Lali Choudhary, 50, was all of 13 when he learnt to climb palm and date trees. He went on to become a full-fledged toddy (palm wine) tapper and seller only in his mid-20s. Since then, for the last 25 years, Lali’s world has revolved around three words: lavana (an earthen pot hung on trees to collect palm sap); pashki (a ring-like device made from tyres used to climb the trees) and akuda (a hook on the tapper’s waist fastened to the rope that is tied around the pitcher).
With the Bihar government banning all forms of liquor, the demand for toddy, that is exempt from the new order, has gone up. Lali, like the 20 lakh members of the Mahadalit Pasi community, depends on palm wine for his livelihood.
The extraction of the sap happens between April and July. For the rest of the year, Lali does sharecropping or works as a daily wager.
It is the onset of the season now and Lali’s day begins at 6.30 am, when the 50-year-old sets off from his thatched hut in Beduali, which comes under the Naubatpur block of Patna. He had hung three earthen pots on palm trees at the adjoining Fatehpur village the previous evening. The sap collected overnight is called neera and has the least alcohol content. “Neera is a health drink,” says Lali and points out that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar agrees with him. The CM had said this while explaining the exemption to toddy.
The tappers make cuts in the trees and hang the pitchers twice: once in the morning and then in the evening. The toddy collected in the evening has more alcohol content from exposure to the sun.
At Fatehpur, Lali has taken five palm trees on rent for Rs 500 each this season. Earlier, he paid Rs 150 to Rs 200 for a tree, but the ban has pushed up rates. “Now that the government has banned all sorts of liquor, toddy is in high demand. We knew the tree owners would hike the rent, so we readily paid up,” says Lali, now all set to climb the 40-foot-tall tree.
The 50-year-old holds the tree trunk in a tight embrace, wraps the pashki around both his legs and in less than three minutes scampers up and disappears into the thick palm leaves.
Below him, Fatehpur villagers, most of them habitual toddy drinkers, shout out, anxious to know if the pitcher is full. A few women and children too watch the proceedings.
A man carrying husk on his head stops to chat with the group. “He (CM Nitish Kumar) has not done the right thing by banning liquor,” he says, before quickly adding, “But maybe it is for the good. Instead of drinking, the men will at least work and earn some money for their families.” The women in the group nod in agreement.
As Lali climbs down, he complains that the pitcher is only half-full. He has better luck with the two other trees, which give him full pitchers. Lali says that by mid-April, when the plants mature, he would be able to get at least 10 pitchers in a day.
With his stock in hand, Lali seats himself under a tree, where some customers have already turned up. “I do not have to go to any market to sell it. All the stock is sold off within an hour. When the country liquor was available, I would sell four to five pitchers by the evening, but with the ban, everything is sold almost immediately,” says Lali, who has a family of eight, including his parents. Peak season sale gets him Rs 1,000 a day, but now he has to contend with Rs 300 to Rs 400.
The toddy is sold in a small, 500-ml plastic mug. Lali charges Rs 10 a mug. The price goes up to Rs 20 by the end of May, when the sap becomes much sweeter.
The ban has not led to a rise in toddy prices, perhaps because the toddy sellers are still unclear about the new law. There have also been raids at toddy shops since the ban, making sellers “nervous”. Some of the toddy customers too are cautious. “Photo mat lo, bal-bachche wale hain, jail chale jayenge to unhe kaun khilayega (Don’t take my photograph. I have a family, who will feed them if I am sent to jail),” says a man, gulping down his mug of toddy, handing Lali the money and rushing out.
As he places the Rs 10 note in the cloth folds around his waist, Lali says he needs to climb palm trees at least three times in a day to make fresh cuts. This is done to “maintain sap flow”. “It’s a poor man’s drink. You can gain weight if you drink neera for three months,” says Lali.
The tapper and his customers seem a little relieved when told that toddy can be sold at a distance from public places. But they continue to be wary of the new law. “We are poor and half-read people and cannot confront police,” says a villager.
“Selling neera should be no crime. It is our traditional profession. After all, what are palm trees for?” says Lali, before insisting that his toddy has no impurities in it. He also says that there is “no question of any opposition” from the women in the village, one of the reasons cited for the ban. “It is our bread and butter. Who can oppose it?” says the tapper, adding that the women too drink neera and at times, sell toddy in the evenings.
By 8.30 am, Lali has sold most of his morning stock. An 18-year-old boy with a plastic bottle approaches him. “There is no toddy,” the tapper says. After arguing for a few minutes, Lali hands the boy two mugs of toddy. Another teenager, who works as a driver, threatens to break Lali’s pitchers if he does not get some toddy. “200 ml is all that I have,” lies Lali — he has “saved about 500 ml for himself”. “I like my drink but never consume more than 600 or 700 ml a day,” says the 50-year-old, who has earned only Rs 250 this day. Some customers will pay later, he says.
As he winds up his day’s work, Lali admits the constant climbing tires him. He has, however, never had an accident and attributes it to him being “cautious”. “I avoid climbing the trees when there is strong wind,” he says.
Lali though regrets that his profession will die with him. “My son studies in Class VII and is not interested in selling toddy; he does not even come near a palm tree. My nephews work as construction workers. One of them is contesting for the mukhiya’s post in the coming panchayat polls. The toddy tapping will end with me,” he says, adding that his profession allowed him to bond with people of all castes.
It is 9.30 am now and time for the tapper to begin his “other life” — that of a labourer in the fields. “The Chief Minister has done a lot for the Mahadalits. He must not ban toddy. If he does, it will be tampering with nature,” says the 50-year-old, leaving with the empty lavanas.