For a normal Sunday afternoon, Ghafoor looked visibly unhappy. His favourite beef biryani was missing from the menu. Maai baap sarkar had banned beef. Though Ghafoor had always been trying very hard to be patriotic, this time, it was getting difficult. Gastronomical appetite proved to be stronger and refused to wane, despite his good efforts.
He was assistant teacher of ancient history in a school. Hence, he was interested in Indian history, for example, the Muslim conquest of India, Islamic architecture, Mughal dynasty and Muslim dynastic rule of India for over thousand years, with the year 1192 being his favourite.
He was home to median height, a balding head, slightly protruding belly and even more protruding eyes. A special feature of his persona was the oft-dripping corners of his wide mouth which he kept wiping with the end of his long-sleeved shirt and when he wore half-sleeves, anything that could do the work would be used, making a ‘slush’ sound in the process. Sometimes, this mop could be the thick rough curtains hung at the windows of the school office, or the table cloth in the teacher’s corner.
Ghafoor said he did everything on time — received a heart attack at the right opportune moment, within two months of his retirement (though a bit unannounced; he later regretted lying in the ICU). He felt proud of himself. He got employed at the right time, got married at the second available opportunity to his cousin Saira after he missed the first opportunity with Reshma. (Reshma’s brother had caught Ghafoor blue-handed with Shabboo, his neighbourhood sweetheart; his denials were effective like that of a minister contaminated with scams). As part of the old dating ritual at the time, the engaged couple watched their first picture together. The young Ghafoor tried coochie-cooing with a sheepish Saira throughout the film while Dilip Kumar romanced Madhu Bala. He always preferred calling the actor Yusuf saab and hated Raj Kapoor, whom he held responsible for appropriating a Muslim man’s natural right over the Bombay film industry. He was proud of his Muslim legacy and liked Nirad Chaudhury because he had paid rich tributes to Al Beruni, a Muslim.
It was also at the right time that he was employed as a peon, at the raw age of seventeen in his brother-in-law’s school. Making progress with the familial connections, he was then appointed as assistant teacher of history and thought himself no less than Romila Thapar; but, when he accidentally discovered that she was female, he shifted to Habib Tanvir. He actually intended Irfan Habib but often mismatched the two. When Ghafoor, the assistant teacher of history spouted words like, ‘India is a great mausoleum of Muslims,’ he actually meant India was full of Muslim architecture but loved the word ‘mausoleum’ for its sheer alliterative value.
He was quite interesting, as you may have already found out. If you reminded him of his peon days, he would fume — ‘Saale, I helped them get recognition from the education board,’ with stress on ‘I’ — an egoist to the core. With him, everything started with ‘I’. ‘I got the school recognised, I got the funds, I got it ratified,’ though, this singular pronoun of ‘I’ was never used in the context of school-fund embezzlement. It was not him but the accountant who did it. He was trapped in it, but what the accountant would get in return of this misappropriation was never revealed. However, it was well known in Sheikhupura that this accountant was the son of his wife’s elder brother and was married to a daughter of the same wife’s other brother. Family matters were strictly prohibited from being discussed in public. One exception was his Pa-in-law with whom he always dealt in the numerical way of thirty-six — chhattees ka akdaa, as the connoisseurs of street language would describe it.
It is said, an egoist man is also the most vulnerable one. Ghafoor was now broken-hearted. His beef was not coming and he had to be a patriot, beef or no beef. Beef biryani was his soulmate. As the Persian word biriyan means fried before cooking, and has Persian or Afghani origin; and as he too is proud (sometimes) of his Pashtoon ancestry, he insisted on the deep frying of the spices and the long-grained rice. When the aroma wafted all through Sheikhupura that normally reeked of gutters bubbling all around, it felt heavenly. The way those long-grained fragilities popped up and down in the hot water mixed with aromatic herbs, and the mode in which they were cooked — ‘barely minimum’ — to the three-fourth of their capacity in order to preserve the exact structure of those perfect long granules, stirred every nerve of his being. Ghafoor compared it to the making of a subtle sculpture or a Mughal miniature painting. He sighed and felt proud. The bitter beef memories intoxicated him. He further insisted that par-boiling rice was an art, an art which decided the anatomy of biryani, a subtle art few could master.
But he himself was a man who never knew subtlety, the art of subtlety, which few can master or muster. His mouth would become the water tap of Vrindavan society, the moment someone quixotic enough would criticise him. At other times, it was like the mostly dry, mildly dripping faucet of Sheikhupura which would have mercy on them only thrice a week.
