Saturday Features

Aila can be more than just an alcoholic beverage or social lubricant

  • To me, aila is more than an alcoholic beverage or social lubricant – aila is accepting my roots
- ASMITA MANANDHAR

Dec 22, 2018-

Every once in a while, my father’s second cousin drops by with a five-litre gallon of aila, the Newari liquor. My father’s aunt prepares the beverage in her backyard by distilling fermented rice and packs a gallon for my father whenever he asks. Later that evening, my father prepares himself for a ritual he calls, ‘aila manangement!’

He pulls out half a dozen empty bottles from the kitchen cabinet, a designated slot for liquors, a mini bar of sort. He immerses the bottles in a large pail of boiled water and along with the bottles, he drops a two metre-long transparent pipe into it and lets it sit for about an hour. Then he takes a clean cotton cloth and wipes the bottles before placing them onto the dining table one-by-one. After all the bottles are thoroughly cleaned, he drops one end of the transparent pipe into the gallon and carefully inserts a cotton ball into the other end, then transfers the aila into the bottles. Before screwing the caps on the bottles, he drops a different herb in each one and labels them. They are then shelved back inside the same kitchen cabinet.

My father is very careful and meticulous at this job, and it is certainly one that he enjoys. He lets out a big grin after he is done as if giving a pat on his own back. But more than the aila management, he enjoys when he can serve it to our guests.

While growing up, I never really understood his routine. I wasn’t sure why he was so excited to serve the liquor to visitors, as he wasn’t much of a drinker himself. He, however, had a good taste for it and only preferred the aila delivered by someone he knew would ensure the quality. “A good aila can be medicine and a bad aila can be poison, but this is the finest,” he would proclaim to his guests while serving them.

I don’t remember when I was served one. We were offered the liquor as shaga— good luck—on our birthdays or on occasions like graduating high school or travelling outside the city. But growing up in a Khas-dominated suburb, I wasn’t comfortable admitting this to my friends. After all, we were the generation that did not learn to speak our mother tongue so that we could assimilate smoothly with our Nepali-speaking peers. Especially during adolescence, I understood the social structure from their lens—a pure diet doesn’t include buffalo meat and alcohol, yet those were the things sacred to us.

However, whenever my parents hosted ‘chhoila and aila’ lunches, it was from their Khas friends that they used to get the most compliments. “These just taste wonderful, may be because we don’t get to have these in our homes,” I remember when one of the guests remarked.

That hypocrisy was my saviour; I told myself that aila could be their secret, not mine.

Aila is the offering made to the gods and the blessings received from them. It isn’t just an alcoholic beverage or a social lubricant. As I look back now, my father’s aila chores signified his spirit of offering respect to the other, silently pronouncing—as it is offered to the gods, to our ancestors and now to you—the guest. Aila was my first lesson in social etiquette.

Every year at Indra Jatra, this takes the most literal form. A pipe is fitted to the mouth of the Swet Bhairab and liquor poured through it to a waiting crowd. The mob tries to drink the liquor, believed to provide good health and immortality, according to local legends. This year, I followed a throng of women to the mouth of the god and struggled through the crowd to get a taste of the immortal potion. Aila was accepting my roots.

My father always served me liquor during festivities. He wanted me to understand the taste of alcohol so that I can tell when my drink is spiked, if I had to. Aila was growing up for me—it was my father’s love and his cautionary tale. 

Manandhar tweets at @asmitamdr

Published: 22-12-2018 10:29

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