In overturning a 1914 law that prohibited women from tending bar here in the capital, the Supreme Court of India this month not only raised a glass to changing social mores in this country, but also gave Indian women access to one of the most lucrative jobs in the new economy.
Prosperity has resulted in the proliferation of trendy bars across urban India and, as upscale as some of them are, with a glass of Bordeaux costing as much as a laborer’s weekly wage, drinking in the minds of middle-class Indians is beginning to lose its whiff of vice and danger.
On any given night, in any fashionable barroom in big-city India, women can be seen drinking merrily — sometimes even without the company of men.
Alongside annual restaurant guides, there are now guides to bars. Time Out magazine reviews bars in Mumbai and Delhi, which would not be such a big deal were it not in India, where until a generation ago, going out for a drink was considered the preserve either of the very rich, who could afford private clubs, or of the ne’er-do-well, venturing out to a rough-and-tumble saloon.
Indeed, a hotel management student named Aditi Soni, 20, said even her grandmother, a schoolteacher, had come around to the idea that working in a fancy hotel, with a fancy bar, was not such a bad idea for a woman.
A bartender, Ms. Soni has pointed out to her elders, can easily rake in more than $1,000 a month, which is more than triple the salary of a call center worker, for instance, or that of a waitress at a high-end restaurant.
She had originally considered bartending as a career, but chose to study restaurant management instead after realizing that it was illegal in Delhi for a woman to tend bar. This week, Ms. Soni saluted the court ruling with a big, broad smile, and said she was glad for the new opportunities.
“It’s lucrative, in the money sense and the fun sense,” she said. “It’s very happening. It’s an action-packed job.”
And yet, the stir over who can work as a bartender signals an abiding ambivalence over the subject of alcohol — and women serving it. Each of India’s 29 states has its own laws governing the sale of alcohol, and many, to varying degrees, restrict women working behind the bar.
In Mumbai, for instance, India’s entertainment capital, women are prohibited from working in bars past 8:30 p.m., a law so rarely enforced that Shatbhi Basu, a celebrity bartender who is the host of a drinking show on television and teaches a bartending course, was not quite sure when women were supposed to clock out. Many employers ignore the 8:30 p.m. law, she said, but afford their employees safety precautions, like sending them home in a company car.
Nor do the city police seem to enforce another charmingly antiquated regulation that requires drinkers to present a doctor-certified permit that declares them medically in need of drink.
In Chennai and Bangalore, two of India’s high-tech capitals, bars — which usually crawl with young people — are supposed to close by 11 and 11:30 p.m., but often do not.
In any case, Ms. Basu pointed out, few women tend bar anywhere in India, and she did not expect the court ruling to compel women to join the profession in large numbers. In her bartending course, women remain rare.
“It’s not about the court; it’s about the family you come from,” contended Ms. Basu, 48, who began tending bar in 1981. “Girls want to. At the end of the day it’s the family that rules. It’s all about the honor of the family — what will happen, will you be able to get married, all that stuff.”
The Hotel and Restaurant Association for western India, which includes Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is considering an appeal to its state government to relax the 8:30 p.m. rule. The Supreme Court ruling does not directly bear on other state laws governing the sale of alcohol.
The Supreme Court ruling was prompted by a lawsuit filed by the Hotel and Restaurant Association, an industry group, in Delhi. The government had justified the law on the grounds that working late hours was potentially dangerous for women.
After the Delhi High Court ruled against the law, a private citizen took it up to the Supreme Court, where lawyers defending the law cited the case of Jessica Lall, a model-turned-bartender who was shot and killed at an exclusive restaurant here in 1999 after she refused to serve a demanding patron.
In its verdict this month, the Indian Supreme Court cited a United States Supreme Court case deriding what it called “‘romantic paternalism’ which, in practical effect, put women, not on a pedestal, but in a cage.”
If women could work as police officers and chief executives, the court opined, how could the law keep them from tending bar? The justices called the 1914 law “invidious discrimination perpetrating sexual differences.”
For Anushika Pradhan, 25, who came to Delhi a few years ago from a small northeastern city called Gangtok, the court ruling meant finally coming out of the bartending closet. For nearly six months, while working as a hostess at a five-star hotel coffee shop, she had been learning the craft in secret downstairs at a pub called Dublin.
The day after the court rendered its ruling, Ms. Pradhan, dressed in a black pantsuit, was behind the bar, tugging at the beer tap, fixing whiskey and sodas and smiling self-consciously for all those who recognized her. She had been anointed by local news media as the capital’s first female bartender.
“Hey you were on TV!” one man exclaimed. Another, inebriated, tried to lean over the bar a few times before security guards urged him along to his room.
Wrestling was being broadcast on the flat-screen televisions on either end of the bar, with one man holding another’s head between his knees.
One of the waiters summoned Ms. Pradhan and returned a cosmopolitan that she had just made. “Too strong,” was the customer’s verdict. Ms. Pradhan looked befuddled.
“Too strong?” she asked, and added a dash of soda.