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Breaking the Ashes

Breaking the Ashes: The Culture of Illicit Liquor in Sri Lanka

Michele Ruth Gamburd
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Breaking the Ashes
    Book Description:

    "I'm going to break the ashes," yelled one daily drinker to another as their paths crossed early in the morning in the Sri Lankan village Michele Ruth Gamburd calls Naeaegama. The drinker's cryptic comment compared the warming power of alcohol-in the form of his first shot of kasippu, the local moonshine-with the rekindled heat of a kitchen fire. As the adverse effects of globalization have brought poverty to many areas of the world, more people, particularly men, have increased their use and abuse of alcohol. Despite Buddhist prohibitions against the consumption of mind-altering substances, men in Naeaegama are drinking more, at a younger age, and the number of problem drinkers has begun to grow.

    In Breaking the Ashes, Gamburd explores the changing role of alcohol. Her account is populated with lively characters, many of whom Gamburd has known since visiting the village for the first time as a child. In wonderfully clear prose Gamburd offers readers an understanding of the cultural context for social and antisocial alcohol consumption, insight into everyday and ceremonial drinking in Naeaegama, and an overview of the production of illicit alcohol. Breaking the Ashes includes a discussion of the key economic aspects that fuel conflicts between husbands and wives, moonshine-makers and police. Addressing Western and indigenous ways to conceptualize and treat alcohol dependence, Gamburd explores the repercussions-at the family as well as the community level-of alcohol's abuse.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6049-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    One afternoon in 2004, a neighbor came by with her son to visit the family I live with in Sri Lanka. I am a cultural anthropologist. When I do my ethnographic field work, I stay with my research associate Siri and his family in a village I call Naeaegama.¹ That afternoon, our neighbor brought Siri’s father Martin a small gift. Siri walked through the spacious house to tell his father they had guests. Leaning on his cane, Martin made his way to the living room. He saw Siri’s wife Telsie seated in the dining area. Martin, ninety-three years old, with...

  5. 1 Context: Religious, Historical, and Political Frameworks
    (pp. 25-45)

    In this chapter I discuss the wider context in which I situate Naeaegama area drinking. I first examine issues of religious prohibition on the use of intoxicants. Theravada Buddhism requires people to stay mindful at all times—a state at odds with the consumption of alcohol, marijuana, opiates, and other drugs. Despite widespread approval for social alcohol use, particularly at celebrations and ceremonies, the general religious context condemns intoxication. Next I consider the history of alcohol production and consumption in Sri Lanka. Though alcohol has been known in South Asia for at least three millennia, people in Sri Lanka began...

  6. 2 Without One’s Right Mind: Agency, Intoxication, and Addiction
    (pp. 46-67)

    “Alcohol causes a distortion or metamorphosis. The drinker changes into a different person,” Indrani commented. As this dynamic mother of five who had spent over a decade working in the Middle East suggests, observers often feel that ingesting alcohol alters people’s physical responses, cognition, and affective state. Intoxicated people all over the world display similar observable behavioral changes. Despite—and because of—these biological commonalities, drinkers act in socially shaped ways and their behaviors take on culturally specific meanings. In this chapter I examine issues of personhood, agency, and self-control that underlie the discourse on altered states of consciousness in...

  7. 3 We Don’t Say No: Drinking and Identity
    (pp. 68-86)

    Consuming things serves as a major way to display one’s identity. Because people require daily nourishment, the consumption of food and drink provides a superb vehicle for symbolic action. Eating and drinking with others makes manifest not only individual but also group identity. In many societies, consuming alcohol takes on special meaning. Heath suggests, “In some circles, drinking almost serves as emblematic of membership in a social group” (2000, 174). Drinking together creates a sense of community within the drinking group and differentiates that group from others. As Dietler observes, “Drinking serves to mark social categories, boundaries, and identity” (2006,...

  8. 4 Jolly Drinking: Events and Taverns
    (pp. 87-108)

    Above and beyond satisfying the body’s need for nutrition, the consumption of foods and beverages conveys meaning in society. Commensality, the act of eating and drinking together, creates bonds between people. Sharing food both enhances a group’s identity and distinguishes it from other groups. In addition to demarcating groups, comestibles can also indicate status and prestige. The cultural elite and hosts staging special occasions use rare and expensive items to mark their own importance and the significance of the event. The items people eat and drink, and the company in which they consume them, can reveal group boundaries and social...

