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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 20 New Delhi May 4, 2019

Meat

Saturday 4 May 2019, by Sagari Chhabra

Short Story

Sagar ki lehare
 
utthee hein, girti hein;
 
Baat beeti raat beeti,
 
Kehat lokvaasi,
 
abhi raat baaki.

It was a job and I was lucky to have one. My father had been a peasant and toiled for rupees five a day. Most days the zamindar gave him wheat with the chaff and chafed if my father pleaded with his hands folded,’Hazoor! Some cash...’

‘What for?’ he would scoff, the scorn curling his upper lip and invading the look in his eyes as he puffed at his hookah.

Gaihu is enough,’ he spat.

Then my father would beg with hands folded, ‘Hazoor, I have a wife, four children and need to cook with some oil and spices on firewood.’

‘Firewood?’ spluttered the zamindar between his hookah,Bewakoof!’ and spitting on the ground he ordered: “Use uppalas.’

That is why my mother always called the cow our mother; as she gathered the cow pats and shaped them with her hands into oblong sheaves, drying them on the roof of our hut and then using them on the fire to cook, all the while coughing and spluttering over the fumes, she would exclaim, ‘Our cow gives us everything! Milk for all of you and my tea—or else I would have to drink it black—and look at her she is so benign and giving, that is why she is called gaumata.’ And I swear, they both had a look of understanding in their eyes, which can be called love.

Watching my father sweat by his brow, his shirt soaked in perspiration and then meted out daily humiliation for his wages between smoke and spit while my mother cooked over a fire on uppalas, I figured I would be free if I had a job—a real job—with the Sarkar which would give me wages without pleading and an uniform that would clothe me and my family with respect, removing the shroud of uncertainty and indignity.

I wanted to be unlike my father; no one feared my father, they just pitied him—I have seen the look in my mother’s eyes—but everyone feared the zamindar when he was around they lowered their eyes to the ground and called him ‘Mi Baap’ and ‘Hazoor’.

If I wore the police uniform the people would respect me and wipe out the centuries of degradation that my family had lived under: toil, spit, dung and smell, all the while paying obeisance to the tehsildars under the British and then the zamindars. I hated the way he eyed my adolescent sister—whose blouse was bursting at the seams—with impunity. I wanted to smash his hookah and have him hand over my father his wages with due respect.

When my father was born, India had just got her freedom, the people were learning that if someone folded their hands you did the same, in return. The condescending nod of the burra sahib, his colonial mansion overlooking a flight of steps, their memsahibs twirling their fine gowns over polished wooden dancing floors resting on the upholstered arms of a sahib—who complained of ruling the bloody natives in the heat—had gone at the stroke of the midnight hour. Gone was the barking of their dogs accompanying them for a shikar with servants carrying them in palkis, as they assumed valour in shooting a tiger that had been set up for them.We had to carry the white man andhis burden! They left only after tearing us asunder into two countries—they called it a ‘double deal’—but we were free at last.

I don’t know how free my parents were, though my father still toiled under the zamindar and borrowed money at rates that made Shylock look generous. While my mother always looked patient and long suffering—a milked cow—serving her in-laws and family, supplying and catering to our needs, never her own.

One day she told me, ‘Sukhdev.’ I was lying on the charpoy half asleep and mumbled ‘Haan.’

‘I am getting old. How long will I go on milking the cow, making uppalas, cooking for all of you?’ she coughed, ‘Trying to make do with the little your father earns?’ I listened feeling ashamed and helpless.

‘I want you to get a pucci naukri—a permanent job—not something on the whims and fancies of anyone.’ I agreed with her fervently but didn’t say anything. Nothing, they say in our part of the world, is in our hands, it’s all with the upparwala. So I studied, passed my school and college and then sat for the entrance exams to be a policeman and got shortlisted for the interview.

My mother prayed, my sister went to the temple, how fervently everyone wanted me to get the job. They asked me at the interview why I wanted to be a policeman and I replied, ‘I want to serve my country.’ This amused the board member who raised his eyebrows at the chairman, who smiled, ‘Let’s see,’ he said, noting something down.

When the results were announced my mother was so proud she made besan ke ladoos and despatched them to the entire village with a declaration: ’Voh vardi pahenega’ and as I donned my uniform and left for the training she engaged me in absentia to a girl from another village. When I protested, ‘I don’t even know her, what to speak of love’, she responded, ‘Oh, but you will grow to love her. Just look at her photograph, she is so fair, like our cow.’ Revathi was indeed fair and beauteous and after the whirlwind of our marriage, we lived as we have always lived—like millions of couples before us.

