By Mosarrap H. Khan
Mohammad Akhlaq, 50, a Muslim man from Dadri, UP, India, was lynched by a mob on 28 September night. His son was injured. They were dragged out of their house and beaten with bricks on the suspicion that they had beef in their fridge. Akhlaq died; his son is struggling for his life in the hospital.
When I think of Akhlaq, I find an uncanny similarity with my family. My mother, too, eats beef. She, along with my father, too, lives in a small town (more of a village). They, too, live in the middle of a Hindu neighborhood – the only Muslim family.
The test on the meat seized from Akhlaq’s house has confirmed that it was not beef but mutton. However, I’m not sure if Akhlaq’s family ever consumed beef on the sly, avoiding their neighbors’ prying eyes. If they ever did, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been very different from the way my mother manages to procure and eat beef.
What follows is an account of extreme caution that Muslim families adopt to eat beef even in supposedly secular states such as West Bengal, where a considerable number of Hindus eat beef.
We are a family of gastronomic dissidence, almost bordering on anarchy. My mother eats beef but no mutton. My father loves mutton but eats no beef. One of my sisters doesn’t eat any meat, not even fish. Another sister was gastronomically more adventurous until recently when she gave up eating beef. I haven’t eaten red meat since my childhood, owing to what I felt a strong smell (which made me nauseate) and thick fibers.
As in the case of political parties, someone sets the agenda in every family. In our home, it’s my mother. Since she never ate mutton, she made sure no mutton would ever be cooked at home. We siblings, therefore, never grew up developing a taste for mutton. My poor father, who really loved mutton, gorged on it mostly in weddings, until he gave up eating meat altogether.
But my mother loves eating beef. There is not a single part of the cow that she didn’t relish eating – from the meaty parts to entrails to legs. She grew up in a village where beef formed an important part of the diet. While extremely eclectic in her sartorial preference, honed by the limited choices in a small town where she went to school, she remained truly rooted in her village in gastronomic matters.
After marriage, she came away to live in a small town, where my father had already set up his business. The town, a Community Development Block, was more like an extended village with a state highway passing through the settlement. Houses began cropping up haphazardly, many of which were built by families that moved from villages, either to work in a few existent government offices or to start a business. Some other families moved to give their children a better education, albeit there was just one high school for the boys and one for the girls.
Our house was built in a part of the town with sparse habitation and acres of paddy fields around us. We were one of the rare ‘outsiders’ who had come to live there, surrounded by Hindu households. We had an old lady as our closest neighbor, whose stooped body, as if, asked existential questions. She spent most of her evenings in our house drinking tea and talking to my mother. For a young woman living in an alien neighborhood, she was like my mother’s absent mother/mother-in-law. It’s only when we grew up, we learnt she was a sex-worker in her younger days and now lived alone in a hut that stood on someone else’s land, adjacent to our house. Two hijras living in another house came home often to gossip with my mother; she had to play the role of an arbiter when they fought bitterly. A very poor but somewhat snobbish Brahmin family occupied a third house. It was an eclectic neighborhood, where I spent my childhood playing in the courtyard of a Shiv Mandir, along with my friends.
In those days, my mother wore sindoor and bindi and looked every bit a Hindu woman. She was outgoing and had a range of friends, all of them Hindus, who asked her often, “Are you a Brahmin woman who has eloped with a Muslim man?” While such questions never bothered my mother, it made her more secretive in matters of eating beef.
There were no slaughterhouses for beef in the small town as almost all the inhabitants were Hindus. Most Muslims lived in surrounding villages, where they either owned nominal land or worked on others’ land. Our closest Muslim neighbors were my two uncles who lived in another part of the town. The town didn’t even have a mosque, which was built only around a decade ago, when more Muslims started migrating with their families.
As a young boy, my search for beef would start on a Thursday evening with Zafar, one of the teenage boys working in our house. With dusk, we would set out for the cattle-market, which operated on Fridays, when cattle traders (mostly Muslims) from hundreds of kilometers away converged to sell and buy cows, goats, chicken, ducks, and even camels before the Eid. Around the market, there were small huts, which sold beef rice, chicken rice, sherbet, tea, paan, and other such necessities to the traders. The men running those small refreshment shops lived in surrounding villages and arrived on Thursday evening with provisions to cater to customers on Fridays. The huts were kept locked for the rest of the week.
In the faint darkness of early evening, we trooped into those huts to buy cooked beef. Sometimes the beef would be ready when we arrived; at other times, we would wait patiently observing with amusement the dexterity of the cook’s ladle. We noticed Hindu men (and rarely, Muslim men), often drunk, loitering around to buy beef. This was an open secret, like those sex-workers living on the edge of a pond close-by, who hovered in search of clients. Beef, liquor, and the lure of cheap sex made those huts the most subversive of spaces on Thursday evenings, which melted away in the bright light of a Friday with the arrival of cattle traders.
When we would reach home with the box of cooked beef, it was a delight to watch my mother’s face. While the beef was eaten with relish, the bones posed a problem. We had to get rid of them before our Hindu neighbors could find out we were actually ‘goru kheko muchuman’ (beef-eating Muslims), a derogatory term used to address Muslims in Bengal. My mother would carefully wrap the bones in a paper and send one of the boys at night to bury them some distance away from home.
Despite my mother’s secrecy, our neighbors did suspect we partook of the forbidden meat. One poor lower-caste woman often came home with her sari lifted a few inches above her heels, lest the touch polluted her. She would ask my mother for financial help but would never eat anything in our house. Another Brahmin woman would visit us and talk to my mother for hours but wouldn’t even drink tea, which my mother graciously offered.
During my twelfth standard, we moved to another house just behind my father’s business establishment. Since our new house was a little distance away from the cattle-market, I never saw my mother sending anyone to buy cooked beef.
Now the raw beef came mostly from my aunts, who had an extended network of suppliers from the surrounding villages. Since our new house was located in the middle of the town, which was again a Hindu neighborhood with densely packed houses, my mother had to adopt a guerilla tactic to keep her beef eating a secret. Our domestic helps were no longer teenage Muslim boys and girls, as was the case in the previous house. Instead, we had Hindu women working in our house. The raw beef would be delivered with utmost secrecy and my mother would cook when the help was absent and, finally, dispose the bones far away from the neighborhood. As if to erase every trace of her illicit act, she would wash the plates before our help could get wind of her adventure.
Over time, my mother has devised a code-language for cooking beef at home – ‘lau diye cow’ (cooking beef with lauki) – to ambush our domestic help, who doesn’t understand the meaning of the English word, ‘cow’. Despite my mother’s guerilla tactic, some of our neighbors continue to insinuate we have been throwing beef bones into a pond, adjacent to our house.
We siblings call it a bone of contention.
That was before Akhlaq’s lynching. As my old parents live alone without any of their children, the questions that nag me now: What if the BJP comes to power in West Bengal after the Assembly election in 2016? What if the atmosphere turns blatantly communal in the run-up to the election?
Would my parents be dragged out of the house and lynched for eating beef? Would any of our neighbors come to save them?
None of Akhlaq’s neighbors intervened to save his life.
[The essay first appeared in an altered form in Antiserious.]
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