Friday, September 23, 2011

Goat Curry

I remember the rice paddies. Vividly.

As the late afternoon breeze would find its way through the tall and golden paddies, it would make the shiny leaves and stalks sway back and forth. And together, they would make waves -- in a sea of gold. At the time,  I was six years old, and, like it goes for six year olds, everything around me, was much taller than it seems today. And, at that time, I was slightly shorter than my grandma, which meant that I could still hide behind her. If the situation demanded so.

My grandma, her height notwithstanding, was a lady of determination and grit. So much so, that the entire village would listen to her gentle and persuasive voice, and usually, her wish would be their command. On that afternoon, I was trying to be brave, standing in front of my grandma, and looking at the sea of gold in front. The harvest season was fast approaching, and we were all eagerly looking forward to the fresh crop.

That was when I saw Idris Mian, for the first time. He was dressed like the average Muslim farm-hand in North India. He was dressed in a lungi and a well worn undershirt. He had a skullcap on his head, which didn't seem to have much hair on it. He had a long beard, and no moustache. Idris was tall, and well built, with a general appearance that would scare any six year old. So, when I saw him walking towards us, through the fields of gold, with a shiny sickle in his hand, the sight was enough to get me scampering. To hide behind my grandma, which I thought was the safest thing to do.

Idris walked all the way across the field to stand close to us, and then, he raised his hand in a Saalam. My grandma nodded in acknowledgment. And then, the conversation that followed gave me the impression that grandma was hiring him as a farm-hand. To help with the harvest, and till the crop was ready, to help with growing some vegetables in a patch of land, that she owned. After the conversation was over, and Idris went away to get acquainted with his work, I whispered in my grandma's ears, "Grandma, that man looks scary. As if, he ran away from the prison." She smiled and said, "Not quite. But he did get out of prison recently after serving a jail term. Luck must have been on his side, since the man he had beaten up in a brawl, did not die. That man Idris, is a very hard worker. But, he is extremely hot-headed."

I had no idea why grandma would hire such a man. But, he came highly recommended by a trusted farm hand. And, we always knew, that grandma knew better.  Than the rest of us, combined.

I was visiting my grandparents, and my grandma would sometimes take me to the farm with her. Grandma had inherited a lot of land from her father, who was a Zamindar (wealthy landowner). As my grandpa wanted to have nothing to do with grandma's inheritance, she took care of the land. And grandpa, was happy with his government job in the city, where they both lived in a huge house that my grandpa had inherited.

At that time, there wasn't really much for me to do. I would raid my grandpa's supply of classics, to read through a leather bound edition of 'Robinson Crusoe' for the five hundredth time. Sometimes, I would chase the neighborhood cat around till it would either admit defeat and run away, or, scowl in a way, that showed its family connection to the big cats. And then, I would admit defeat, and go and do something equally boring -- like babysitting a cousin. But, all this while,  I would tune into the stories of the occasional visitor from Grandma's farm. About how Idris, the new farm-hand, had turned the vegetable patch around. Grandma would hear the tales of  the tomatoes and the pumpkins in her patch, and smile a gentle smile. The gentle smile, that meant, "Wasn't I right, in hiring that guy?"

Then, there was a week, in which grandma went to the farm by herself. That was a hurried decision, based on something that had happened on the farm. She did not take me with her, and I suspected that something was wrong. When she came back the day after, she looked very serious. That evening, we all sat down for dinner, on soft mats on the kitchen floor. Around the warmth of the chulha, from which, grandma would take out fresh baked chappatis, to go with the spicy goat curry she had made for us. With a slice of onion on the side, that dinner, was simple, but heavenly.

Grandpa asked grandma about the farm. And that is when, I found out why she had to let Idris go, and the things, that led to it.

Apparently, in a couple of weeks, Idris had turned the vegetable patch around. He had toiled night and day to get the pumpkin vines to the point where they were showing signs of flowering. Grandma's village was a village of Hindus, while Idris lived in a neighboring village of Muslims.  Initially, there was some resentment about his presence, but things, were finally falling into place. And then, a neighbor's goat, broke the cease-fire.  It somehow got into grandma's vegetable patch, and started devouring all of Idris's hard work. And when Idris discovered the goat, it was already too late -- the pumpkin vines, were gone. And that is when, Idris the hot-head, lost his head.  He took a stick, and started beating the goat. Mercilessly.

By the time the village folks got to him, the goat was half dead. And then, some people got the idea that a Muslim farm-hand, had beaten up a "Hindu" goat. Had grandma not arrived the next day, and pacified everyone, there would have been a full scale riot in the village. With Idris at the center of it.

And so, grandma had to let Idris go.

After grandma finished her story, the first thing that grandpa verified, was if the goat curry we were having for dinner, had the same goat in it. Grandpa would not eat a goat, which had suffered such terrible cruelty. When grandma confirmed that it wasn't, it was my turn to be disappointed. After all, it would have been such sweet revenge -- to eat the goat, that had destroyed our vegetable patch.

Since grandpa had to share his wisdom, he turned towards me and said, "This story of religious hatred must be quite shocking to you. But remember. In the end, there are no Hindus and no Muslims. In the end, we are all dead."

It's been many years since. And grandpa, has moved on to a better place. And many years, over which, I have been accumulating my own wisdom. I am sure, if I had all this wisdom to share with my grandpa on that day, I would have said, "And remember grandpa. In the end, there are no Hindu goats or Muslim goats. In the end, there is only goat curry."

I wonder if grandpa would have liked that.


  1. The age of the Crusades is long gone - I suspect religious riots are just a veil over a more disagreeable incident or intention.

    If this story is true, I would consider the ‘Hindu goat’ action an excellent strategic move (leaving aside the morals) to ensure that more labour was not hired from the Muslim village.

    It is also about who gets to tell the story. Gujarat has had a history of religious riots from well before Independence. Many of them were under Congress governments till Modi came to power. Do we even know about them, let alone discuss them?

  2. This was really good. I enjoyed reading a blog post after a long time. You are good at promoting your blog too. I came here from Shobhaa de's blog!

  3. Dear Sudeep: Thanks for your comment. The intent behind writing this story was all about remembering the good old times. The religious angle was to merely recall the prevailing mood at the time.

    Dear Pappu: Glad you liked the story.


  4. Amazing story and very well narrated!

  5. :-)
    Hindu and Muslim goat..reminds me a conversation between Ghalib and a fanatic In Gulzar's 'Mirza Ghalib'.
    The other guy sarcastically says:'Diwali ki mithai kha rahe ho Ghalib?'
    Ghali:Barfi kha raha hoon..Barfi Hindu hai?aur jalebi?Imarti?Ye kya hain?


  6. Thanks Vandy: Mirza Sahab was the best! Since jalebi and imarti look similar, I guess they probably represent some complicated religious philosophy...I wonder which one?!