  9. 5 Home Wars: Gendered Consumption Struggles
    (pp. 109-130)

    Under conditions of poverty, husbands and wives negotiate the use of scarce financial resources. Household economic decisions set the stage for many gendered struggles over consumption, including confrontations about male alcohol use. Given the low salaries and the relatively high cost of liquor in the village, almost any alcohol expenditure harms family well being (see World Health Organization 2004a, 62). Non-drinkers (predominantly women) feel that by drinking, men violate their obligations and neglect their responsibilities. In contrast, drinking men recognize many relevant and persuasive reasons to drink. In chapter 4, I describe how male drinking buddies form reciprocal networks to...

  10. 6 Kasippu: The Political Economics of Illicit Liquor
    (pp. 131-155)

    Kasippu affects everyone. For the people who drink it, it’s bad, and it’s also bad for their families. For the manufacturers, it’s good. They can get very rich—much richer than the sawmill owner or a housemaid working in the Middle East. In this area, kasippu is an industry, like garment factories and tourist hotels. There are a few families living quite nicely on this income.” This is how an informant¹ portrayed the size and scale of the local kasippu industry when I first started my fieldwork in Naeaegama in 1992. In previous chapters, I have shown the major role...

  11. 7 Over the Red Line: Social Rules for Drunken Comportment
    (pp. 156-175)

    A consummate storyteller, Siri had a bottomless stock of jokes and yarns. On the breezy veranda after dinner, he related the following tale: “A man owns a coconut tree. He has cut a blossom and set up a toddy pot to collect the sap, but for three days he has found it mysteriously empty. The next day he hides to see what is happening to his tree. A man who cuts grass for cows comes with a sickle and bag, climbs the tree, drinks what’s in the pot, and comes down. The owner confronts the thief, saying “You drank my...

  12. 8 Too Much Is Good for Nothing: Alcohol Dependence
    (pp. 176-200)

    People everywhere strike a balance between pleasure and pathology when discussing alcohol consumption (Keane 2002). Martin Plant and Douglas Cameron write, “We drink alcohol because it is good for us, and study it because it is bad for us” (2000,237). Small quantities of alcohol are good for the body and facilitate interactions, but excess drinking can cause physical, psychological, and social problems. An anthropological approach to alcohol use explores both “normal” and “deviant” drinking within cultural frameworks (Heath 1987,19; Room 1984). Although the majority of drinking in Naeaegama takes place in a socially accepted fashion for pleasure and camaraderie, some...

  13. 9 A Goddess of Wrath: Treatments
    (pp. 201-228)

    “There’s a shrink on every corner in the USA,” asserted Titus.

    “There’s a kasippu tavern on every corner in Naeaegama,” Siri replied. He continued, “Those are the mental hospitals here!”

    Siri’s claim that kasippu taverns replace mental hospitals in Sri Lanka reflects simultaneously the dearth of actual facilities supplying psychological and psychiatric aid, and the rationalizing fiction that drinking can help people forget their troubles. In this chapter, I examine the resources villagers draw upon for help with dependence and other sorts of abusive drinking. Drinkers’ family members and neighbors often impose informal but surprisingly effective sanctions against destructive drinking....

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 229-236)

    Having read this lengthy discussion of alcohol use in Sri Lanka, the reader may ask what contribution it makes to the literature. I hope this work will illustrate the value of holism in the study of alcohol. In the past, many anthropologists have focused on the functional, integrative roles that drinking plays in society. Indeed, drinking can solidify group identity, enforce kinship links, and allow cliques and communities to differentiate themselves from others. In Naeaegama, drinking serves these functions at village ceremonies and in local taverns. Through specific drinking patterns, people enact identities of family membership, gender, age, class, and...

  15. Appendix 1 Glossary
    (pp. 237-239)
  16. Appendix 2 Village and National Statistics on Alcohol Use
    (pp. 240-243)
  17. Appendix 3 Calculating Inflation in Sri Lanka
    (pp. 244-246)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-260)
  19. Index
    (pp. 261-266)