In Mid-century Bombay, Aunty Bars Answer a Call for Alcohol
In mid-century Bombay, a group of women found a way around India’s own prohibition with a string of speakeasies.
It all began in 1949. Two years after India fought off Colonialism, Chief Minister Morarjee Desai, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s rather rabid teetotalism (he ascribed all the country’s ills to alcohol) slapped the draconian Bombay Prohibition Act on the city.
According to the April 24, 1950, edition of Time magazine, “To gain the public’s support the Prohibition Ministry offered big fees to informers and aimed a barrage of propaganda at ordinary Indians—who drank vast quantities of fermented or distilled palm sap.” It also allowed four classes of people to purchase liquor from government stores, including; “ 1) foreigners 2) alcoholics 3) Indian military personnel 4) anybody with a doctor’s prescription or users of sacramental wine.” Bombay residents couldn’t even buy cough syrup or cologne without a license.
The city was stamped with bilingual posters (in English and Hindi) depicting men falling into dissipation with skeletal, drink-flushed faces while effigies of the Demon Drink were trundled around town on bullock carts. If you believed the rhetoric, drinking darkened the lives of everyone it touched.
But there was a wrinkle in the plan. Instead of being cowed by the whip of prohibition, the public’s resourcefulness asserted itself. The city quickly settled into fresh patterns. At first sight, Bombay looked deceptively law-abiding; but in the shadowlands, a gentle resistance was growing.
This came about through the proliferation of “aunty bars” (culturally, the word “aunty” is used as a term of respect for elders). These small threadbare rooms gouged out of the homes of bomoicars (Goan dwellers in Mumbai) serving illicit alcohol. Buccaneering middle-aged and elderly Goan women—some of whom were widows while others may have had unemployed husbands—who traditionally brewed alcohol from overripe fruit, ran these speakeasies.
Aunty bars weren’t necessarily places that catered to pleasure in the traditional sense. Men—and it was almost always only men who came—downed their drinks furtively and left. Since they weren’t able to leave with their liquor, they would swallow the entire bottle on the spot.
In this excerpt from his essay “Confidence Trickster,” published in House Spirit: Drinking in India, Pavankumar Jain describes his first experience in one such illicit liquor bar: “It was a dingy dark room, part of someone’s house. The room had a few tables and chairs and was crowded. An old woman, the owner of the house, served the drinks. Lulu ordered drinks for the two of us. I took a very small sip (I was scared of getting drunk), and passed the rest of it to Lulu. He gladly gulped it down.” He recalls a plate of salt crystals and boiled eggs, which he asserts made “the taste of hooch more bearable.” More food was available for sale outside, where “hawkers sold hard boiled eggs, pieces of fried fish and boiled chana. Over the years, these two markers—the dirty cloth curtain on the door and the hawkers selling fish or chana nearby, always helped me locate a hooch joint, even in areas totally unfamiliar to me.” This was perhaps the only way to guess the location of an aunty bar. The only certain method was through word of mouth.
Most speakeasies pooled together in the neighborhoods of Dhobi Talao and Bandra. Later though, an armada of aunty bars snaked across the city. Men of all ages and walks of life began to thicken their rooms, and so popular did they become that many of the aunty’s daughters were called into service. It was not unheard of for the patrons to kindle a romance with these young women. “Many an aunty’s daughter was married off to a Times of India reporter, an upcoming schoolteacher or a prosperous businessman’s son,” writes Roland Francis in his essay “The Goan Aunty” (published in Bomoicar, Stories of Mumbai Goans, 1920-1980). And thanks to the moonshine money, the aunties could shoulder the expense of their daughters’ education.
However, police raids were commonplace. Uncles and grandparents told stories of escaping these incursions, but the aunties were no sitting ducks. They were far too savvy to allow anyone to scuttle their profits, and formed a murky partnership with law enforcement.
“The aunty could [not] thrive without the police, who counted itself a beneficiary of this burgeoning enterprise,” writes Francis, who explains that most policemen, especially Anglo-Indian, Parsi and Jewish ones, turned a blind eye to the aunty’s antics. “It was not unusual for say, Inspector Mistry, to advise an enthusiastic aunty to stock up liquor just enough for her family and leave the neighbours in peace.”
This was not to last though. “After VP Naik [Vasantrao Phulsing Naik] was elected chief minister of Maharashtra in 1963, he relaxed prohibition to kill the culture of bribery and corruption that has taken root in the Bombay police—though I have no doubt that being a big grape grower had something to do with this decision,” writes Francis. Slowly, beer and all kinds of (rather strong) country liquors began to make their way into liquor shops, with brands such as Rocket and Double Ghoda (horse) “whose kick could rival that of the equine variety. Needless to say, it was dealt hardest to the Goan aunty.”
Ultimately, this weakening of prohibition led to the demise of the aunties’ thriving businesses. They faded from the scene, and today, Mumbai’s response to its own alcohol outlawing appears to be obscured by a fascination with the American speakeasies of the 1920s. Sadly, aunty bars seem to have been wiped clean from the city’s restaurant history.