Of Beef Bomb, Seditious Biryani and Uncle Ghafoor

Meet Uncle Ghafoor who misses his share of beef biryani and Bollywood of Dilip Kumar and Madhu Bala’s vintage

For a normal Sunday afternoon, Ghafoor seemed visibly unhappy. His favourite beef biryani was missing from the menu. Sarkar had banned the beef. Though Ghafoor had always been trying very hard to be patriotic, this time it was getting difficult. Gastronomical appetites proved stronger and refused to budge despite his good efforts.

He was assistant teacher of history in a school; hence was interested in Indian history, for example; Muslim conquest of India, Islamic architecture, Mughal dynasty and Muslim dynastic rule of India for over thousand years; with year 1192 being his favourite.

He was home to median height, one balding head, a slightly protruding belly and more protruding eyes. The special feature of his persona were the oft dripping corners of his wide mouth which he kept wiping with the end of his long sleeved shirt and when he was wearing half-sleeve, 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. 

Madhubala with Dilip Kumar in the iconic Mughal-e-Azam

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 the first opportunity with Reshma missed him. [Reshma’s brother had caught Ghafoor blue handed with Shabboo, his neighborhood sweetheart; his denials were effective like that of a minister contaminated with scams] As part of the old dating ritual of the time, the engaged couple watched their first picture together.

The young Ghafoor tried cootchie cooing with a sheepish Saira throughout the film while Dilip Kumar was romancing 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 17 in his brother-in-law’s school. Making progress with the familial connections, he was now assistant teacher of history and thought of himself no less than Romila Thapar but when he accidentally discovered of her being of a female species, he quickly 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 above term for its sheer alliterative virtue.

He was quite interesting as you may have already guessed. 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, everything with him started with I. I got the school recognized, 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 into 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 another brother. Family matters were strictly prohibited from being spoken about in the public. Exception was his Pa-in law with whom he always dealt in the numerical way of thirty-six;chhattees ka ankdaa, 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. The Beef Biryani was his soul mate. 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 started feeling 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 making a subtle sculpture or a Mughal miniature painting. He sighed and felt proud. The bitter beef memories sort of intoxicated him. He further insisted that parboiling rice was an art, which decided the anatomy of a 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 Virundavan society, the moment someone was quixotic enough to criticize him. At other times, it was the mostly dry dripping faucet of Sheikhupura which had 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 45 dishes would be served. When Shamsunnissa, his wife, got to kitchen, Ghafoor would get busy instructing her; to which scant respect was paid and 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 be explained to you.

All this was over for him now. Bade ka gosht [beef] was banned and Ikram Khan, his headmaster, could no more look down upon him. In a 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 last many years the wheels of time churned rapidly and tectonic shifts in status (es) 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 has been denied his meat, he is 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 demanded it from him that he declares his hatred for beef and biryani. It was not difficult, he thought, if he tries.

He saw Mishra coming with two heavy shopping bags in his hands towards the chai stall he was sipping in. Anticipating some fireworks Ghafoor gulped down the light chocolaty 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 now become Food Terrorists.

He imagined Mishra chirping.

Can food be labelled 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 puri, daal sabzi Hindu, and does it need to be said, biryani and kebabs are Muslims? Why else then there would be talk of terrorists being fed biryani?

Would he have to hear such horribilities? Ghafoor’s mind was making up the avowals Mishra would possibly make.

His thinking spree started running. A marathon.

Can food be labelled 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 puri, daal sabzi Hindu, and does it need to be said, biryani and kebabs are Muslims? Why else then there would 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 cuisine it’s only biryani which holds the distinction of being seditious.

The spree continued.

What is it with biryani? Why these terrorist guys are obsessed with it? Why don’t they eat veg-pulav 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 pilaf (v). Some others even credited eating of pilaf as the secret of that extra lavish lusciousness of Muslim women. To the lengths these fanatics can go!

Ghafoor thought; but quickly checked himself.

The Muslim culinary history is full of this condemnable food item. The hordes that galloped their way on the horse back 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.

Pulav, tahari, qubooli became younger sisters of biryani, though rarely posed a threat to the original. Since the beginning this evil dish had monopolized the whole Muslim cuisine making them 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 prehistoric method, so typical of the unwashed Maleechha! Today they do it, the pucca 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 was howling,

Why did you have to go now? Abhi toh pension bhi shuru naheen huwi [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. Reminded of music, a thought crossed his mind, are they going to ban songs now? Rafi only for Muslims and Kishore and Lata for Hindus? O my God, that would be horrific; Ghafoor felt a sharp chill in his spine. Mishra had not 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 pucca?

The stream flew 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 pulav. Qubooli is kind of step sister to it and veg-biryani? Blasphemous! He uttered, frothing on 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 100% chance of you having eaten this reprehensible dish at least once in a week, okay month. The day Amman used to announce the advent of biryani, the bachcha party would jump with joy and this news was 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 colors everything today; even his vegan neighbors would suck in the air deep, that malicious aroma was captivating.

When the thick rich curds 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 on 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!

Lol! 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 [Thank your Lord, for He maketh your cow!] 

Jis ne hamari gaaye banayi 

Suppose we make it our national anthem?

He took a deep breath, for the nth 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 have added complex kind of condiments? Tableeghi with added extra ghee? Barelvi with more than necessary spices? And Deobandi must be a fusion biryani!

All of a sudden, Ghafoor got a severe jolt, woken up from his reverie; 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; followed by the tweaking of ears; then finally he 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.

However, this time, he made no attempt to wipe it off with his sleeves.

Dr. Asma Anjum Khan is Assistant Professor of English in a Maharashtra college in India. The subject of her PhD thesis was American poet and writer Maya Angelou. She loves to write, among many other things. 

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