The humid air of the streets of Sekmai village is abuzz with conversations in harmoniously tonal Meiteilon, the lingua franca of Manipur. Little bars, generally referred to as “hotels” and run out of homes, overflow with bands of men.
They come into the town, 19km south of Imphal, in their faded denims and t-shirts sporting their beloved footballer or rock star. Pulling out Lilliputian wooden benches from a pile against the wall, they flock around candles waxed into the ground and then conversations range from South Korean films to Messi’s goal to changing state politics.
Steel plates filled with greasy chicken, pork and kellichana dressed with chopped cabbage come in first. Glasses of yu, a fermented rice liquor that is consumed in frightening quantities by the Manipuri men, follow soon after.
Tribal communities of the region are not prohibited from brewing their traditional liquors in this otherwise dry state and the best brews taste like Japanese sake. Often, there is also a subliminal whisper of an herby ingredient akin to that of the Korean soju.
I savour the warmth of one of these small makeshift bars, the spicy smells and the casual banter on the streets while sipping the home-made liquor. Some stare as I request a second glass. Patrons at these gatherings are usually too engaged to notice a stray tourist, but a woman quaffing yu is a rare sight.
Manipuri women don’t drink, Diana, the owner of the mom-and-pop shop, tells me. “At least not in public,” she says with a laugh.
Incongruously, all of the liquor is traditionally made by married women, especially in the Lois community. All through the day, while men take care of the fields, women eke out a living by engaging themselves in the preparation of yu in the mornings and selling it to bigger breweries and at their hotels in the evenings.
I think the industry is a star example of the feminist movement in India. But Diana dismisses the thought with a wave of her hand: “We all need to fill our stomachs. How does it matter whether a woman does it or a man?”
Dressed in a traditional phanek, Diana, 39, moves about swiftly in her backyard, which doubles up as a kitchen. She pours out glasses of phayeng yu and dextrously tosses chicken in sauces with her other hand. Her mornings are spent tending to the fermenting brew like she would care for her two children; feeding the liquor the right ingredients, protecting it from bad weather, nudging it to the right degree of fermentation and so on.
There are two key ingredients to the drink: flattened, dry disks called hamei, which are made up of a chopped and powdered wild creeper known as yangli, and rice. The locals prefer unpolished rice for its superior nutritive quality, on which the liquor feeds on and blooms.
The cooked rice is known as chakngan, which is then washed by pouring water over the basket and letting the water drip-dry through the sieve.
The more traditional method calls for spreading the rice thin on a mattress instead and letting it cool and dry—a longer and tedious method. Washing helps wash away the starch and allows quicker fermentation and the impatient brewers rather adapt to this new method. Hamei is then crushed into the rice and the mixture is transferred into a basket lined with the leaves of a tree known as Flame of the Forest.
Under the warmth of the dark leafy blanket, the brew is left to ferment for four to five days during summer, and a little longer during the cold winters in the hills. It is then distilled in a yukok—an apparatus perfected over the years by the women of Sekmai. The first few litres, known as yu machine, is top-drawer stuff and the liquid gold fetches the brewers a few hundreds rupees for a litre.
“Yu not only intoxicates but also heals,” Diana says, as we continue talking. “The Lois have consumed it during auspicious occasions like birth, death, festivals and marriages for centuries and still observe the ancient methodology and taboos while making the brew. One has to take a bath before working on it and make sure no fruit touches the mixture.”
“The ultimate liquor is so pure that there have been no known deaths due to contamination,” she declares.
A Lois by origin, Diana learnt the craft from some old women of her community who lived in the neighbourhood. Academics suggest that members of the community are descendants of settlers of the disciplinary colonies, where war hostages and crooks were incarcerated.
Legend, meanwhile, claims that Lois, the Dalits of Manipur, were part of the Meitei clan. They were pushed out to the margins of society—to the fringes of the valley—on the orders of influential Vaishnav pandits some 300 years ago when Hinduism was introduced in the region, because of their “immoral” occupations such as brewing country liquor and rearing pigs.
