ON THE NEPAL INDIA BORDER — As the midday heat gives way to a pleasant evening breeze, a palpable shift begins to take place in the composition of the crowd flowing from India to Nepal across an open border.
Initially, there are Nepalese, including a large number of women, who return home after a quick shopping trip for cheaper goods and groceries on the Indian side. Two women in colorful saris split the load from a heavy bag and each grabbed a handle. A man carries a fan in the back of a bicycle rickshaw, the blades turning in the wind; another pedals his bicycle with a single watermelon on his back.
But when it starts to get dark, much of the crowd crossing the border is made up of men who usually come empty-handed. Men with government jobs, shirts tucked in and shoes polished in the morning, who are dropped off in their vehicles at the border. And men who pedal their bicycles with heavy legs and heavy thoughts, the tools of their daily trade dangling in a bag by the handle.
These are Indian men entering Nepal for a drink or two – or as much as they can squeeze before the police blow a whistle and the roadside bars close around 9pm
Barring moments of political tension, the India-Nepal border has been an example of how open policies help border people make wider economic choices. Take as an example the needs of the motorcycle, here a favorite mode of transport: spare parts are cheaper in India; fuel is cheaper in Nepal.
That openness has been especially welcomed by local drinkers since the Indian state of Bihar, which has more than 100 million inhabitants and shares a border of more than 400 miles with Nepal, banned alcohol in 2016. A small industry of bars and restaurants has just sprung up across the border on the Nepalese side, catering to Indians of all classes looking to quench their thirst.
The ban in Bihar, championed by local women, was aimed at tackling the rampant problems of alcoholism, domestic violence and wasted income. The penalties for being caught drinking alcohol are severe. A first-time offender must pay hundreds of dollars in fines or spend a month in jail; repeat offenders are sentenced to one year.
The government of the state’s chief minister, NitishKumar, has said the ban has helped reduce violence and crime, although the border’s proximity and ease of crossing it have lessened the law’s effect.
The ban has also raised challenges. The judiciary is full of alcohol cases. The state loses hundreds of millions of dollars in alcohol taxes every year. And booze is still available – smuggled in and sold at double or triple the price.
An Indian farmer, straddling a bench in one of Nepal’s roadside bars with two bottles of cheap grain alcohol in front of him, said the prime minister won the election because women vote for him in appreciation of the alcohol ban.
But the farmer, Mr Gupta, who only shared his last name because he planned to break the law by taking alcohol across the border, said the policy simply pushed up the price of alcohol because it was still available. but at two or three times the price.
While still on the Nepalese side of the border, he bought a third bottle to take with him, wrapped it in his scarf and tied it to the back of his bicycle. As he staggered back to Bihar, he assured anyone who could hear him that he was not drunk.
The open border area is vast, and so is the diversity of the evening alcohol scene that has grown over it in Nepal.
The well-heeled from India drive to the city of Janakpur, or the sought-after hillside areas, where the bars are air-conditioned, the alcohol is imported, the scenes boisterous – and sometimes off-putting.
At a hotel bar in Janakpur, when the men got tipsy around the table, they yelled “bottom up!” addressing the waiters with derogatory names as they ordered the next round. At another hotel, the unease of being seen drunk in Bihar still seemed to grip two men who had passed by for lunch, pouring their beers into mugs discreetly tucked under the table.
Umesh Yadav, a Nepalese university teacher from the border town of Jaleshwar, said the economic opportunity of an open border far outweighs minor problems associated with an increase in drunken customers.
“Obviously, when they drink there are problems sometimes,” he said. “But the police are always there.”
In the Maruwahi section of the border, there is a lot of drinking in the mango orchards that line the dividing line, at picnics where it’s all about what’s in the bottle, not a food basket.
Men in small groups joke and laugh as they slurp from plastic bottles, their bikes parked nearby. Others squat under trees as they receive their bottles from the vendors making their rounds—bartenders on the go. Some drink in the quiet company of a friend – or in the company of their own thoughts, gazing at the sun slowly disappearing over the shoulders of a group of Indian border guards in the distance.
In a village about a mile from the orchards, a bar owner said he had recently installed surveillance cameras – but had to remove them after a few days when his customers disappeared, fearing they were being filmed.
The border point at Mahottari is a kind of equalizer. Crowds of all kinds mingle in the dozens of simple shacks that serve as bars.
“We used to sell education, now we sell alcohol,” said Kundan Mehta, who had a book and stationery store in Bihar before setting up Hotel Navrang on the Nepalese side about five years ago, with a smile. “I tell them, ‘Enough studying, son, now have a drink.'”
Inside, a small television strapped to a bamboo pole broadcast a live cricket match. The walls were decorated with posters of a Bollywood actress, a Hindu spiritual leader and horses laden with inspiring quotes about going for what you want.
A customer, Ravi Kumar, wanted a drink from Golden Oak, a cheap local grain alcohol.
“You know you can’t get a drink there,” said Mr. Kumar, a farmer, pointing to India.
He crosses the border about twice a week to drink — more often than that wouldn’t be affordable, he said.
“If you do too much” – he raised his fist with outstretched thumb to his mouth, sign language for drinking in this part of the world – “then you need” – he rubbed the fingers of his right hand in the sign for money.
Ankit, 22, who works for a local bank about an hour from the border, had endured a long week working towards the deadline to complete hundreds of loans. He had taken the bus straight from work to the border to eat the local delicacy of fried fish. Ankit, speaking on the condition that his family name not be used as he illegally smuggled some alcohol back to India, mixed beer with a bottle of local spirits.
“It helps me release some of the stress,” he said.
While Ankit was paying his bill, he bought two small bottles to take with him. A Nepalese woman in an orange sari was waiting at the counter, ready to earn a small fee for her upcoming smuggling mission.
“Let’s go,” Ankit said. “I’m getting late, I’ll miss the bus.”
“Roji-roti,” replied the Nepali woman and smiled. Local slang, it literally means “daily bread” and carries the connotation of one’s livelihood.
She tucked the bottles into the waist of her saree and led the way.
Birkha Shahi, the commander of the nearby Nepalese border post, was understanding. He said his troops are not really cracking down on one or two bottles that are being smuggled, but are focusing on large-scale smuggling.
“We get tired of grabbing them, but they don’t get tired of trying,” he said. “Roji roti.”