This is an introductory sample of my next book, a novel, about the relationship between an Adivasi woman and a German missionary woman (my great great grandmother, Doris). Much of this process is thanks to Alpa Shah Alcoholics Anonymous: the Maoist Movement in Jharkhand, India 2010. Modern Asian Studies and Roger Begrich Inebriety and Indigeneity: A dissertation Johns Hopkins University 2013. Let us step into the midst of a 19th century Oraon village in the middle of a much bigger story ....
The following day after returning from market, Singhini began to make a big batch of Mahua Pani. Holi celebrations were to begin soon, raising the demand for Mahua Pani by market people, especially the Dikhu.
In the corner of their living space she brought down a large sack that hung from the roof rafters. This was the last of her stash of dried Mahua flowers that she and her daughter had gathered last April. The first year they collected and dried the flowers and stored the dried flowers in the room where the goats and cow were kept at night. But found that the cow was helping herself to the sweet treat by nuzzling her snout under the cover of the basket. They only figured this out when the cow’s milk began to taste fermented and the cow herself began to act very strange. Of course her mother-in-law thought the cow had within it a spirit, but it was Singhini who solved the mystery when she realised most of the collection of flowers had been consumed. So this year she kept the dried flowers protected by hanging them in an old sari in the family room. Throughout the year, and especially in the monsoon months, she liked the sweetness that came from the bag hanging on the beam. A sweetness that filled their dark and smoky home.
It had been a very cold night and so she was glad to work out in the sun by the fire. First she made the Ranu mixture of herbs with water; poured it over the dried flowers; covered the large pot with a large flat basket; and finally moved the pot to the other pots piled on top of eachother in the shaded corner of the courtyard. The pot would sit for fifteen days. Among the pots was a batch she had made a few weeks earlier. She checked it, concerned that the cold that night might have retarded the process. The batch had nice bubbles on the top and was ready to distill.
By the time the fire was hot she had collected water from the village well. In the first pot directly on the fire she placed the watery fermented mahua flower mixture. On top of that she placed a pot with holes at the bottom to let the steam through from the cooking mahua ferment below. Inside this pot she placed a smaller clay vessel to collect the mahua pani. On top of that she stacked a third pot that held cold water. She didn’t know that this principle to enhance the distilling process was referred to as condensation; all she knew was that for generations her clan had done it this way. Throughout the day she made sure the fire remained hot and that the top pot of water was kept cold; changing it at least five times throughout the day.
While watching the pots, she did other chores around the house. Her husband spent most of the day lying in the sun smoking his little tobacco-leaf cigar. Her mother-in-law had stayed under the blanket in bed. Her children were playing with three other children near the well. She watched Urbas keeping up with them as his sister bossed them around.
Two of their friends were missing. Had the spirits attacked them in the cold of the night? The thought made her scoop out some Mahua Pani from the central vessel to test it; then she poured a few drops onto the doorstep of their house. This might appease any begrudging ancestral spirit who could be after her family.
After a week of brewing, she had many pots to sell at the Melas held in the area that week. The Barra Mela was held every month on the first Tuesday and Wednesday in Gumla, a day walk away. Her husband attached the cart to the village bullocks to carry all the produce from the village including the Mahua Pani made by his wife and other women in the village.
The family, including the mother-in-law, left on Monday morning on the ox cart, down a road the British had built. They stopped halfway to visit the family of the mother-in-law’s brother. Feasting, drinking and dancing went on throughout the night. Singhini did not join in the dancing around the Akra, being ever vigilant to watch over the Mahu Pani that it wouldn’t get used up after the host’s Hadia (rice beer) was consumed.
The next morning her husband, in a drunken stooper, could barely lead the ox cart to the market. Because of their late arrival they sold very little on the first day of the Mela. The parents and their two children slept underneath their ox cart. The next day was much more successful not only for selling, but also for purchasing some new farming tools and other household utensils made of brass, wood or straw.
On the way back they only stopped to pick up the mother-in-law who had stayed with her relatives. Singhini still had more pots of Mahua Pani at home that she wished to sell at the Thursday Mela at a nearby village. Singhini went on her own and sold the wine to other Adivasi. Sales were slow, for most people made their own. But a few who Hindus and Sikhs wanted to stock up their supplies for the festivals.
