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Would My Mother be Lynched for Eating Beef?

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.]

Author:

Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English, New York University. He is an editor of Café Dissensus.

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***

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7 Responses to “Would My Mother be Lynched for Eating Beef?”

  1. rashidamurphy

    Such a decisive slice of life that so many (like me) can relate to. We too grew up in a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood in a small town with eclectic eating habits. It’s unthinkable that this ‘live and let live’ attitude we understand so well, is likely to disappear in a storm of intolerant ignorance. Thank you Mosarrap for this beautiful insight.

    Reply
  2. Manohar

    The situation is no different in urban spaces, especially government institutions such as universities and colleges. Let me recount the beef controversy of my university days. At CIEFL (now EFL University), Hyderabad, I was the mess secretary in 1993. The hostel mess committee, which I was a member, decided to introduce beef on the request of a few students (who were mostly from Kerala and West Bengal-both Hindu & Muslim). I am a born-non-vegetarian but turned vegetarian when I was in school. However, influenced by Kancha Ilaiah’s book WHY I AM NOT A HINDU, I supported the idea and we decided to go ahead. However, a few Brahmin students protested and threatened to go on hunger strike. They said they would not allow us to use the kitchen and dining hall for the ‘evil’ activity. The Registrar of the univ. issued an office order to the cook not to cook beef. The head cook, being a Hindu, objected to our idea although the assistant cook, who was a dalit, was glad to cook. The teachers and non-teaching staff associations held emergency general body meetings and passed resolutions against introducing beef in the hostel although they had nothing to do with our hostel mess, arguing that introducing beef would create communal tensions on campus! The Brahmin students, who opposed any political activity until then, suddenly threatened us that they would bring ABVP (BJP’s students wing) leaders from the neighbouring Osmania University in order to teach us a lesson. Finally, some students themselves cooked and served beef. However, in the following month, the new mess committee decided to stop beef. Ironically however, as a counter strategy, the Brahmin students demanded that we introduce pork as well, which we agreed to do and put up a notice to the same effect. This time two Muslim students protested and joined the Brahmin students who protested against beef. However, many other muslim students said they had no issue if others wanted to eat pork. This was a long story cut very short. The whole issue caused so much commotion on campus for several days.

    Reply
  3. Haris

    Hypocrisy at large! The Dadri villagers have been protesting the caricature by media; while the local Police checking whether the meat in the fridge was beef! The main issue of an innocent man’s lost life comes at the last phase only.

    Oh! Sorry! I forgot the fact that the victim was a Muslim! It’s a time even the courts of justice will incline themselves to the prejudiced mind-set of the minority from the majority! It’s always a minority rules over the majority everywhere. Why India would be different?!

    Reply
  4. Dream and sense

    Hi,
    it is shameful what happened in dadri. And the wave spreading in India regarding this beef eating thing is not at all justified. Following Hinduism , we worship Cow, that does not mean we would be intolerant to somebody’s food habit. I guess people who are insensible infusing this atmosphere. I hope people will be educated one day and be sympathetic to each other. yesterday on social media i heard a message from son of victim in dadri village, he is so generous and appealing to people not to create any chaos and to keep peace as this is the fault of few uncivilized people not of entire community. I respect him. And I appeal the same to all countrymen to have such large heart and open mind. Freedom for all, no minority and majority game, no name calling- i hope so and wish so. And lastly its not about BJP or any so called secular party, it is about us, we the people. I want quote an example- my father has a muslim friend and he use to go his place on every Eid and eat at his place. I have attended my muslim friend’s marriage (that too with all excitement as i was going to experience something new n different, my family happily let me go and i enjoyed the lunch there) . If they respect my religion and offered me mutton instead of beef to eat why can’t I be tolerant enough towards them. I condemn mass killing of any animal. be it dog or cow or any innocent creature even in the name of religion , but I am not against anybody’s food habit. And govt. should be for development, economic growth, security of state , public health and social stability. Dirty politics coming from anybody should be defeated .

    Reply
  5. Ajju

    At the risk of being labelled a bigot ( although I see myself as a pragmatist) I’d advise the author to move his family out. The storm of communalism and hatred of the ‘other’ has taken deep roots in the country and I see it getting worse in the short term. No amount of rationalization can change the thought process of the common man because this poison has been brewing for decades by some organizations wide wide appeal.

    So my brother, move your family out into a safer place even if it means living in a neglected ghetto. Before your family is made a scapegoat and a meal

    Reply

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