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Drinking is strictly prohibited in Islamic republic of Pakistan.

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    Drinking is strictly prohibited in Islamic republic of Pakistan.

    Worshipping Bacchus religiously
    By Siddharth Varadarajan

    The Times of India News Service
    KARACHI: Officially, Pakistan is dry. No one is allowed to consume alcohol publicly and Muslims are banned from having a tot even in the privacy of their homes. Yet, the country certainly knows how to do some serious drinking. It is common for members of the English-speaking intelligentsia to keep a bottle or two at home, and dinner parties in elite homes are rarely dry affairs. A leading city club allows members to bring their own bottles to its weekend ``Pub Lunch''.

    Although local brands are available, legally for sale only to non-Muslim Pakistanis and foreigners, bootleggers do brisk business in imported liquor. Licensed alcohol shops sell the local stuff - good gin, indifferent vodka, atrocious whisky - to anybody who dares to cross their threshold but charge a hefty premium for rigging the paperwork. The bottle of brandy purchased by, say, an Ahmad Ahsan, will be adjusted against the permit of a Jamsheed Cowasjee or a Mukesh Mehtani. The buyer gets his tot, the permit owner and the police get their share of the filthy lucre, and everyone ends up having a good time.

    In the Hindu mohalla near the Swaminarayan Temple in downtown Karachi, I asked a young man, Deepak, whether the Hindus he knew drank. ``Sach bataoon to Hindu kum peeta hai, Musalman jyada, (The truth is that Muslims drink more than Hindus)'' he replied . He denied that non-Muslims generally sell their permits. ``Some Hindus who are poor might, but in any case everything is freely available. If you like, I will show you where you can buy beer. That too, chilled.''

    At a recent party thrown by a prominent business family in a secluded beach spot outside Karachi, wine, beer and liquor flowed freely and openly. Bottles were displayed at the bar and guests simply went up to it and had the bartender fix them whatever they wanted. Seeing my surprise at this display of defiance and excess, a Pakistani acquaintance familiar with the ways of Delhi's elite remarked that this was just like a farmhouse party in Mehrauli. ``The only difference is that our chaps have chilled the red wine,'' he said ruefully.

    The Burgundy we were drinking was indeed ice-cold. Even if he had messed up the wine, the host had been thoughtful enough to invite the local assistant sub-inspector with a constable to provide ``police protection'' for his guests. Sitting at a respectful distance from the smartly turned out men and women dancing to Jennifer Lopez and Daler Mehndi, the policeman kept a beady eye on his charges. Every 20 minutes or so, a fresh tumbler of whisky (with just the faintest dash of soda) would be brought to him.

    I wondered whether such parties would ever take place legally in Pakistan. ``Of course not,'' said my acquaintance, almost affronted by my thought. ``This is an Islamic country. We will never permit it.'' But then why was he drinking? He smiled sheepishly. ``Iska jawab to upar wala bhi nahin de sakta (Even God cannot answer this question).''

    It is easy for a visiting Indian to condemn the Pakistanis for being a hypocritical lot but the pathology is more complex and not all that alien to us. It is the politicians and generals, most of whom drink, who have forced people to resort to subterfuge, ostentatious defiance or worse. In the days before Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto banned alcohol and ended the licensed sale of bhang, people rarely took drugs or drank themselves over the edge.

    Back at the beach party, it's 3 a m and guests are beginning to drift off. The DJ is playing something by the Vengaboys. The ASI is told that his constable has passed out. He staggers up, furious: ``Sale ko bahut baar bola hai. Agar sharab peena nahin jaante to mat piyo. (I've told him so many times. If you don't know how to drink, don't drink).''

    The only thing wrong about this story is that it is written by an Indian journalist in an Indian Newspaper. Otherwise it is totally true.