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Triumph of the spirit : Rani Shullai

At 87, Rani Shullai exudes warmth and cheer, much like a glass of her sparkling homemade wine, says Nilanjana Sengupta

Even before Indage, Grover and Sula hit big time selling their wine in India in the 1990s, Evelyn Norah Shullai, 87, popularly known as Rani, had spent over 25 years preparing the beverage in her sprawling home, under the shade of cherry blossom trees in Shillong, Meghalaya. Serving wines made from various local fruits to friends and relatives at dinner parties and family gatherings, Shullai says, lifts her spirit.

Not taking part in the Shillong Wine Festival, which began last year to showcase the state's winemaking capacity, does not bother her. It was a conscious decision. "For me, winemaking is a personal pursuit," says Shullai. "I am not looking for commercial opportunities." As former principal of the Shullai Progressive School for poor children, run from a two-storied building next to her home, she is careful not to send encouraging signals to the youth - especially the "young impressionable Khasi boys" - by participating in the festival.

The sense of social responsibility also stems from being one of Shillong's highly respected citizens, an educationist and a Girl Guide. Over the years, the local Shillong Sentinel has dedicated ample newspaper space to her and the north-east edition of The Telegraph carried an article on her on its front page in October last year after she turned 86.

Shullai served as deputy director, public instruction, for the National Cadet Corps of undivided Assam in 1969. She was appointed as honorary state secretary of Meghalaya, Bharat Scouts and Guides at the age of 55 and was also the hill state's first ever inspector of schools, and the second from Meghalaya to receive the Padmashri in 1977 for all-round contribution. Her job as school inspector often required her to travel across the heavily forested Garo hills of the state, often coming face-to-face with rogue elephants, to reach tribal schools in the interiors - she did it dressed in brightly coloured jansem, the traditional Khasi dress pinned up on both shoulders with ornamental brooches, but worn till mid-calf to wade through waters.

She had an easier time learning to make wine. A social drinker who favours brandy and whisky, Shullai's interest in wine culture stemmed from an age-old practice of the Khasi and Garo tribes of brewing their own drink for pleasure and to combat winter in the hills. "They use a crude process to ferment white rice, which they drink up almost immediately," she explains. Much to the disappointment of her daughter Judy and her nieces, Shullai returned from a trip to London in 1973 with only a winemaking kit, comprising glass jars, airlocks, wine corks and Campden tablets to prevent germination, and a how-to book in tow. "They expected clothes, cosmetics and other goodies," she remembers, her eyes crinkling with amusement. But now Judy, who is married and settled in Shillong, enjoys serving the finest wine from Shullai's home brewery on her table. "Ma used to stain her fingers purple while mashing fruits and extracting the pulp," she recalls fondly. "And after she finished making the wine, she would wear a satisfied look on her face."

Meghalaya's abundant horticulture produce, complete with wine-friendly fruits, came in handy. Earlier, Shullai picked fruit from the 20 trees growing in her own backyard. Now, her rheumatism, diagnosed some six years ago, has forced her to buy fruits from the local market. "Otherwise, I don't let my walking stick stop me from doing anything," she says. Shullai buys indigenous fruits like the Khasi pear, peach, mulberry, plum, the 'so hiong' peach and the 'so mon' - a fleshy and seedy fruit like the chikoo, which, if eaten raw and in large quantity, packs the same punch as a peg of brandy. She makes both dry and fruity wines, and the golden yellow 'so mon' wine is her favourite.

There was no trial and error period in her winemaking, she says, she got the process down pat right from the beginning. Well, except for the time that mulberry wine from a bottle shot to the ceiling as soon as the bottle was uncorked, and splashed all over her expensive upholstery. "I must have got a step or two wrong that time, but I still don't know what it was," she chuckles.

Her wines are generally consumed even before they get a chance to mature. "All those who know me just can't wait to have it," says Shullai, who, in the past 32 years has never bought wine from the market. "My friends and relatives empty all my stock when they visit me, prompting me to replenish it once again. Some even express their desire to take a bottle or two home." She normally makes about 12 bottles at a time, and two attendants assist her get the ingredients for the wine ready.

Shullai doesn't like being dependent on anyone. But her second granddaughter, who lives with the twice-married-and-widowed Shullai and helps her run the Shullai Progessive School as headmistress, refuses to have it any other way. Even when Shullai goes to the school to teach English composition and grammar from 9 am to 12.30 pm everyday, a servant accompanies her on the granddaughter's insistence. "All three of my granddaughters - the elder one lives in Guwahati - think I exert myself," she says. "But I assure them that I am still going strong." That's worth a toast.

For beginners

Winemaking is a hobby that requires quite a bit of investment. Shullai's kit from London, with thick jars, dark bottles, airlocks, filters, yeast and corks, would now cost between $60 and $70 (about Rs 3,000). You can buy such a kit off the Internet on www.ebay.com. Alternately, you can locally buy thick ceramic jars (like the ones used to store pickles), thick dark bottles with narrow necks or simply use 2-litre aerated drink bottles.

Buy 5-10 kg of fresh fruits. De-stemming, de-skinning and crushing fruits take two to four hours, depending on what kind of fruit is being used. Use your fingers or a potato masher to squeeze the pulp out. Then, use a filter to strain and separate the juice from all the skin. After sterilising the jars, pour in the fruit concentrate with a funnel so that there is no spillage. Add cold water measuring 1/3rd the jar's capacity. The next step is to add sugar syrup. Shullai uses up to four tablespoons of sugar. If the fruit is overripe, add only about two. Top off the jar with some more water. Empty a 25 gm packet of yeast in the jar. Mumbai-based SAF Yeast Company and Pune's National Chemical Laboratory manufacture wine yeast. It costs Rs 100 for a 500 gm packet.

Leave the juice to ferment for about two weeks, and then siphon the dead yeast and other sediments using a fine filter. Now, transfer the wine into a stainless steel or wooden container so that the impurities settle and can be drained off. After one to three months, pour the wine into thick dark bottles and lock it with cork so that no air gets in, otherwise it will turn into vinegar. Store it in a cool, dark place. After at least a year, it's ready to sip and serve.

Whether the wine is dry, sweet or semi-sweet depends on the amount of sugar that remains in the bottle after fermentation. In a fully dry wine, all the sugar has been converted to alcohol. A medium-dry wine has a small amount of residual sugar. Using overripe fruit that is sugar-laden will give the wine a sweet taste. You can measure the sugar content with the help of an instrument called a refractometer - place a drop of juice between its prisms and read the angle at which the light bends. It will vary depending on the sugar content. For more information on winemaking, get in touch with local wines clubs.

There is no law that prevents, restricts or controls winemaking at home. But to sell it, one requires a license from the State Excise Department.

Contact details

Bangalore Wine ClubAlok Chandra 102, Golden Threshold, 13 Alexandria Street, Richmond TownBangalore080-22241238, 98450 16517080-22121936
Hyderabad Wine ClubBalaji Rao BK BHEL (R&D), VikasnagarHyderabad98495 56975 www.indianwine.com
Delhi Wine Club247, First Floor, Sant Nagar, East of KailashDelhi011-51622892
SAF Yeast Company Limited419, 4th Floor, Swasthik Chamber, ChemburMumbai-71022-25223364/70 sycl@vsnl.com
National Chemical LaboratoryDr Homi Bhabha Road, PashanPune-8020-25893300

Featured in Harmony Magazine
July 2005

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