Locked down township hits a high
Blood test, bank work, mobile phone repair…residents have lots of items on their “to do” list once the lockdown lifts. But for those who like their drink, there would be nothing more pressing than replenishing the mini bar at home.
It’s been just over a week now that liquor shops have been allowed to do business and business is booming. Hundreds of customers are queuing for hours and walking home with bottles, smiling to themselves.
Bottle in both hands
Now in his 50s, Kajal Bose, the general manager of Aayash Hotel, had thought he had seen it all. And then he witnessed the crowds that thronged their off shop the first day of business after the lockdown. “It was unbelievable,” he says.
The queue crossed several buildings and reached The Sonnet hotel. From there, it took a right turn till the Inifd building, took another right turn and went deep into the lane. Aayash Hotel staff had to carry mics and walk up and down the length asking people to stand at an arm’s length. Feeling sorry for the tipplers baking in the heat, they even offered them water.
“I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of the first few customers that day,” says Bose. “They cheered, they danced, they showed the bottles to one another and said they had done it! One would think they had won World War III! It was then that I realised that liquor is no less than an essential commodity in our country.”
A week later, the queues have reduced in length but they aren’t going anywhere. “Whenever I look, there are 100 to 150 people standing. I can never see the end of it,” says Pijush Paul, manager of Farina Bar cum Restaurant and off shop next to City Centre.
“Like at ration shops people keep bricks in the queue as proxy and stand under nearby trees or stalls for shade,” says Paul. So long is their queue that the police is putting up a rope barrier after the first 15 people. As of Monday, lathi charges by the police were no longer necessary to rein in the crowd either.
Prince & pauper
The queues comprise tipplers from all walks of life. There are savvy young men in shorts and tees, their hair done up in man buns and backpacks slung over their shoulders, as well as men in vests and chequered lungis folded at the knees. Some sport trendy reflective shades while others spread out their handkerchiefs on their pates to protect from the scorching sun.
Every now and then a passer-by walks up to the counter and enquires if his poison of choice — usually whiskey — is available. If it is, he glances at the queue and decides whether to join it or not.
“I ferried an elderly man here from CK Market for Rs 50,” said rickshaw driver Sanjib Kumar, who has made booze shops his new hunting ground. The frail-looking elderly gentleman had joined the queue for Silver Sands, opposite the City Centre petrol pump. “The gentleman said he would take my ride home if I could wait. I know I’ll have to wait for more than an hour but there are hardly any customers now so I have nothing to lose.”
Proxy from the slums
Some shops had introduced separate queues for ladies but that was last week. “Since the ladies’ queue was shorter and faster, the men began to protest,” says Bose of Aayash Hotel. “They wanted gender equality, we wanted peace and so we removed the second queue.”
Farina had to discontinue their women’s queue too, although for a different reason. “There would always be 50-60 women in line but then we noticed that some of them didn’t look like they could afford such expensive booze,” recalls Paul. “Turned out that genuine buyers were paying Rs 50 to women from the nearby slums to pick up bottles for them!”
Two for sorrow
On Monday afternoon, a shabbily-dressed, stocky young man walked out of an off shop near City Centre abusing the staff for handing him only two bottles despite the long wait in the sun.
“This is a government rule during the lockdown and nine of out 10 people have accepted it. But some black sheep still want to create trouble,” confessed Tarit Dutta, who was managing the show at Silver Sands.
Paul said they were pacifying customers by telling them that the shop will now remain open. “They can finish the bottles and come again,” he says.
Bose has been using logic to show that rationing is but a feature of the lockdown. “Even when we go to the grocery store these days the vendor hands us two bottles of cooking oil and says ‘no more today’. We have to adjust,” he says.
Then again some customers have found a way out. “I bought two bottles each from three different stores today,” smirked an elderly man who did not want to be named. He was seen at all three off shops in the City Centre backyard on Monday. “It cost me a few hours but at least I won’t run out of booze for the next few weeks. It was time well-invested.”
The government is now charging 30 per cent extra for the bottles but most customers didn’t mind, especially since it was being used to tackle an urgent cause.
Soumadeep Saha of AF Block gave it a qualified nod. “The extra cahrge is acceptable only if it is temporary. I remember how they had hiked the price of cigarettes a few years hoping to cushion the Saradha scam, but the prices never went down.”
Sambo Sarkar, an AE Block resident also in queue, felt those buying booze should have indelible ink marked on their fingers. “And anyone with this mark should become ineligible for rations from the government. The tax is all right — other states are charging up to 70 per cent for it — but there should not be misuse of resources,” he said.
The police and staff are also checking identity cards of those in queue. “We are only selling to local people,” says Rahul Khanna, managing the show at Sector V’s off shop Go Where.
Their queues have been serpentine too with staff having to make announcements over loudspeakers to address the hopefuls. “The logic behind checking IDs is to ensure no one comes from afar, which could be a containment zone.”
The scene online
Those scared off by tales of long queues have the option of buying booze online at the West Bengal State Beverages Corporation (Bevco) website. Once the page opens, click on “back to home”, followed by “e-retail” and sign in as a liquor buyer.
The system will locate you on GPS and connect you with the nearest shops. Once a shop accepts the order there will be a confirmation over phone. You can order a maximum of six bottles online that will be delivered to your home in a few hours.
Too good to be true? Well, there is a catch. “Such is the rush for online liquor that the site is crashing within an hour of opening at 10am,” says chairman of the Mishra’s Group, Rajesh Mishra.
Their IB Block off shop is shut as the block has seen some Covid cases and has been sealed off as a containment zone. They are operating online from New Town’s DLF Galleria mall. “If one manages to place an order, the system is smooth. We have hired four men on bikes who go over and drop off the consignments,” he says.
Sector V’s Bakstage is another outlet that has gone online. “All on shops — which are joints where one can sit and drink — stock up on liquor before the party season in winter. They build up stock for three to six months at the time and so we are all loaded now,” says Sudhir Ahuja, director of Bakstage, adding that there is a difference between the clientele of off shops and on shops.
“Eighty per cent of the people at off shop queues now are from low income groups who can wait four to five hours for a bottle. But someone buying single malt will never do that. He would be fine paying a premium to have it home delivered,” Ahuja explains.
Online sales started last Friday and initially the retailers were charging a mark up of their choice on the bottles. But a few days down the line the government fixed the convenience charge retailers could levy at a maximum of Rs 300 per order.
“This amounts to Rs 50 a bottle. It barely covers the cost of the delivery boy’s petrol,” says Mishra. “It makes no business sense to operate like this.”
Initially Bakstage was readily sending cars to drop off booze everywhere from Park Street to Barasat but after the Rs 300 cap, that is no longer profitable. “Now we have to restrict ourselves to a 3km radius, mainly in Salt Lake,” Ahuja says.