09 May 2017
6 min read
562 words
From the Archive (Feb, 2016): How a decanter seals fates of Newar households

Surja Maya Maharjan welcomes me into her living room with a glass of aila. She pours the brew in a graceful arc from an old copper anti, a long-beaked Newari pitcher for serving alcohol.

“I don’t let anyone leave my house without their drinking some of my aila, poured from this little beauty,” she says. “Alcohol plays a significant role in Newari life.” The decanter has pride of place in the dhuku kotha. The dhuku kotha is the small storeroom found in most Newar households, and many of them have become veritable storehouses of cherished artifacts that family members collect, sometimes over lifetimes.

For Surja Maya, 72 now, the year 1980 was all about collecting and putting the pieces of her life together. She spent that summer growing chillies, and the winter, she spent in her dank basement, making haku patasi, the traditional dress worn by Newari women.

She depended on the sale of the chillies and the dresses to put food on the table for her family and put away a little savings.

She remembers how she would go door to door that year, trying to sell the chillies and haku patasis.

“Most people would refuse to buy anything. Some would rummage through my stock but end up not buying a thing,” she recalls. After a year spent making endless rounds and knocking on strangers’ doors, Surja Maya was able to put together a small pile of savings.

Today, that year of drudgery is why she has Roji Maharjan, her eldest granddaughter, who loves hanging around her grandma.

“She is a mischievous one, and perhaps that’s why she has my heart in a vise,” says Surja Maya.

“In 1980, my daughter’s marriage was arranged with a man who was to return from abroad after a year,” she says. “I had a year to collect every single item required for a proper wedding.” Surja Maya was determined to celebrate her daughter’s wedding without having to compromise on anything.

“I didn’t want anyone to be under the impression that my daughter came from a poor family,” she says. In a Newar wedding, it’s imperative that a family showcase a respectable anti during the big day. A proper pitcher was out of Surja Maya’s reach.

“I knew my daughter would have to face shame and humiliation if I offered alcohol to my son-in-law from an ordinary pitcher,” she says. “The respect I gave my son-in-law during the ceremony would define how he would treat my daughter for the rest of her life.”

From her savings, she bought the anti for Rs 900, which back in the 1980s was a significant sum for her.

“When I poured aila from this anti for my son-in-law during the wedding, I was so excited. And so hopeful for their future,” she says. As Surja Maya Maharjan finishes her story, she asks her granddaughter to pour some more alcohol. “I need to take care of some things around the house. Roji will take care of you now,” she says, handing over the anti to her granddaughter.