After coming to Odisha, I was invited for a wedding for the first time in a tribal village. I decided to go for it. Outside Kerala, I have only seen north Indian weddings, that too only in movies. This was going to be a completely different experience. The venue was decorated will a lot of effort. Everyone in the village was invited. The houses here are built close to each other. People celebrate all the occasions together.
People from nearby villages were also arriving, with gifts. One member from the family kept on counting the gifts and making note of it because one day they will have to return the favour. Those who can’t afford gifts help manually for different activities during the wedding such as decoration, catering, coordination etc.
How wonderful is that! I used to be a part of such activities back in Kerala but not here, until now.
In their traditional dress, along with the bride, her friends and other women were carrying out the rituals for the wedding. After greeting them, I sat where all other guests were seated. I am the centre of attraction because I had my digital camera and everyone was noticing me taking pictures. I went in, where people were being seated on a mat on the floor.
I turned my face towards my colleague to check if he has any clue of what is going to happen next. He said that they will give us something now. They came with glasses and a big clay pot which had a white coloured drink. It had an appearance of milk shake but from their attitude and the giggles of my colleague, I understood it was alcohol. He also confirmed it.
In most of the tribal villages in Odisha, during occasions like festivals or weddings, they make a special item in their home called ‘Handia’. It is a local alcoholic drink, also known as rice beer. Every household in the village makes it. This is served to close relatives as well as to people arriving from nearby villages, and in small quantities to family members too. After this, they dance and serve a heavy meal including kheer.
At first, I was fascinated by this custom but then I reconsidered the impression because I noticed a 6-year-old consuming alcohol. Even at my hometown, consuming alcohol during celebrations is common but children are not even allowed near it. Here, they could be seen consuming it in a good amount. Local people talked about Handia’s health benefits and its low alcohol content. I verified it with online research, through articles that validated what I had heard.
However, what particularly disturbed me the most was when a child, after having a glass of Handia, began acting like he’s drunk, just for fun. He went and showed off in front of his friends, behaving as if he is intoxicated. When I looked around, I observed that a lot of children were acting in the same way. One of the kids raised his glass while another one refilled it. He then took a sip, spit it, drinking only a few drops. It may have alcohol content equivalent to wine and in some countries, wine is consumed with food even by children but nowhere have I seen or read about such a behaviour.
What is the need? Is it also a part of the culture? Is it appropriate?
I am worried that these children will eventually slip into consuming high content alcohol when they grow up and they might even start using banned smokeless tobacco. Not only this, movies can also be an influencing factor. Additionally, alcohol use among parents can make children go down the same path. When I look at children in the slightly higher age group, 8-14, I see them consuming alcohol and other tobacco substances which might have started like this.
Won’t this be the first step of these children getting into alcohol use? I am not saying that alcohol consumption is wrong but it should be done at a certain age and within a limit. Such practices increase the probability of spoiling a child’s youth and leaves its impact in the long term. Here, even when adults get addicted to these substances, there is not enough awareness or availability of rehabilitation facilities.
If a tradition seems to be a curse for the society, then it should be stopped and not considered traditional anymore. We are aware of many such traditions which turned out to be harmful to the society. One among them was Sati. Until Sati was banned, it was considered to be a ritual and had to be followed. Maybe this incident of children consuming alcohol has struck me only but I could completely see a youth population who follows this as a tradition, and it soon becomes addiction.