Thursday, March 5, 2015

Confessions of a Beef Eater

Beef is a part of my memory; part of my world view. Therefore erasing beef from my plate is as cruel as erasing my memory. Authoritarian governments make people undergo shock treatments so that they could erase their memories. Demagoguery is a form of shock treatment. Mentally sick people are treated with shock treatment so that rebuilding a set of new memories could be possible. Autocratic governments consider people as patients who are liable to undergo shock treatments. Ban on beef is such a shock treatment.

Beef plays an integral role in my childhood memories. My mother never ate beef though my father relished it. In their Sunday moments of togetherness which remained absent for prolonged periods, my father peeled small onions and chopped green chillies. My mother washed the beef clean and fried the ingredients in a frying pan. The fragrance of the frying coconut crumbs mixed with the intoxicating smells of the spices filled not only our home but also the neighbourhood. Almost everyone in the vicinity knew that we would have beef for lunch. But we were not alone in this well known passion for beef. Each house in the area, on Sundays turned out to be a special culinary zone where beef was cooked with the imported taste of ladies who were brought in marriage into our village.

(A painting by Chaim Soutine)

It was beef that made me aware that everyone who came near me was not a friend. My mother never liked to go near a butcher’s shop. So when I was grown up enough, that means around nine years old, I was sent to the market to buy beef. My mother had fainted once she saw a huge carcass of a buffalo or bull hanging from a butcher’s hook. It was in her childhood. But women generally made sacrifices at that time. Though she did not eat, she cooked beef for her husband who became our father in due course of time. My father did not go to the market to buy beef because he thought it was a notch below his dignity. So I was sent to buy beef. One kilo beef, I was supposed to buy that. One kilo beef was then priced at Rs.5. My father, on one Sunday gave me five rupees and sent me to the market. On the way a friend joined me in the walk. He threw his hand around my shoulder. In those days holding hands and throwing hands around the shoulder were not considered to be bad acts. Moral policing was an unheard of notion. At the market gate, my friend took leave of me and went to his way. I went to the butcher’s shop and bought my beef. When I put hand into my pocket, to my horror I found the money was missing. My ‘friend’ had taken it away. Crying, I went back home. My father caned me and later gave me another five rupees and sent me again to the market. Beef had made its mark not only in my mind but also in my body.

Every year, on a particular day which is called the Sankranti day, every household in Kerala bought beef, cooked and ate. Buying beef and eating was considered to be auspicious on that day. It was a Hindu festival and no VHP, no BJP, no RSS then told us that it was a bad deed. Cow and bulls were like word and meaning then also. They were in the scriptures, they were the vehicles of gods, but there was no objection. We Malayali’s had a maxim also to justify any act of killing to eat: Any sin incurred by killing will fade off if you eat it. Irrespective of caste and creed, irrespective of gender and age, people ate beef. And let me tell you cows and bulls were butchered then and we knew only their flesh as beef. Buffalo meat was very dear. Only in certain spots you got buffalo meat. And you had to book it well in advance, even then. It was Indira Gandhi’s time. Information technology was limited to radios. The fastest message was the messages sent by a cycle rider. So on that Sunday morning, after visiting the local temples, young men in the village rode their cycles to the butchers’ shop. Beef was not a taboo then.

(painting by Chiam Soutine)

We were growing up. I too was growing up. In my late teen years, growing up was marked by a few signs; switching from half pants to dhotis was first in the order. Shaving the facial hair was the second one. Third, you moved alone at night in the village and your night was limited by the stroke of seven thirty. Fourth, you could gather at a junction or culvert and spend time with your peer group people. Fifth, secretly you could smoke a cigarette and could chew all those herbs hanging from fences to ward off the foul smell. Sixth, you could look at girls with a different heart jumping inside your ribcage. But the ultimate thing was defined by beef. If you are really a big guy, you ate beef and porata from a local restaurant. You go to temple, on the way back home you ate beef and porata. You could sport a tilak on your forehead and eat beef. None objected, if someone objected, one plate of beef for him would have solved the problem. With that beef we built up our muscles in the local gyms where one dumb bell shared by the youths from the whole village. Beef literally gave us our bodies.

Slowly beef became an exotic food, the way tapioca became exotic. People stopped eating beef because they thought cows, bulls and buffalos generally came under the category of ‘mother’ but because now they could afford chicken and mutton. Economy had changed the mindset people. Once upon a time we ate chicken once in a year and we felt that day very special than our birthdays. Mutton was a scene, which was meant to be looked at than eaten. Beef was humble enough to be democratic. But change in economy brought change in food habits. People started drinking coke and cola instead of lemon water, chaas and simple water. The day Indians started taking water in plastic bottles for using at the two openings of their bodies, we could say we have ushered ourselves into the new economy. Beef lost out in this new economy. But as it turned out to be an exotic food item thanks to it being pushed to the margins its price increased in direct proportion with that of chicken and mutton.

 (painting by Chiam Soutine)

Whenever we went to study elsewhere, we looked for a beef outlet. Sadly we knew, in the so called Hindu dominated areas beef was not seen. So we hunted down the places where beef was sold. It used to be in the places where mosques were located. Muslims ate beef and we became very close to those Muslim brothers who sold us beef. In Gujarat we found the places where beef was sold. In Delhi , in UP and in Hyderabad we found out beef outlets. Once, away from home for almost two years without eat beef, on the first chance when I could put my hand own raw beef, I got a kilo, cooked it in a pressure cooker and ate it all by myself in one go and on the next day found myself admitted to a hospital for loose motions. The love for beef was so much. All my friends were/are good cooks and when it came to the cooking of beef they were magicians. One of my friend poured whatever he had in his hand while cooking beef and made it into a special dish. I never kept acrylic colours near while he was cooking. He tried rum, coke, whiskey, beer and even bhang with beef, and the result was intoxicatingly good beef fry and curry. One of my friends tells me that he calls himself a hunter when he goes to buy beef on Sundays because it was a rare thing and to be hunted down from some corner of the city.

When I am in Mumbai I go to Leopold to eat some beef chilly. It is a must for me. I had even vomitted a whole day once after over eating beef from there. But still I eat like a devotee eating the Prasad of a beloved god. I am a lover beef. In Delhi I got to the INA Market to eat beef. I may not be eating beef today for health reasons. But I vote for beef. And I am ready to defy the rules by eating beef throwing the advices of the doctor to the wind. 

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