Breaking the Ashes: The Culture of Illicit Liquor in Sri Lanka
By Michele Ruth Gamburd. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, November 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8014-4660-3, $65; paper: ISBN 978-0-8014-7432-3, $22.95. 266 pages.
Review by Rupa Pillai, University of Oregon, Eugene
In her latest publication, Breaking The Ashes: the Culture of Illicit Liquor in Sri Lanka, Michele Ruth Gamburd presents a holistic examination of alcohol use in a Sri Lankan village. Considering family dynamics, societal norms, and economic implications, Gamburd navigates the reader through the complexities of the illegal drinking that plagues this village. To direct her analysis, Gamburd employs the following themes: the relationship between consumption and identity, the political economy of alcohol, and how problem drinking is defined and handled. In tackling this project, she immediately situates herself as a non-drinker who remains committed to delivering an objective study that avoids passing judgment or proselytizing teetotalism. She confesses the personal nature of this endeavor spurred through observing and experiencing the effects of overindulgent drinking during her years of fieldwork, but confines this narrative to the introduction and conclusion, thus allowing the bulk of her research to be unprejudiced. The resulting text is an illuminating and enjoyable ethnography of alcohol consumption in Sri Lanka that empowers the reader to arrive at his or her own conclusions.
Over the course of nine chapters, the reader is introduced to the village of Naeaegama where Gamburd has conducted her research for years. In this Sinhala-Buddhist village, the proclivity towards drinking is attributed to the nation’s colonial past. In an attempt to mimic the colonizers and local elites, individuals began to drink in excess to elevate their status. The resulting colonial hangover led to a myriad of social issues, from domestic violence to the reworking of gender roles. The increase of alcohol use and abuse in recent years is largely understudied because of its illicit nature. While alcohol is legally permissible in Sri Lanka, much of the society cannot afford legal forms of alcohol because taxation drives up the cost. Kasippu, the drink of choice of the working class, is the illegal and cheap alternative. By writing this ethnography, the author hopes to provide a more accurate portrayal of alcohol use that NGOs and governmental organizations have failed to capture in their studies.
Utilizing her unique position as an anthropologist, the author accomplishes her goal by demonstrating how ethnographies can be a useful tool to study an illegal aspect of society. Without fear of punishment, informants spoke candidly about alcohol habits. Gamburd deftly weaves these conversations together to illustrate how drinking is altering Naeaegama’s community. Alcohol occupies an ambiguous position in the village. It builds and strengthens relationships as well as alienates and isolates individuals. As a symbol of masculinity, men shared drinking stories about how drinks are purchased among friends, eluding the police, and drunken misbehavior. Women discussed how alcohol abuse affected the family by limiting household funds and prompting many women to become the breadwinner. These changing gender roles correspond to the relaxing attitudes towards drinking and the increase of alcohol abuse during the past years.
An additional strength of this text is Gamburd’s employment of current scholarship on alcohol use to inform her analysis. Including cross-cultural comparisons, the author demonstrates how the use of alcohol exists in many cultures, but the motivation, methods, and perception of drinking varies. Of considerable interest are the varying views of alcoholism. In Western societies, alcoholism is conceived of as a disease. However, in Sri Lanka, the disease conception is rejected; “villagers therefore view alcohol-dependent individuals as morally weak” (183). This rejection of alcoholism as a disease complicates how individuals address alcohol abuse. Villagers seek out various approaches such as medical treatment and religious rituals to combat this problem. The inclusion of Kali rituals as a deterrent is particularly fascinating. Kali worship, considered socially unacceptable in certain segments of society, occasionally requires alcohol to invoke and converse with the goddess. To pledge sobriety to her is ironic and leads to questions about religious and ethnic identity in the village.
This insightful ethnography has a few drawbacks. While the author identifies the conception of the problem, she fails to suggest a possible approach or solution. Additionally, the text suffers from its limited examination of the issue of Sri Lankan identity and its civil war. Besides a few cursory mentions of the war, the author assumes the reader is acquainted and understands the struggle for a unified Sri Lankan identity. This raises questions regarding whether and how the dispute of the national identity is played out in drinking. While this text cannot address every angle of drinking in depth, the reader should remain aware that this ethnography examines effects in a Sinhala-Buddhist village; otherwise, the reader is liable to view Naeaegama as representative of all Sri Lanka, which may not be accurate. Moreover, the reader would have benefited from a deeper analysis of the religious dimension of alcohol consumption in connection to ethnic identity. Gamburd does include stories of how Buddhist text has been used to condemn and condone alcohol, but what are the implications of seeking sobriety through a Hindu goddess?
Regardless of these minor criticisms, this well-written book will appeal to an audience beyond the anthropological. The project may have been motivated by personal reasons, but the author successfully produced an objective book that will be an excellent text to teach. Her use of theory is productive and graspable. It also provides an excellent entry into Sri Lankan culture and society in addition to an introduction to the pertinent literature and debates concerning drinking behavior and habits. Gamburd has achieved a text that demonstrates the value of ethnography beyond the discipline where “[its] findings can prove useful in crafting treatment and public health initiatives” (6).