Coming back to biryani, the spices and the dum gave him a strange kind of thrill and he would feel nostalgic about the days of yore — of Nebobs, of Badshahs; when, for a breakfast spread, some forty five myriad dishes would be served. When Shamsunnissa, his wife, got to the kitchen, Ghafoor would get busy instructing her, to which, scant respect was paid and abundant derision shown. Nevertheless, Ghafoor being the man he was, could never stop himself from holding forth, which a bystander might equate to playing a flute before the beef, sorry, buffalo.
The suggestion of the buffalo is too obvious to explain to you.
All this was over for him now. Bade ka gosht (beef) was banned and Ikram Khan, his headmaster, could no longer look down upon him. In Muslim hierarchy, you are higher in status and upbringing if you have mutton in your kitchen — only mutton, mind it. Eating beef is indicative of your low social and economic status and lower brain power. But in the last many years, the wheels of time have churned rapidly and tectonic shifts in status(es) have happened in the process.
Ghafoor was fed up. Though he loved his beef, he had a beef to pick first with Ikram Khan and then the government. What right does the government have, to put its hand in his biryani plate? Why has it become so non-vegetarian? After banning beef, what would it ban next?
He looked around. Was someone listening to him? He looked worried.
Ever since Ghafoor had been denied his meat, he has been having hallucinations. He sits forlorn (never his habit) for hours on end.
Like all Muslims, Ghafoor too is, sorry was, an ardent admirer of biryani. But now patriotism demands that he declare his hatred for beef and biryani. It was not difficult, he thought, if he tried.
He saw Mishra coming with two heavy shopping bags in his hands towards the chai stall he was at. Anticipating some fireworks, Ghafoor gulped down the light chocolate-y, almost leathery liquid. Bête noir Mishra was sure going to pull his beef.
‘How you doin’ beef-boy?’ he laughed. The mischief in his tone was palpable and the laughter pierced the already bruised heart of Ghafoor.
That Muslims are the foodies of the world is an undeniable fact. Now after years of terrorism, they have become food terrorists.
He imagined Mishra chirping.
Would he have to hear such horribilities? Ghafoor’s mind was making up the avowals Mishra could possibly make.
His thinking spree started like a marathon.
Can food be labelled as religious? Can it be classified into Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, Sikh, Eesai, sorry Christian? While cakes and pizzas are obviously missionary, dhansak is above board a Batliwala dish; chhole paranthe, Sikh; aalu poori, daal sabzi, Hindu; and does it need to be said that biryani and kebabs are Muslim? Why else then would there be talk of terrorists being fed biryani?
As is clear by now, Ghafoor, the baldy, portly old heck of a Muslim, (what is a Muslim without his beef? Aah! Anyway…) was at his wits end. Among all the cuisines, it’s only biryani which holds the distinction of being seditious.
The spree continued.
What is it with biryani? Why are these terrorist guys obsessed with it? Why don’t they eat veg-pulao, for example? He remembered reading about the social boycott of Tagore’s family in Bengal, because one of his ancestors had passed by a Muslim kitchen and in the process, had made his nostrils a storehouse of that obnoxious smell of pulao. Some others even credited the eating of pulao as the secret of that extra lavish lusciousness of Muslim women. The lengths these fanatics can go to!
Ghafoor thought, but quickly checked himself.
The Muslim culinary history is full of this condemnable food item. The hordes that galloped their way on horseback gobbled a similar concoction. The root word itself is of foreign origin. The Mughals added more spice to it and invented myriad varieties of this meat-rice conglomerate. Pulao, taahri, qubooli became younger sisters of biryani, though they rarely posed a threat to the original. Since the very beginning, this evil dish has monopolised the whole of Muslim cuisine making everyone forget muzghafar, mutnajjan, malpua, and of course, the patriotic dishes like dosai, idlis, aalu poori, etc. Ghafoor shook his head; the stream of his contemplations made him absent to his immediate surroundings. The meatier the better, they declare salivating. His mouth watered too, but he hastily came back to his senses. He must be alert; and patriotic, he reminded himself.
Frying the unwashed rice before cooking it in the mutton broth was the pre-historic method, so typical of the unwashed Maleechha! Today, they do it the pakka or dum style, not the dum maro dum kind of dum!
