warning.'
'Ah,' said Peta. 'So what happens if they find the beer this time?'
'Then it is bad trouble for the owner,' he said. 'Legal trouble. But look, they are leaving.'
'That's good,' I said.
'But they will be back in half an hour,' he smiled, appearing to enjoy the conspiracy. 'We must be careful.'
And off he went, returning a few minutes later with two ceramic mugs, into which he poured the rest of our bottles, taking the bottles away and hiding them out of sight of any prying officials. No matter that exactly the same ceramic mugs are used to hide beer by all the unlicensed restaurants along the strip, or that they're much more suited to hot chocolate than the kind of drink you would have with your evening meal, because evidently it doesn't take that much effort to satisfy the police. When you consider that illicit beer appears on the bill as 'pop' – albeit pop that costs Rs80 a bottle, some five or six times the price of a bottle of Coke – and that those restaurants who break the law would surely have a rather incriminating stash of empty Kingfisher bottles out the back, let alone a profit margin that wouldn't stand up to much scrutiny, the conclusion has to be that the police know it's happening and tolerate it to some extent. Presumably they give out the odd warning and maybe come down hard on those who step out of line, and they probably also take the odd bit of baksheesh to make sure the machine of commerce remains well oiled, while still looking fierce when walking around town.
Whatever the reality, it's clear that there's a balance that benefits the restaurant, the tourist and, somehow, the police, as in some places the pretence wears pretty thin. Despite their warning, the restaurant in which we were enjoying our ceramic beers proudly sported Kingfisher tablecloths and Kingfisher ashtrays, and the glasses we'd been using before switching to the hot chocolate mugs were emblazoned with the Kingfisher Strong logo. You can almost picture the scene, with a red-faced policeman saying, 'Are you selling beer here?' while the restaurateur looks at the ceiling, whistling nonchalantly and trying to push a box of brightly coloured Kingfisher merchandise under the table with one foot.
But hey, this is India, where the rules are so flexible they can sometimes appear bent, and if it means you can drink a cold beer while the sun goes down, perhaps it's not such a bad thing after all. Cheers!