by J. Cassar Scalia
Dusk had just descended as the rickshaw pulled up to the guesthouse on the west end of the palace grounds. I’d been staying there at the behest of the Raj in the town of Banswara, a bustling little burg in the hinterland of Gujarat. The Raj, affectionately known as Bapa, was an eccentric Indian philosopher and anthropologist. The royal family of the Kshatriya caste to which he was born had not wielded any true political power since 1948 when the Indian democratic system of government became official, but he still wielded a great deal of symbolic power from within his mouldering palace and remained quite popular and influential locally. This was clear to see whenever he occasioned to stroll leisurely through Banswara’s crowded market streets, always drawing an admiring crowd and sometimes causing a mild hysteria, as some in the town treated him as a god walking amongst them. Truth be told he was known in many different capacities to many different people. I knew him as my professor and research supervisor.
The rickshaw came to a sputtering halt just a few meters from the bench in front of the guesthouse where I sat reading. Hamraz’ wide smile greeted me from the passenger cabin. Sitting alongside him was a disheveled, grey-haired man of perhaps fifty years who could only be Ghalib, “the drunkard”. Over the past ten days Hamraz, who served as a kind of cultural attache and attendant for the Raj, had quickly become a good friend. He spoke Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu and English and was a great help in contacting and communicating with relevant persons for my ethnographic research of the culture of ‘desi daru’, bootleg liquor. Ghalib was one such relevant person.
From my preliminary research on desi daru, I had learned that it was produced from the fermentation of various indigenous vegetables, fruits, roots and flowers and that it was a hot commodity on the black market in Gujarat, the only remaining state in India that strictly prohibits alcohol. I had also discovered news reports about toxic ingredients such as shoe polish and battery acid sometimes making their way into the fermentation process. Every year throughout India there are tragedies in which dozens and sometimes hundreds at a time, die from consuming contaminated batches of desi daru. Many more fall ill, often going blind.
Clutching my shoulderbag which contained a bottle of water, a notebook and a DVR camera, I climbed into the back of the rickshaw. Hamraz quickly introduced me to a warmly smiling Ghalib and we rode off; bound for the ‘desi daru drinking pit’. The particular pit that we were headed to was located on the outskirts of Banswara and it was one of Ghalib’s favorite haunts.
The rickshaw ambled down the first leg of Banswara’s hopping main street before turning right, taking us northward as Ghalib shouted out directions to the driver over the noisy motor. We kept on for a while, away from the town center, meandering around bends as the roads turned to dusty dirt lanes. Out here at dusk, everything seemed to have a monochromatic sepia tinge, from the dirt road, to the cement-slathered houses, to the dusty stray dogs and cattle aimlessly wandering about.
In between intervals of shouted directions Ghalib sang. His neck craned outward from the cabin so that his voice spilled mostly into the oncoming wind. His song would pause momentarily and his head would turn back into the cabin as direction dictated.
“What is he singing?” I asked Hamraz. He leaned in toward Ghalib to listen closer, lingering there as his singing continued. Ghalib’s voice trailed on with a slightly out-of-tune sweetness. After a short while Hamraz leaned back. “It is an Urdu song. He sings ‘We are leaves from the garden of Ñër, far from the garden I am, far from the garden we both are.’
We finally came to a stop and climbed out of the rickshaw at the end of a humble row of one-story houses. Hamraz and I followed Ghalib into a sparsely wooded clearing until we arrived at a cluster of trees that were joined by wire draped with canvas, forming a kind of fenced-in ring. There were a few ragged looking men with dust-covered brows and bloodshot eyes lingering near an opening in the fence where a husky man with a thick black moustache stood tall. This was the entrance to the desi daru pit. We greeted the moustached doorman and he allowed us entrance giving me a funny look that I couldn’t read one way or the other.
Inside the fence, sitting, standing and crouching in small groups were roughly twenty patrons, all men of the lower castes. They were Vaishya (shepherds and cowherds) and Shudra (the lowest level of manual laborers). To our left sat the wine vender in a metal folding chair. He was a young man in his early twenties holding a thick wad of rupees at the ready for dispensing change. He was dressed crisply and had sharp, sober eyes, distinguishing him from his many customers. At his feet was a big black canvas bag filled with little plastic baggies of desi daru.
Shortly after we’d settled in, the doorman came into the pit area looking directly at me as he approached us. He stated firmly but respectfully in English, “No camera, no camera.” I replied in Gujarati saying “jee ha.” indicating that I understood. This was to be expected considering the illegality of the enterprise and would of course be a major obstacle to my intended ethnographic film research. But getting video was furthest from my mind at present. My alien eyes seemed invasive enough and I was thankful just to be allowed entrance.
I sat taking in my surroundings. The ground area was a well-trodden dirt pit. Dangling from a wire tied to a tree branch was a single lightbulb which cast the scene into a strong light and shadow contrast. It was the only light source, save for the moon which peeked through a small clearing in the leafy branches which made a kind of canopy over the pit. Men sitting at varying distances from us were looking curiously in my direction smiling or smirking. Some waived and said ‘Hello!’ or ‘How are you!’ as many men in Banswara are wont to do at the sight of foreigners in their midst. One man after making his purchase, neared me and stated quickly, “How are you! I love you!” unloading perhaps the full extent of his English. Others did not notice me or simply paid me no attention. They puffed on bidis (leaf-rolled tobacco), ate nuts and drank their desi daru.
The drinkers were mostly middle-aged though a few young men that couldn’t have been more than twenty (and likely from higher castes) made purchases but didn’t linger in the pit. Some of the men drank out of small cups. Others drank straight from the plastic bag making a small puncture in one corner of the bag and then squeezing the contents into their mouths. A bag of desi daru drunk this way is finished in seconds.
Ghalib purchased both kinds of the desi daru that were offered. One was called Mosami, a clear pale-yellowish liquid. The other called Ananas was red-orange in color. He explained to me through Hamraz’ translation that the Ananas was twice as potent as the pale Mosami. He squeezed the Ananas into a little white cup and offered it to me. I politely declined. He responded with a wry smile and implored me, still smiling but with serious eyes. I accepted his offer, taking a few sips from the cup, with the last sip causing me to wince a little, to Ghalib’s delight. Chuckling along with him, I took another pained sip as Hamraz looked on with his wide smile. Ghalib then sat back, sipped, puffed and pointed out the full moon lodged in the leafy canopy overhead. Gazing reflectively at the moon through the rising smoke from Ghalib’s bidi I had the suddenly emergent thought, I’ve never been so far away.
That night was my only visit to the desi daru pit, having abandoned the research for something that lent itself to filming. A few weeks after I’d returned to the United States, I happened on a BBC news report, a side story about a contaminated batch of bootleg liquor that took the lives of 120 people in rural Gujarat, regionally close to where I had visited, what was in fact the latest in a perennial string of tragedies. Whether this tragedy affected any of the men I’d met on the outskirts of Banswara I’ve never been able to determine.
Sitting here in faraway Philadelphia, I close my eyes. I can see familiar faces close at hand in the moonlight, the men laughing and leaning against the canvas fence, the white moon peaking through the trees, Ghalib smiling, sipping, singing to the wind: like me you’re a leaf from the garden of Ñër, far from the garden I am, far from the garden we both are.