“She pours the alcoholic concoction into shiny brass bowls which sparkles in the firelight throwing starry sketches across the mud walls. Offering her man one bowl, the perfect evening is created, phuleswari loves to enjoy her drink every night, sometimes maybe even in daylight hours but these are special times, harvest, marriage, birth of a child and maybe a death too. Sometimes she even doles out a hundred and twenty five bucks for a quarter xxx bottle, boldly acquired at the weekly market, her only indulgence in life. Life sure is simple and honest, these alcoholic redemptions are not about intoxication but its more about a way of living life, where equality is not a concept, where equality is the truth and the way of life…”
The war cry of the bravest warriors in the world – the Gurkhas, “Khoon mein Rakhsi, Haath mein Khukri, Aiyo Gurkhali, Jai Ma Kali!” (Whisky in my Blood, Khukri in my hand, here comes the Gurkha, hail thee Goddess Kali) exemplifies the role of the alcohol as a way of life! The Gurkhas – a warrior clan belonging to the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Nepal which also boasts of being the only Hindu nation in the world love their strong, explosive liquor – the Rakhsi or the duty free rum which they are allowed to carry and consume in wartimes too! Culturally the tribes forming the Gurkhas like the Mangars, Rais, Limbus, Gurungs use alcohol as a part of their culture, Be it marriages, child birth, paying respect to the elders or as part of payments for purchase of valuables like landed property et al, a bottle of rum or whisky does the honours. The bride will offer a bottle of alcohol placed on a brass plate and place it at the feet of all the elders of the groom’s family. The bottle if left untouched signifies rejection!
The mighty “Sherpas” without whom no one till date has dared to climb and conquer the Mount Everest swears by the presence of alcohol in their daily lives and rituals. Be it weddings, births, new constructions, as rewards – in fact even in death, the alcohol plays a pivotal role. When a person dies, a bottle of alcohol is placed near his corpse as an offering and is known as “Kemjyang.” That’s not all, the day after the death, alcohol known as “Sabjyang” is served to the neighbours and after completion of the mourning rites and rituals, alcohol known as ” Jongjyang” is served to all wellwishers as a Thanksgiving ceremony.
Close neighbours in China also regard alcohol as a way of life, the Chinese people invariably raise a toast of wine or whisky to their forefathers to express reverence. They even have alcohol banquets dedicated to the birth and longetivity of a person’s life known as “Jui Xi” starting a month or 100 days after the birth of a baby where the parents invite people for a drink. Similarly an old person’s birthday is also celebrated with alcohol known as the “longevity wine.”
Crossing across to exotica land, the King Jamshed of Persia is believed to have invented the grape wine having medicinal values and now the Parsis brew their own alcohol and use a concoction which is referred to as the “Shah Daru” (Whisky of the Kings) or the royal medicine. The holy city of Varanasi and his inhabitants aren’t too far away too in terms of alcohol being a way of life with the celebration of the annual festival of “Piyali Ka Mela”. It’s a fair held on the first Tuesday or Saturday in the month of November where toasts of the alcoholic kind are offered to two females on either end of the caste line – a Kalika Brahmini and a Satya Chamaron, both of whom presumably loved their liquor and enjoyed the drink!
Setting aside the western culture wherein alcohol is not a derogatory term and where drinking alcohol besides being a pleasure is also a part of the joy and sadness of life and living, the northeastern part of India with its varied culture and diversity is hard to ignore in terms of alcohol being a way of life. The rice beer in the forms of “chhayang” , “apong”, “khaj” et al is like drinking beer in Germany, you have it with all meals in the day. The rice beer from Manipur known as “Sekmai Yu” is more so a regulator of certain health conditions of the women like irregular menstrual flow, infertility, obesity, loss of appetite etc. “Apong” folklores say that the “Mising” community from Assam comes together to drink this ceremonial beer to put an end to all communal conflicts and to garner peace and harmony. The “Jaintais” from Meghalaya swear by the local rice beer “Kiad” which was introduced in the 1800s as a medicinal remedy. It is still believed to be a magical potent and even babies are fed a few drops to grow into healthy and strong individuals. The grape wine from Mizoram “Zawlaidi” better known as the “Love Potion” is believed to make people fall in love with the one who offers them this drink!!
Case studies and research have been carried out in abundance regarding the cultural and social aspects of alcohol and drinking and various results have emerged from these studies – R.H Blum &E.H Blum from San Francisco states, ” In those cultures where drinking is integrated into religious rites and social customs, where the place and manner of consumption is regulated by tradition and where, moreover, self control, sociability and ‘knowing how to hold one’s liquor‘ are matters of manly pride, alcoholism problems are at a minimum…”
And we thought alcohol was all about getting drunk!!
N.B : “When one sees a film like Moonstruck, the benign and universal nature of drinking in New York Italian culture is palpable on the screen. If one can’t detect the difference between drinking in this setting, or at Jewish or Chinese weddings, or in Greek taverns, and that in Irish working-class bars, or in Portuguese bars in the worn-out industrial towns of New England, or in run-down shacks where Indians and Eskimos gather to get drunk, or in Southern bars where men down shots and beers–and furthermore, if one can’t connect these different drinking settings, styles, and cultures with the repeatedly measured differences in alcoholism rates among these same groups, then I can only think one is blind to the realities of alcoholism.” S. Peele