I was conscientious in my job and rose to be an investigating officer. One day I got a call from my boss. ‘A man has been killed. Go and check,’ he ordered.

I drove down in the police vehicle with the red light flashing. AsI reached the village, I saw a group of people that dispersed as soon as they saw the police vehicle approaching, but I put that down to the standard apprehension people have of the police, they now see us as oppressors—the new Raj.

The man as I entered his kitchen was bleeding profusely. He had been hit on several places and as I felt his pulse, I realised he was already dead. He had obviously been eating as I saw the half-eaten food on his thali—lentils, chapattis and some meat andan overturned glass of water—then I noticed a strange light shining on his face. I looked around for the source and saw the refrigerator door open. I walked towards it and looked in. It had the usual stuff: eggs, vegetables, butter and in the freezer some thanda gosht.

I took photographs of the dead man from different angles, but I still could not figure out the angle behind the murder, for this was not a murder but a lynching. A mob had entered as I could see from the commotion inside, many people had attacked the man and several things in his kitchen had been smashed: the matka that kept the water, utensils—which one by one had been thrown at him and the refrigerator door had been wrenched open with such force that its handle had come off. Village enmity I had reasoned—had his son run off with someone’s daughter—but even then this was too extreme, it didn’t warrant so much violence.

I asked my colleagues to take his body for a post-mortem. The post-mortem revealed death by injuries which were several: on his head, arms, legsbut most were mainly on his stomach. It was there that he had been dealt severe blows. In his stomach they had found some food, not unusual as he had been eating when the crowd entered.

Then my boss called me, ‘Go to the refrigerator and get the gosht’ he ordered. I thought he had gone off his rocker, with the stress of this job it is quite normal. Then he asked me to get the gosht sent for forensic examination. I did. After a few days I got a yellow envelope from the lab, with the words:

‘Meat.
 
Putrified.
 
Foul smelling.’

Meanwhile the press was rocked with the lynching. They reported that a cow had gone missing in the neighbourhood and the priest of the local temple had announced over a loudspeaker that the missing cow was being eaten in the man’s kitchen. The villagers were incensed and as they invaded the man’s kitchen he had leapt up in alarm - which explained the half-eaten food in the thali and the overturned glass of water - and had been beaten.

The forensic report did not state what meat it was. So I asked.

They sent me a terse reply:

Mutton

I told the intrepid reporter doing her beat that it was just that and she quoted me in the daily. I got a whiplash from my boss, “Bewakoof!’ he yelled, “you mutton-headed fool!’ I was used to the zamindar mouthing abuses at my father, but didn’t expect this in my line of duty.

‘Who told you, it was mutton?’

‘The lab, Sir’, I replied dutifully.

‘It’s beef.’

‘But...’

‘Don’t but me,’ he said, ‘from now on you say, it’s beef.’

I noted down that my superior said it was beef and I did not tamper with the lab report; I was not going tobe part of a rebuttal controversy—I took my job seriously—after all I was the investigating officer.

Then a strange thing happened, the murdered man’s daughter made a statement to the press, ‘If the meat in our fridge is proved not to be beef, will you get my father back?’ I felt as if a cow had butted my stomach as I realised with a wrench,I knew what that ‘beef’ really was. The case soon turned from a beefy story to the nation’s headlines and the village became a stop where politicians of every hue came and exhorted the youth to stand for unity with the cow or otherwise, depending on their political affiliation.

Meanwhile I arrested the main accused, Nathuram along with a few other known offenders. They were largely unemployed vagabonds who made it a point to stop any vehicle carrying goods and search it. If it contained cattle - whether it was a milch cow or not - thetravellers were dealt blows—all in the name of ‘gaurakhsha’. Then Nathuram died in the lock-up. I admit the police do get a trifle feisty but when they draped his body in the tricolour and asked the people to pay homage to a hero, I was stunned; if they had taken his urine sample they would have known he was a confirmed alcoholic who had a bout of jaundice.No one bothers about erstwhile deaths in police custody but mine is not to question why, but to go on with my duty.

Then they asked Zabardast Zohra to step down from a movie—she was Pakistani—I was desultorily watching her desi substitute, who just didn’t have the breast- shaking, hip-swiggling oomph of Zabardast. The film ended with the national anthem which was now mandatory and I saw an old man who remained seated. A bunch of young men yanked him up, ‘you got no respect for the flag’ they yelled. He kept protesting he had a problem with his knees and they kicked him on his knee caps! I kept pretending I was not there; it was dark and easy to exit but I was wondering if the law was to be maintained by the derelict and the unemployed was my uniform even worth its laundry?

