Sunday, July 20, 2014

Annals of a Proud Meat Eater

Only yesterday I was having a great dish of beef Biryani at a Muslim restaurant and decided to post a pic of the dish on Instagram. Instantly, one of my Muslim friends poked fun at me saying that he would expose me in front of the RSS. Immediately I looked around the place and observed that in the restaurant, out of about nine tables, in the chamber where I was seated, four were occupied by people who were visibly non-Muslims. I could see almost all of them had ordered red meat items, and I’m hoping that all of them would be beef and not mutton. But what seemed funny to me is that in a nation where the Hindu right wingers are trying to get a ban on cow slaughter, there are many Hindus like me who are beef lovers. And mind it; I’m neither a Communist nor an atheist. You can term me more like a liberal right winger.
I’m an Assamese caste Hindu who has a penchant for non-vegetarian items. But then most of my kind are, and I secretly pity any one from my breed who turns out to be a vegetarian. We Assamese are voracious meat eaters. Though like all Hindus, most of us abstain from eating beef, there are a few of us who love to do so. While Assamese Hindus may traditionally abstain from beef, we indulge in a variety of other meats which make our culinary options quite colourful. Like most Assamese families, ours is also a unit that indulges in varieties when it comes to non-veg. Our family belongs to the Vaishnav sect of Assam, and unlike the Vaishnavites from other parts of India, we are traditionally voracious meat eaters, except for beef and pork. This is quite like the Kashmiri Pandits who love to gorge on mutton, unlike their brethren from other parts of the country. Leaving the Vaishnavs and the Brahmins, and of course the Muslims, traditionally pork has been a most favourite item among the other communities. Almost every indigenous community of the state like the Ahoms, Kacharis, Bodos, Mishings, etc love pork. If you love pork, then you will find yourself in paradise while exploring the dishes made here locally.
In my family, traditions had been maintained quite strictly and both pork and beef remained out of the house for long. In a large clan of happy non-vegetarian Vaishnavs, I feel proud to admit that there are three black sheep, viz me, my brother and our Deuta (father). How did I become a beef eater? Well the credit goes to my Deuta. He was a rebel among all his siblings and ventured out in his younger days and indulged in both pork and beef. The best part was that he did not feel it necessary to hide his indulgence out of shame and hence earned contempt from his relatives. Deuta says even today, “If you don’t feel the guilt for something, then you should never be ashamed of having indulged in it.” And religion acts as no bar here. In fact ask my younger about it and he would say that religion is a complete bitch when it comes to fooding habits.
A question that I have often been asked is how many different types of meat forms have I eaten? This question came up during my stay in Delhi, a place where most people never rise above chicken or mutton. Fish is seen more like a ‘Bangaliyo ka zayka’, and Muslims mostly indulge in sale of buffalo meat, and never really real beef, to avoid controversy. Since I don’t have the typical yours truly ‘chinki’ look from my home region, I was mostly passed off as a Commie Bong who loves to indulge in food adventures. But the truth is most Bongs would shy away at the kind of meat forms that I indulge in.
Let me start with the basics, of course I began with chicken and mutton which forms a staple part of our culinary routine at home. Fish is more common in an Assamese household and like the Bongs, we have an extremely soft corner for the tasty Hilsa fish. In my house, we have rice, dal, atleast two to three varieties of vegetables, and fish on every alternate day. Chicken or mutton makes their appearances on weekends. Apart from chicken, other birds that we are fond of eating are pigeon and ducks. They are occasional appearances at our dining table and need special events for that matter. While most people in north India would cringe at the very thought of eating a cutie pie bird such as the pigeon, here in Assam, it is a delicacy among our people across various communities. Traditionally, it is expected that a newly wed bride in an Assamese household must cook a splendid dish of pigeon meat curry after her entry into the in-law’s house so as to win their hearts. Duck meat is a very warm variety and is preferred mostly during the winters. People do not shy away from hunting migratory ducks who come in from far off places such as Russia as they make splendid dishes for the wintery nights. We have ourselves indulged with this variety on quite a few occasions. Traditionally, we also have a soft side for crabs and prawns. If cooked in the proper manner, they are absolute delights for your taste buds. Tortoise meat is rarely cooked anywhere nowadays as the restrictions are so sharp. I remember having eaten tortoise only once as a kid and still reminisce the juicy flavor of the meat. But ever since then I haven’t come across this variety anywhere. Venison is also a prefered item among our people and it is hunted in an albeit hush hush manner in the rural sides so as to avoid detection by the authorities. I personally feel it is the Baap of all form of red meats.
I began eating pork much earlier than I decided to go for beef. My mother has always been against eating both beef and pork and today after so many years, she has reconciled to the fact that her husband and both her sons are beyond redemption in this regard. Pork is readily available in almost every corner of Guwahati. So it was no issue having pork momos or other such dishes as kids. Ma however wouldn’t let us come in with pork inside the house and on several occasions made us eat the pork momos while seated in the courtyard of our house. Today however, she has warmed up as we bring in packed pork items inside the house. But she still refuses to eat them. She has promised to eat pork the day I cook it for her. That day is coming soon I say! For us, pork is still an acceptable eating item compared to beef and I have continued to eat beef inspite of so many heating arguments over the issue with various people.
