In the congested Saddar area of Karachi, on a busy street lined with restaurants and cafeterias, rests the Lucky Star Wineshop. It’s not advertised as a place of alcoholic purveyance, but it’s not exactly hidden. A man stumbles up the shop’s steps and passes an empty water bottle through a small, grated window in the wall. He demands, slurring, that he be given a “quarter” refill of whisky: a pawwa, as it’s known in Pakistan.
He also says he doesn’t have any money on him, but he promises to pay tomorrow. The window clerks try their best to send him away. After a while, he curses at them and produces two 100-rupee notes, shouting that he’ll be back for more later in the evening.
Another man walks up to the grated window. He’s visiting from Kerala, India, and he’s enamored by all the different colors Murree Beer comes in. “I wasn’t expecting such a selection,” he keeps laughing. He wants to try the white ones. Silver, the window clerk corrects him. They look white, he insists. The debate is resolved when he orders the light-blue cans instead; Murree Wheat.
Murree Brewery is the largest manufacturer of alcohol in Pakistan, and the only one that brews beer. Established in 1860, the brewery’s bittersweet malt was made by the British to quench their thirst for ale. In the 1940s, it was bought by the Parsi religious community’s Bhandara family. The current owner, Isphanyar Bhandara, considers it part of the country’s rich cultural tapestry.
Ruins of the original Murree Brewery at Ghora Gali, near Murree. Due to lack of water, the brewing operation was moved to Rawalpindi in the 1920s, but malting continued on this site until it was sold in the 1940s. This site was burned during partition in 1947. Photo by: Muzaffar Bukhari
In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, alcohol is both a provocation and a banality, both a grave sin and a ubiquitous presence at get-togethers, weddings, and leftist conventions. Some Muslims don’t drink, others imbibe freely. Dozens of people die from alcohol poisoning every year during celebrations around Eid.
Select shops are licensed to sell locally manufactured liquor to non-Muslims, but people of the faith also come to these shops and walk away with their purchases wrapped in brown paper bags, which themselves are wrapped in blue or red polythene. Pakistanis who go abroad often get hammered at bars, then hobble through the streets of an alien city seeking a halal food restaurant. It’s a perplexing paradox.
Pakistan has a long and complicated history with alcohol. Despite the religious taboo, we remain a dedicated nation of drinkers. The founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, drank; the first democratically elected prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, did as well. He was also the one who prohibited drinking in 1977, after which a totalitarian teetotaler, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, made it punishable by 80 lashes in 1979; the next military dictator, General Parvez Musharraf, drank in enlightened moderation.
I had my first drink at 16 in Lahore, where I also live today. Since it’s against the law, there is no legal drinking age. The drink was a blended Murree Brewery whisky called Vat 1. It comes in a balloon-necked bottle shaped much like the iconic blended Scotch, Vat 69. The legend goes that distiller William Sanderson made 100 batches of whisky and picked the number that tasted the best, the eponymous 69. Murree, apparently, got it right in one.
The spirit filled my room, and my life, with a pungent, mildewed odor. My cousin and I consumed the entire bottle between ourselves and proceeded to take turns throwing up in the loo. Vat 1 has been discontinued since, possibly because all its consumers are dead.