Outside a woman threw her shoe at a man who was selling biryani. He kept pleading ‘Buffallo only, maa’m’, but we were all moving in a herd, so no one quite heard his piteous cries. The poor fellow did not realise thatnamaz could not be offered in a public park and if a cow strayed before a bullet train, it was the driver who would be mowed down. You had to now cow down before a blinkered, manoeuvred people; someone was driving the cattle—us.

Once upon a time we used to argue till the cows came home, but now we spoke in one voice. One day I dared to ask for leave for my silver anniversary, but my boss responded with a terse ‘No’; I always knew he was thick-skinned but he had now developed a hide. My bushy moustache quivered with rage, but I was silent. Then he explained, ‘There is a build-up of tension over the temple issue, just in case reinforcements are needed...’ Had they seen the delivery of Ram to call thatspot his precise birthplace thousands of years later? Oh! How I wish someone would deliver me from the banalities I was condemned to serve under.

Revathi had said she wanted a washing machine and a dryer, the last was what dried my juices. ‘What’s wrong with the clothes line?’ I had asked rather dryly.

‘Why should everyone in the village know the colour of my underwear and bras? Am I not entitled to my privacy?’ she had interrogated me. Privacy! Had she forgotten that when we had got married she and I had shared the one room we had and my old parents had slept out in the cold with an extra quilt for cover? Then she said if I bought her one set of cultured pearls she could get two for the price of one and when I raised my eyebrows, she explained with a flourish ofhands around her neck, it was the ‘Deck Her Sale’.

I was numb with the cold consumerism and the ease to do business that had swept my land while most were still doing their morning business by the roadside, as the trees had been felled for the malls and public toilets if any,were kept locked. I felt my country had become a roadside rodeo show with the cows having mounted; but I kept my feelings close to my heart, it’s the way of us men in uniform, we maintain a starched silence.

Tension bahut rakhte ho’my colleague had said, when I confided in him that on an honest policeman’s salary, this was not possible.

‘You should learn to compromise and everything will flow’.

‘Compromise?’

Han bhai, become a word-changer’.

‘What’s that?’ I asked curiously.

His voice dipped, ‘Take out mutton and insert b...

His words chilled me to the marrow. I did not become a police officer to be a word-changer. I was the son of a peasant and loved my job because it gave me respect, I was not going to trade that for anything.

Then my wireless buzzed.

‘I.O,’ I answered.

‘Car,’ spluttered the other side remotely and trailed off. Ever since the wireless tender went to the company that paved the middle ground for jets, both our planes and words take flight and get grounded in mid-air.

‘Car crashes,’ I deciphered helpfully.

‘Where?’

‘Burrashahr district.’

‘Village?’

‘Durbudhi.’ And then he went off.

Burrashahr was located near the place they wanted to build the temple and had got every child in the surrounding area to send a brick, with the slogan:

‘Bacha Bacha Ram ka
 
Janmboomi ke kaam ka’
 
-- every child is of Ram 
 
of use to his birthplace.

But why should there be car crashes in Durbudhi village, I wondered. I got into my vehicle and drove. Driving by the desolate countryside at night I did not feel forlorn; I had the stars overhead for company and felt I was on a chariot going to do my righteous duty; I felt like the God Ram himself.

When I reached the police station a mob surrounded my vehicle—they were displaying cow carcasses and stoning my jeep as if I had done it. I stayed calm; there were a hundred mouths screaming and they were hurling bricks, notstones. I steadied myself as one hurledthrough the windshield. I took out my revolver, I knew one shot in the air and this crowd of carcass waving derelicts would scatter — I summoned the courage of my uniform and its long line of duty.

Then in the melee something whizzed past and lodged itself in my chest. I was frozen; just then my phone rang. I knew it was my boss calling. ‘Bewakoof!’ he would say. I tried my best to take the call but my hand would not obey my command. I wanted to say, ‘Sir, situation under control. There will be no riot’ but no word came out of my mouth.

Then the door was wrenched open and I heard a quiet, dangerous snarl, ‘Is he thanda gosht?’

The other shoved a slab under my nose, roughly. I recognised thesmell; I swear it was putrified beef. I passed out; then he placed very carefully, the beef on the nape of my neck and said, ‘Double-decker’.

Sagari Chhabra is an award-winning author and film-director.

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