In a country where the yeast for fermenting alcohol is as holy to some Nepalis as the cow is to others, embracing the fiery sweet homebrew is nearly a civic imperative.
It was a warm evening, the days long and the fields in my village barren before the monsoon, when I tasted jãd—Nepali for homebrew—for the first time. I must have been six, or maybe even younger. I remember not being put off by the mush of fermented rice and asking for more—it was cooling, it filled me up, and it made the world go atilt. I remember dancing all the way home. Even now, when I think of that evening, the smile on my face stretches from ear to ear as I recall the fading evening and the warmth that radiated from my belly.
My teenage aunt who had taken me to her friend’s home for a visit and a few glasses of the homebrewed beer gave stern warnings about not letting anyone at home know what we had been up to. This was to be a pattern in life—an uncle or aunt opening the door to the forbidden morsel or sip, then asking me to keep the experience a shared secret.
We had a good reason for secrecy—my grandfather is a Hindu priest; most meats and all alcohol is forbidden in my family. So a piece of pork or buffalo meat, or a bowl of beer—of rice, wheat, maize or millet—became an escape from strictures inherited through the accident of birth. It became the first act of casting away the inherited self; it became the first rebellious gesture of moving towards a personal morality that clearly was at odds with the traditions of my family.
Raksi, aila, homebrew—my fondness for the rendered or raw spirit has grown because I have found new depths in the sip and the cup: it has liberated me from old cages, it has invited me into new homes. The foremost struggle for men of my generation in Nepal has been the square reckoning with inherited privileges—of gender, region, language, caste, religion. In a country where the marcha yeast for fermenting the beer mash is as holy to some of my friends as the cow is to my family, to embrace and love jãd and raksi is nearly a civic imperative.
Every sip of raksi is a charm spoken to the soul. It colors experiences, thickens the bond between companions old and new, pushes the willing individual to extremes of ecstasy and stupidity. With luck, we let raksi guide us to a few indiscretions that become the nagging grains of sand that transform into lustrous pearls painted with experience, beads on the abacus of our lives. Raksi strips away the mask over the true world, hidden in our moments of sobriety.
There is a lady at Newa Lahana, a community-run restaurant in Kirtipur, who haunted my dreams for a year—if I hadn’t visited the restaurant in more than a month, she would appear in my dreams, pouring me a clay cup of aila, letting the alcohol drop from a meter or more above, making the ‘thousand eyes’ froth that is the testament to the brew’s potency. “I haven’t seen you in a while,” she would say with her wide smile. She still says that when I go to her restaurant, even though it isn’t more than a couple of times a year. What she remembers about me, she says, is the fondness with which I drink the rice liquor she pours.
I didn’t know it then, but I understand it better now—raksi helped me leave behind one world and step into another. The world I left behind was shaped by gender and caste prejudices. To share food and drink with menstruating women or men of certain castes was to become ritually defiled, rendered impure, and unworthy of caste privileges.
But the world I entered—with glasses of the finest raksi or with hot skewers of barbecued pork—was also better kindred to the person I recognized myself to be: fond of food and conversations, welcoming of strangers who had a story to tell, quick to raise a glass, quicker to empty it with gusto. In my world we share the bottle to the last drop, lean on each other to find the way home or to further adventures. This world is full of boisterous bastards with oversized opinions, but very little friction or hatred. We may be shouting over each other, but we rarely shout at each other. We have, after all, shared in the Mother’s creation—the fiery sweet brew.