Eating beef was a process where I overcame my own demons. I ate beef when I was about 14 and was encouraged by the sole fact that my father was a beef eater. At that young age, the thoughts of religion and the divine consequence often bears down on you. While both my father and brother are agnostics who are not at all religious, I am mildly religious as I still frequent temples and other religious shrines now and then as I have been since I was a kid. I must say eating beef has been a liberating process for me from the dogmas of religion and peek more into the culture and rituals of people whom we perceive different from ourselves.
While beef eating is regarded as a heinous crime among Hindus, there is a lot of conflict over the issue if we come to the sacred texts. Since Hinduism has a variety of sacred literature, many of them differ from each other on the issue, while others remain silent mostly. While right wingers can literally bleed their hearts out on this issue, and even though I am with them on some fronts, there is no denying the fact that ancient Hindus were beef eaters. Beef was served as a mark of respect to the guest at a house during the Vedic era. Several chapters of the texts such as Manusmriti state in Chapter 5/Verse 30 that “It is not sinful to eat meat of eatable animals, for Brahma has created both the eaters and the eatables.” The Shatpath Brahmin also states that Sage Yagyvalkya reportedly said that he is a lover of beef. The father of Hindu revivalism, Swami Vivekanand also reportedly said, “You will be surprised to know that according to ancient Hindu rites and rituals, a man cannot be a good Hindu who does not eat beef”. In the Brihadaranyak Upanishad, the Adi Shankaracharya talks of a certain delicious rice dish that is made with beef.
While these are only the few arguments propagating consumption of beef by ancient Hindus, most of today’s right wingers who espouse the cause of Sanatan Dharma completely condemn the consumption of beef. Most of the views such as those mentioned above are often dubbed as propaganda by Muslims and Communists. The right wing lobby mostly espouses the cause of vegetarianism and states that no Hindu scripture espouses the killing of animals in any way. While it is true that the cow has been revered and given a high status in several scriptures that make it holy and nearly untouchable in terms of eating, I feel it is still highly doubtful if there is a blanket ban on meat eating in Hinduism altogether. Some ancient texts do speak out against consumption of beef. The Mahabharata’s Shantiparv states that “The very name of cow is Aghnya (not to be killed).” This means that a cow should never be slaughtered. So, one who kills a cow or a bull commits a heinous crime.
These were the kind of things I was digging into during my initial days of beef eating. I remained an occasional beef eater for the early years, before I finally decided that its all just crap and decided to follow the footsteps of my father. The Hindu texts and scriptures create a sense of confusion on the subject as they differ so greatly from each other. The Manusmriti, which advocates beef eating in one part, is self contradictory as it denounces meat eating in general in other sections. Some of the oldest texts like the Vedas remain largely silent on the issue. The good thing with Muslims is that they have just one holy book, the Holy Quran, which quite explicitly forbids the consumption of pork and non-halal items. Period. This is not so with our religion. I ultimately decided to go ahead as an absolute beef lover by the time I was seventeen, and realized that I loved it because it is indeed very tasty. Though to be honest, pork still remains my favourite meat. My younger brother did not have to go through any dilemma as me. Since he is absolutely irreligious, he just went ahead and tasted and approved it with a complete thumbs up in one go. All these years, I have been eating all sorts of meat forms and have moved on pretty well in life. There have no divine anger upon me, nor has ever any lightning struck down on me for my ‘sins.’ I continue to visit temples and other religious shrines. It is as if I have this little pact with God that I would continue to be a faithful Hindu in most ways, provided I’m left to pursue my choice of culinary delights. I know its complicated, but I believe He understands. I completely agree that a cow or a bull alive is worth more useful than one dead. But instead of advocating for a ban on cow slaughter, I suggest it should be done in very limited numbers with a stock that is bred separately just for that purpose.
Consumption of buffalo meat is not an issue to me at all. Forget the religious texts, people may revere the buffalo in their own way and consider it holy. But the truth is that in Assam and West Bengal, buffaloes are sacrificed during Durga Puja and Kali Puja, and the meat is distributed among devotees. Surely then it cant be an issue to be equated with cow slaughter. Buffalo meat is also a popular delicacy among many sections of Hindus such as the Nepalis. Now lets not get into the arguments of vegetarians and the Sanatan Dharmis of mainland India. Deuta describes them as a lot useless to argue with and describes them as a ‘ghaas poos’ variety who are happy consuming milk products.
But it is not so that we are averse to vegetarian cuisines. A good vegetarian item always spruces things for our appetite and I would anyday choose a Marwari function over others just to taste the delicious sorcery they conjure up with all those vegetarian food.
However, as a non-veg lover, my pack of sins is not completely done yet. I have also tasted dog meat at a Naga friend’s place. Found it completely disgusting, and swore never to taste it again. Plus I’m also a dog lover, so it made kind of guilty from the inside. That sort of feeling was never present there for the cow. I’ve also tasted snake meat in Meghalaya, and trust me, you’d happily eat them up thinking them to be boneless chicken if nobody tells you what they really are. My brother scored a point over me when he tasted bat meat which was prepared by some of his Garo and Mishing friends. He said it was quite bony but tasty. I don’t think I can bring myself to that level. Now what remains in my list are a few more exotic items which Deuta has tasted. They include octopus and squid. I may have to wait up for those two.
There are a few more items in my list which I really dont want to discuss here. I would love to try them out if I ever get the chance. But rest assured, I’m never turning to cannibalism. 

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