May 23, 2020

A run-in with an enterprising grandma moonshiner in Kirtipur results in a bottleful of brew with a kick that takes me on 20 km walk to Bhaktapur.

The nooks and crannies of Kirtipur fell silent with not a soul in sight. Barely audible metal clanks, revving tractor engines and indistinct chatter seemed distant. Under the warm winter sun, inescapable siesta was perhaps culpable for the deserted streets. Couldn’t blame them as a runaway from the revolving office chair for my nerdy self after prolonged bouts of coding error was well deserved. I walked around enjoying take-away bara to appease a growling tummy and a bottle of Coke shot down to quell that sugar craving, decidedly non-alcoholic keeping a later professional rendez-vous in mind. I swung the empty coke bottle in the air, walking up towards Uma Maheshwar Temple atop the hillock, looking for a trash can.

As I walked up the dodgy cobbled alleyways, it would take the most harmless action of carrying around an empty plastic bottle to discover Kirtipur’s cheeky secret. Little did I know an aimless stroll along the streets of the old town would result into a monumental intoxicated march to Bhaktapur.

For in the midst of silence and calm came a low pitched summon, “Oh baucha!” I heard an aged voice calling from somewhere in the endless row houses that surrounded me. “Oh baucha,” she came again. I looked up to hardly make out a grandma figure hidden behind flower pots on the roof making gestures I couldn’t comprehend.

“Hajur?” I duly replied.

I looked more closely and saw she was giving me a repeated and frantic thumbs down. Perplexing to say the least.

“Hajur?” I asked again, confused.

She wasn’t speaking and just moved her lips and gave a thumbs down, almost as if she didn’t want anybody else to hear.

“Say it out loud,” I said.

“Raksi hal ne ho bhanya?” she finally shouted aloud, almost getting annoyed. She was offering me a batch of her homemade moonshine.

Now for a little background. The moonshine in question is Raksi, a clear but slightly murky triple-distilled local brew of millet base, rather tough on the nose but surprisingly smooth on the throat way south. Though technically wine, there’s nothing Victorian about it, especially considering the way it’s drunk – traditionally from tiny dirty tea cups or straight out of jerkins (Nepali for jerry cans) by bandsmen in weddings, followed by primal grunts of approval over sittan or munchies comprised of bone marrow extracts, medium-rare brain matter along with deep fried innards and chewy goat testicles to name a few popular delicacies raksi goes well with. The drink is served in almost all Newari festivals (sorry Brahmins) and social gatherings, and often consumed as God’s offering. Also called local tharra, tin-pane and solmari, the drink comes in several varieties depending on ingredients added, yet the essence and spirit of the drink remains the same. Revered as it is in festivals, it’s interesting though unsurprising to note that raksi gets an unfavorable rap among infuriated wives waiting for their husbands to return home from late night debauchery in bhattis serving said spirit discreetly and less-than-legally so.

That brings us to our next point: raksi can only be produced and consumed personally, and can’t technically be sold commercially. Hence the thumbs down in Kirtipur that turned out to be granny’s cryptic gesture to fill the empty Coke bottle with raksi. Epiphany!

I had no reason to decline the non-conformist grandma’s offer and happily played along. “Thaana waa,” she ushered me down the street and into a quarter well hidden from Big Bro’s watchful eyes. It was her micro brewery, a secret lair in a shabbily kept hall of an abandoned construction site. Not a brewery you’d imagine with mile-long conveyor belts, skyscraping smokestacks and an army of blue collar workers a million strong. But rather we walked into the lady’s beau, her partner in crime, stirring metal pots stacked up on a firewood furnace. A giant drum in the corner meanwhile steamed of freshly prepared raksi that smelled like sweet heaven.

“How much do you want?” the lady asked.

“To the brim,” I replied adventurously, trying to reinforce her idea of the maverick of a drunkard she assumed I was. I dropped a meager Rs. 80 for a bottle full of authenticity and fun I walked out of the micro distillery with.

I sat on the ledge by Uma Maheshwar, the highest point of Kirtipur, and soaked in the good vibes. Over swigs of the handcrafted spirit, the bird’s eye view of Kathmandu from the temple couldn’t have gotten any better. The lovely taste complemented the ambience, the sights, the breeze and the peace. Little by little I felt thrown to what could be called a state of trance until I realized the bottle was almost totalled and that I had a meeting to attend in Bhaktapur some 20 kilometers away. I downed the last gulp and proceeded to stand up, only to discover that the mellow taste of the spirit was a far cry from the punch it packed. The world in front spun and instantly put me back on my throne and gave a reality check. Though barely, I got hold of myself and in an attempt at sobriety embarked on an epic journey to Bhaktapur – on foot.

Long story short, a few hours later I found myself struggling hard to hold a straight face at the meeting, which thankfully after what felt like forever concluded without arousing suspicion. In a poetic justice of sorts, sandwiched between bleating, constipated goats and compatriots reeking of the same spirit on a bus back to Kathmandu was no laughing matter. The inconspicuous run into Kirtipur’s grandma had taken a toll and sent me to bed with a promise – albeit in retrospect a short-lived one – to never again touch Raksi.