The Meat of Love.

I don’t remember the first time I ate beef, but I do remember vividly the ecstasy sparkling in the eyes of at least half a dozen of my friends whom I had the privilege of hand-holding through their first plate of beef chilly. As my feed rattles through pointlessly silly arguments trying to justify new legislation, I thought of sharing a few of my favourite beef moments from my life of twenty five years past.

Though beef had always been regular at dining tables of mine and most relatives homes, the earliest fond memory of beef is from the amazing canteen we had back in school. I sat down yesterday evening with Manu at Cocoa Tree in Kochi, eating their evergreen roast beef sandwich and house steak burger, and it was only a strange coincidence that us, old school friends, met after a span of eight years over a meal with beef all over it. It made me reminisce days from our higher secondary classes at school, the mid 2000’s, when we could savour to a sumptuous meal of porotta and beef at just Rs. 15 for lunch each day at the school canteen. There was no offense or reluctance in sharing our meal with boys who wore a blessed prasad on their foreheads or girls who would have had to cover their heads outside of school. We never knew how to discriminate back then.

As years passed by and we were grown up enough to leave our homes for hostels, porotta and beef fry had attained a cult status in our hearts. The worst of days could be transformed into the best by this simple meal from a roadside eatery. That said, it was a meal that was taken for granted by me. Mutton had never been a meat of much desire at places in Kerala where I lived in. It was always pork, chicken and beef, exactly in that order of importance. Beef was for days when we were poverty struck, after a long trip with the music band when we didn’t get any money, after a long day at a tech fest when the broke organizers gave post-dated cheques for all the cash prizes we won, on those tiring last few days of running around cities trying to squeeze out money from potential sponsors for the tech fest we were trying to put up, at the end of the week when the money parents had given us magically managed to disappear into God knows where, and so many regular instances in a financially struggling college kids life. Every college hostel in Kerala would have bearded boys from Malabar and chubby ones from Kochi and Kottayam who would pack and get enough beef from their homes after the break and share it happily with everyone, without caring to hazard a guess as to whether the person eating it wore a rosary or a rudhraksh around his neck. Beef always tasted better when shared. I fondly remember a night when we were stuck in Kozhikode after a series of competitions at a college festival which ended without any prize money, and right before catching a train back to Kochi, we dropped by Top Form Restaurant at SM Street (expanded as Sweet Meat Street) on the recommendation of an auto driver. Having not enough money to afford a full meal of porotta and beef, we had asked the waiter for porotta and just gravy, a common practice among broke, weary college students. It was just a few minutes to midnight and the restaurant was just about to shut shop, and to our sheer joy, we found succulent pieces of beef amidst the gravy that we were served, and a smile on the face of the waiter who served it to us. Beef, for us, was a meat of love.

In 2013 I finished engineering and moved to Kozhikode for masters, and that’s when I realized that the meat I had taken for granted had such an elaborately complex history to it. My circle of friends from Kerala reveled in the glory of what Kozhikode could do to beef, starting from the spicy beef chilly at Sweekar restaurant in Kunnamangalam to its pinnacle at the brilliant beef biriyani from Rahmath. There were a dozen odd amazing dishes in between, all those snacks that they could make from beef at Zain’s, the mouth-watering burgers at Downtown, the thick gravy that could drench not just porottas but also our hearts at Top Form and Sagar, and that beef roast which only the master chefs at Paragon could prepare. At the same time, I learnt of how 80% of my batch of MBA at Kozhikode, folks from outside Kerala or the North East, had never tasted this meat. It wasn’t a difficult task at all to introduce them to beef in a city that loved this meat as much as it loved the Arabian Sea, and for my friends who were sensible enough to see through religion and not be blinded by it, beef had become an important part of their diet. Despite being introduced to a world where there were deeper arguments about the religious and political significance of beef than the one’s I had been used to (like whether beef tasted better when roasted with pepper or fried in coconut oil), I still had taken it for granted, for there was enough beef to live and let live in Kozhikode, as abundant as the sea that grazed the city, and as freshly cooked as the mist that covered the mountains around our campus in the morning. The pattern was still the same, chicken biriyani was the meal for a good day, and beef biriyani for the broke day.

