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Breaking the Ashes

The Culture of Illicit Liquor in Sri Lanka

Michele Ruth Gamburd

Publication Year: 2008

"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.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 3-8


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Writing is never a solitary activity, and I owe thanks to a number of people for the assistance I received in completing this book. First I want to thank my research associate, R. B. H. “Siri” de Zoysa. Siri is my guide, my mentor, and my protector. I rely continually on his enthusiasm and meticulous eye for detail. ...

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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. ...

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1. Context: Religious, Historical, and Political Frameworks

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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. ...

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2. Without One’s Right Mind: Agency, Intoxication, and Addiction

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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. ...

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3. We Don’t Say No: Drinking and Identity

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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. ...

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4. Jolly Drinking: Events and Taverns

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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. ...

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5. Home Wars: Gendered Consumption Struggles

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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. ...

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6. Kasippu: The Political Economics of Illicit Liquor

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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. ...

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7. Over the Red Line: Social Rules for Drunken Comportment

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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. ...

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8. Too Much Is Good for Nothing: Alcohol Dependence

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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, ...

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9. A Goddess of Wrath: Treatments

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pp. 201-228

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. ...

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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. ...

Appendix 1. Glossary

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pp. 237-239

Appendix 2. Village and National Statistics on Alcohol Use

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pp. 240-243

Appendix 3. Calculating Inflation in Sri Lanka

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pp. 244-246


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pp. 247-260


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pp. 261-266

E-ISBN-13: 9780801460494
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801446603

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: 1