The Lois refused to convert and oblige the Hindu dictators and Christian missionaries, clinging to their traditional Meitei religion and age-old culture. As they gradually rose to power, the Meitei kings also cracked down on the indigenous tribe and collected taxes from them, pushing them further outside the community. Soon after, they were pigeonholed with the appellation lois, which roughly translates to low-caste or slaves.
The Lois were discriminated against in temples, village festivals, trading and schools, much as Dalits were treated in the rest of India. The Meitei students sat on the verandah while Lois children were expected to study under the sun. The tutor would touch their books with a long scale and food served to them at schools was in smaller quantities.
The changing times have encouraged endogamous marriages between the two communities—a prohibited practice until a few years ago. But a Lois man or woman who marries a higher caste Meitei is still expected to undergo a purification ceremony called laiming louba, presided over by a Brahmin, before they move in with the family.
But Diana’s yu shop does more than merely bring the margin to the centre—it makes it a place of vibrant delights.
The liquor is just one aspect of what makes mingling at the hotels—with wide array of people—a much-anticipated activity. In a region torn apart by insurrection and draconian laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa), the hotels offer an illusionary cocoon.
Men in olive often poke into the hotels, sneaking a few packets of yu into their vans. And the women habitually oblige. Boys are stopped in dark corners and roughed up just before they reach Sekmai village. But crowds come in spite of it all.
It’s a usual sight, even on weekdays, for insurgents to put aside their causes for an evening spent in the company of yu. And Diana offers them not only her brew but also what the Manipuris call funga wari liba—folktales. A story. A sort of escapism. “Almost 10 years ago, a Japanese man stationed for work in Imphal came in to nurse his homesickness,” she reminisces.
“O! Meiteileva sitmahua, Woongrum kashangla leisheya… ” Diana sang to him in her squeaky but sweet voice; a song that harks back to the Burmese war.
“When Burma and Manipur were at war, many Meitei families fled to Tangkhul highlands to escape the outrages of Burmese soldiers,” Diana says, referring to the early decades of the 19th century.
Manipur was in a state of great political instability after the death of Maharaja Bhagya Chandra. When one of his successors approached the powerful Burmese empire to intervene in the internal affairs of Manipur, Burma invaded Manipur in 1819.
Many Meitei fled to hills, but by the end of seven years of Burmese rule, the population of the valley was apparently reduced to about “2,000-3,000” people, with scanty proportions of women and children (according to R. Brown's Statistical Account of Manipur).
“When the war was over, a few returned to the valley while many stayed back. This song was sung for a lover left behind in the valley,” Diana continues. The song and drink perhaps took her Japanese visitor to a place deeper than memories, as folk songs and wines generally do. “Almost a year later he came back with tea from Japan. That night, he said, had been his favourite night in Manipur,” Diana says with a smile.
Tonight, she is a perched atop a stool, her husband hovering, almost invisible, with glasses of yu in the background. She narrates an old folktale of three princes who were sent on a mission by their father, the king. A few young men at the hotel listen, while the rest continue talking or watch football reruns on their phones.
“The younger son finished the mission and returned before others and the enraged older brother fought with him and there ensued a battle of gods,” Diana unravels the petals of the story one after the other, though often the crackle and roar of the youngsters drown out her narration.
The enchantingly framed and whimsically imagined narrative springs into valleys and hills, castles and dungeons, through thick fogs and over tall mountains. She rushes through a few scenes, warbles through others.
A tale or two later, with the wavering candlelight, balmy air and clinking glasses of yu, an air of soporific contentment falls over the room. Wars, history and pasts may not be forgiven here, but at least they are forgotten during the course of a tipsy yu-induced evening.
• Origin of the Lois (see here)
• Meitrabak by Nandalal Sharma
• Research material by Manganleibi Loktongbam, University of Hyderabad
• R. Brown, Statistical Account of Manipur, Mittal Publications, 1874
Nidhi Dugar Kundalia is a compulsive traveller and the author of The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions.
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