On Friday she returned to the Mela outside Lohardaga with the last pot of distilled wine she had left. She took the large pot and placed it on her head. On top of the lid she placed a straw mat and stacked the patli cups that she had sewn together of sal-leaves. Mani had taken some of the pani and put it in a small pot that she could carry on her head. Her mother said nothing about if her daughter could or could not come along. Urbus stayed willingly with his grandmother. Mani, like a silent shadow, simply copied everything her mother did, and the mother in return provided no advice. Singhini set out among the fields, followed by a half-size copy of her just as the sun was rising in the mist.
Singhini was grateful to find a good spot at the Mela, next to the road where she was sure she could sell the wine quickly. She laid the mat down on the floor next to a semi permanent raised stall made of bamboo. Singhini placed her heavy pot carefully down on the mat. Mani did the same, even adding the same grunts and gestures.
The glimmer of sunlight reflected off the brass pots piled high on the stall, capturing Mani's attention. The light was wonderful. But then her mouth dropped open, for amidst all these shining objects sat a large-bellied bare-chested man. She had never seen such a belly.
“You! You little pig eater! Go away from here!” the man bellowed at her. Somehow he unloosed himself from his throne among the brass pots, shouting in Hindi. Mani was frozen with astonishment until the towel suddenly flew off his bare shoulders and slapped her across the face. Mani fell into the dusty road.
Singhini instantly came to her daughters rescue and began yelling back at the man in Kurukh. Mani was almost as shocked by what her mother was saying as she was at the slap. The names she called the man had never been spoken in the village, not even when her mother was angry at her father.
The big-bellied man then kicked Mani’s small clay pot and the contents spilled all over the mat, shouting: “Take your foul liquor and leave!”
Mani had seen wonder, that soon turned to astonishment, that turned quickly into things she never heard before, but it was this act that made her burst into tears.
Singhini turned on her as if she was going to slap the child herself: “Stop! Don’t Cry! You cannot replace one water with another. Don’t waste your tears on such a fool!”
As Singhini began to pick up her belongings, she continued to curse the man in Hindi: “We will see who cries now!” Turning to leave with Mani in hand she shot the man such a look that even he turned away and begrudgingly climbed back up on his perch.
Mani was too stunned to cry and hugged the rolled up mat and followed her mother obediently. She had never seen her mother give the evil eye. From wonder to disgust to pain to sorrow her emotions finally settled on fear. Her mother was to be feared.
Singhini approached the center of the maidan thinking she could join the other Adivasi women selling vegetables. But the women’s tongues began to call out to each other:
"Look, this is the one who only the Gora Memsahib will talk to."
"What is so special about her? Oh she has a lame child? Chee..."
"Look, she comes to sell us pani as if we do not have our own."
Singhini kept on walking. At the far edge of the field of vendors she settled under a tree to sell what was left of the fruit of her labor. It ended up being an excellent spot. Various Dhikus, Jains, Hindus and Muslims, who feigned to never touch the stuff, hid behind the tree to purchase the coveted booze. Handing her their bottles to fill, they stood off to a distance acting aloof. Mani held the bottle and Singhini carefully filled them. Then they returned behind the tree to finish the transaction.
By midday she made the last sale to a red-eyed man who then as if drooling, asked if the little girl was also for sale. This soured all Singhini’s feelings of vindication of a productive morning of sales. Singhini’s whole body shuddered at the disgusting proposal. Quickly she wrapped all her money in a red cloth and hid it in her blouse. Picking up the empty pot, she slung it under her arm, and rested it on her right hip. Mani had rolled up the mat, Singhini tossed it on top of her head. Grabbing her daughter’s arm with a tight grip, she dashed out of the Mela, as if she was running from a tiger.
Out from the field of vendors she reached the road and freed Mani’s arm and returned to her usual pace. From the grove of trees alongside the road, she heard a strange sound. It was like the sound of a mating bull, but rhythmic. Forgetting the feeling of fright and disgust she had just felt, her curiosity took over, and she walked through the grove of trees to join the crowd gathered around such strange music.
Modern story of the brew written and video: