On a damp winter evening in the Esplanade neighborhood of Kolkata, India, Shibaji Mahato, 55, heads to his local watering hole. He works in construction in a nearby building. Already at the bar is Bhaskar Das, a fruit and vegetable seller. Shibaji, Bhaskar and many others who throng this bar are all drinking Bangla, a colorless, odorless, flavorless and potent alcoholic beverage with a complicated role in Indian history and culture.
The word Bangla has several meanings, only some of which relate to alcohol. Bangla is the language residents of Kolkata and India’s West Bengal state speak, and the term is often used to refer to the state of West Bengal, almost as an identity.
As a beverage, Bangla has no set definition. Almost any country liquor made with whatever grain is locally available in West Bengal can be referred to as Bangla. Regional differences abound.
“In West Bengal, most of the country liquor is made using the starch of sugarcane or molasses and fermented rice,” says Sanjay Ghosh, a spirits expert popularly known as Dada Bartender whose YouTube channel, Cocktails India, has more than 550,000 subscribers.
Contemporary attitudes toward this drink can incorporate an array of inherited classist and casteist stigmas.
“Manu disapproved [of] drinking by the Brahmin caste on the ground that liquor was obtained by the decomposition of rice, and it was manufactured by a lower caste who was untouchable,” writes Raktim Sur, associate professor at Herambra Chandra College of Kolkata, in A History of Liquor: Response and Resistance in Bengal (1790-1906). While Hindu and Muslim aristocracy occasionally celebrated milestones with alcohol, Sur writes, most of that happened in private.