The stream stopped for the fraction of a second. Ghafoor admonished himself. His old habit of breaking into songs for each and every of his state of affairs was annoying for him. But he just could not help it. Why, when his grandfather died, his mind played and re-played that oldie, Teri duniya se door, chale ho ke majboor, hamein yaad rakhna, (I am leaving this world, O, Adieu!), while his granny kept howling, Why did you have to go now? Abhi toh pension bhi shuru naheen hui. (Your pension is still pending.)
He felt irritated.
Shut up, and go take a hike, he told his mind angrily.
Of course Mishra could not hear the ditties. When reminded of music, a thought crossed his mind – ‘Are they going to ban songs now? Rafi only for Muslims and Kishore, Lata for Hindus? Oh my God, that would be horrific.’ Ghafoor felt a sharp chill in his spine. Mishra did not have the ears to perceive the sound of his gibberish; else, the upper caste would take another dig at his poor self; vulnerable to habits.
Coming back to biryani, the exact difference between the two was still mysterious to him, he reflected with a deep sigh, actually a deeper sucking in of air. But once it’s on the table, does one care if it is dum or pakka?
The stream ran unabated.
He had been tolerating this obscenity in the name of food for his wife’s sake who, when bored of rolling out dough, goes for dum biryani or pulao. Qubooli is kind of a step-sister to it and veg-biryani? Blasphemous! He uttered, frothing at his mouth. The stream was in spate now.
Little did we know that Pakistanis prefer mutton over chicken. They laugh at our chicken biryani and blowing the matter out of proportion, as is their habit, utter the inanity that only chickens eat chicken biryani!
We the chickens of the world!
He began humming but stopped abruptly. He had suddenly become aware of his surroundings, with an upper caste in the immediate vicinity.
If you happen to be a chicken, sorry, Muslim (God!), there is a 100% chance of you having eaten this reprehensible dish at least once a week, okay, once a month. The day Amman used to announce the advent of biryani, the baccha party would jump with joy and this news would be announced to the whole mohalla. When she used to put dum to this, silly, obnoxious, shameless, Machiavellian, unpatriotic confluence of rice, ghee, spices and ahem, that thing which has been banned, with a dash of saffron, that which colours everything today; even his vegan neighbors would suck in the fragrant air; that malicious aroma was captivating. When the thick rich curd blended with the… (fill in the blanks and just shut up) and the spices were just coarsely grounded to retain the basic flavors, the butter would be melted and would turn the onion rings brown, the marination, the spices, the basmati… would take you to a totally different plane of being! But, I must stop, Ghafoor told himself; lest people think he likes biryani!
What a joke! I am a patriot!
He tried smiling; the stream persisted.
His mind threw a flash, and like an automaton he burst into a nursery rhyme from his school days.
Rabb ka shukr adaa kar bhai
Jis ne hamari gaaye banayi!
(Thank your Lord,
for He maketh your cow!)
Suppose we make it our national anthem?
He took a deep breath, for the umpteenth time. The breeze was gentle and he felt sleepy, but the cerebral torrent was in the habit of never allowing him any respite.
Your Mom must be making the best biryani?
How many times have you heard this, if you happen to be a Muslim?
But I feel insulted. It’s like you doubt my integrity and patriotism don’t you? What? You think I should have got used to it by now?
But how can I?
Ghafoor tried, looking puzzled.
Agreed that Biryani has been certified seditious, but which biryani? Shia, Sunni, Barelvi, Tableeghi or Deobandi? I am not talking about the Salafi variety because they always make their own khichdi. Let me make a guess. Would Shia biryani add complex condiments? Tableeghi, with extra ghee? Barelvi, with more than necessary spices? And Deobandi must be a fusion biryani!
All of a sudden, woken up from his reverie, Ghafoor jolted severely; Mishra was thrusting something in his cloth bag.
What is it?
Ghafoor was startled; it was rare for Mishra to bring him something.
It’s a bomb. Mishra giggled like a school girl.
A beef bomb.
He repeated with a minor addition.
The upper caste was grinning from his ear to ear.
Ghafoor scratched his head, rubbed his eyes, tweaked his ears and then finally gasped for breath.
Tere liye khaas smuggle karke laya hoon. (Have specially smuggled it for you.)
Mishra’s voice seemed distant.
Ghafoor choked, the stream began, once again.
This time from his eyes.
But, this time, he made no attempt to wipe it off with his sleeves.