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‘अरक चाना बानाओ, सीम्मा

रक्सी खान आउ है, कान्छी’

My father always says that the Rai people are “backward and lead a life of self-destruction” because there is too much alcohol in our culture. He has kept himself away–almost as an antidote–from even the smallest droplet of alcohol. The idea that we are a “backward” people has stuck with me for a long time, growing stronger as I read and heard our community’s scholars echoing the same ideas. I figured it was time to find out what I believed. So I set out to confront the people of the place where my father had constructed his beliefs, his hometown in Bhojpur–Sikteltar. 

There, I questioned the men about why they drank alcohol excessively. In their answers, they brought up issues to do with religion and power. “Sumnima, the wife of the first Kirat man, Paruhang, created it and used it for various reasons,” they said. “Hence, we too must consume the gift of the goddess that fills us with courage and vigour.” 

When I asked the women the same question, they revealed their private burdens, stashed away as if in a box. Each box was full of stories known to the whole village, but never truly comprehended by anyone. There are a lot of these boxes in Sikteltar, and they are deeply personal. They are filled with the pain of losing children to cancer, to suicide and difficult-to-pronounce diseases; with the stiff mental stress arising from escalating debts; with the sweat and exhaustion from working a whole day under the scorching sun. But all will be forgotten, though momentarily, with the first sip of a bowl of homemade liquor. 

Surprisingly, the women admit they are addicted to alcohol, or arakkha, as it is known in the Rai language, and some of them can’t function without rice wine or umma. Some have tried breaking their drinking habit and have even migrated to fizzy drinks such as Mountain Dew, only to find themselves crawling back to alcohol after a few months. A stop on brewing alcohol in the first place would make things easier: many have suggested this idea. But the women say, “We need jaanrko chokra (spent grain) to fatten the pigs and alcohol to serve our guests and neighbours. Pigs give us meat and money, and guests, prestige.” 

For two-and-a-half weeks, I stayed with the women, whom I refer to as nini and muma. I went into the forest with them to collect fodder, and to the fields to sow corn seeds. We ate together, danced at weddings together. Their days started with the smell of local alcohol brewing in a corner of their homes and ended with the taste of alcohol lingering on their tongues. While many would view this as a ‘problem’, I viewed their relationship to alcohol as a symbiotic act of sustaining a life full of hardship. The skill of making alcohol had been passed on to the Kirati women through generations and they are simply holding onto it. They are using whatever means they have and know to make their lives a little easier to live. 

The alcohol brewing starts as early as 4 in the morning so that the women can do other house chores during the day.
Every landowner must offer arakkha or umma to the neighbours assisting them in the fields.
More than 50 years ago, the land in the photo belonged to many different Rai families. They sold their land to other families to support their Dashain and other expenses. During the 1980s, one family bought all the pieces of land and sold them in one piece to the late Jaya Prasad Rai for NRs 100,000. This fertile land now supports four families in the village.
To make the traditional rice wine, various grains like millet, rice, and corn are cooked and mixed with marcha, a traditional amylolytic starter, and kept in an air-tight vessel to ferment. After a few days, the mixture, now called soom, has a sweet-sour taste and gooey texture and is extremely aromatic. I am offered to taste and say if I like it.
Doko (a Nepali bamboo basket) filled with Chindo (dried gourd, used as a traditional canteen for water, alcohol, or any other liquid, is also an important ritual vessel) hangs on the wall.
Amrit Kumari Rai, 46, stopped drinking liquor and rice wine after she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and had to start taking medicines around five years ago. These days, she enjoys drinking a bottle of lager beer when someone offers it to her or brings it as a gift.
The plaster on the wall falls out piece by piece.
Bhaati jaanr (rice wine) helps beat the heat during a long day in the field.
Rita Rai, 47, does not drink but has to brew alcohol for her husband and father-in-law.
“If I was suffering a lot, perhaps I would be drinking a lot. Thankfully, I am not,” says Harka Maya Rai, 56
Bishnu Kumari Rai, who has been drinking her whole life, does not drink much now, at 71, and even when she drinks, she says that she does not create a scene like others.
Sikteltar’s climate isn’t the best for wild rhododendrons, but a few trees have come up in the area, and the women adore it. 
In a Rai wedding, the groom and his family offer alcohol, pork, and other delicacies to the bride’s family and relatives. The same alcohol is then used during the ritual of worshipping the ancestors of the bride, in the presence of the groom for the first time.
Kodoko jaanr (millet wine) in the making.
Women and men dance the night away at a wedding.
“Perhaps one day I’ll stop drinking. But will I really?” says Pabitra Rai, 59

The photo essay was made during the International Storytelling Workshop 2020, hosted by Photo.Circle (Nepal) in collaboration with Oslo Metropolitan University (Norway), Pathshala South Asian Media Academy (Bangladesh) and VII Academy (USA). It is a part of a documentary film which will be premiered at Pame Film and Music Festival in September 2020. 

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Sikuma Rai is a visual storyteller based in Lalitpur, Nepal. She has been involved in the media since the age of 18 and has been in multimedia journalism specifically for the past three years. "अरक चाना बानाओ, सीम्मा” (Come over for a drink, Kanchhi) [2020] is her first documentary. She can be reached at [email protected]