I graduated in 2015 and moved to Delhi for my first management trainee stint, and that is when the beef went from being my poor day’s meal into being the luxury for which miles needed to be traversed. My experiences with beef in Delhi were far and wide apart, in terms of distance as well as time. The occasional lunch at Kerala house, the dropping by in between meetings at the nondescript market near INA, awkward weekdays when some reason or the other took me to Medanta Hospital in Gurgaon and those weekends when I’d splurge a fortune on porotta and beef at select restaurants in Cyber Hub, Hauz Khas or Saket where I knew beef would be available were my only indulgences in a city where one could spot cows and bulls at every turn. This is where I first understood the relevance of the line, ‘water water everywhere, not a drop to drink’. I also discovered intolerance in the very sense of the word, when I had to shift from a shared table in a crowded restaurant as the person sitting opposite to me couldn’t digest the fact that someone could sit opposite to him and consume this holy being, as he unleashed his gluttony on a plate of chicken biriyani kept in front of him. Though that incident did pave way for one the best things in my life, I was amused at how irritating an animal racist that man had been, and wished him trouble in digesting that chicken as well.

Shajeerkka and I had spent enough time going deep into the streets in and around the Jama Masjid in Delhi-6 during the month of Ramadan in 2015, and we did find, like a gem hidden in amidst a sea of mutton and chicken, a vendor of beef kebab’s in the hidden corner of the street leading straight from Gate №3 of the Masjid. The kebab costed us substantially lower that the mutton and chicken one’s around it. Later explorations around the city led us to a dozens of nondescript shops around the durgah at Nizammudin, yet again, at prices which were only a fraction of what the Karim’s restaurant beside the durgah charged us for the same dishes made from mutton. It is only then that I fully grasped that beef had an identity in places far from my home. It had a religion that wore a beard and a cap, and it had a class which was generally on the lower side in economics.

As I shifted down South again from Delhi, the exclusivity of beef came down from its pinnacle at the Capital, bringing back into my life sandwiches and burgers from breakfast spots in Koramangala and Adyar, succulent pieces of dry fried beef from unknown messes all around Bangalore and Chennai, and lovely combinations of porotta and beef dishes in restaurants which called themselves Kumarakom and Kuttanadu in both these cities. The price tag on my beef roast had an exponential growth compared to general food inflation rates over the decade in between, yet, love for this meat stayed unperturbed, only aided by the exclusiveness that it managed for itself as I moved around the country. Bangalore and Chennai never had that abundance of beef which would enable me to sharer the love of this meat with those whom I befriended in these cities, and for Delhi, well, it didn’t even have enough beef for myself.

As a majority in the country celebrates a ban on slaughtering and restrictions on sale for beef, I only feel disheartened that so many people in the country could never taste the beauty and love of this magical piece of meat. I’m not game to picking up an argument with people supporting the ban, not because I respect their views, but in the interest of time and self-respect. There is very little I can offer, apart from sympathy, to someone who can say that there is no restriction on consumption, but only slaughter. I’m also mature enough to understand that it was only a coincidence, and not a manifestation of hatred for a particular religion, that this ban had to be announced on a date that marked the beginning of a month that a minority in the country considered auspicious. Maybe we’ve not had a great government in a long while, and the current one too, as yet, is nothing better than mediocre, but the amount of inherent hate that our society now carries makes me depressed. And to learn that my beloved beef has been turned into an instrument for taking this hate further adds to that depression. It has always been a meat of love, and to see it fueling hatred around the country is as disturbing to a beef lover like me as an over spiced, under cooked plate of raw vegetables. The problem with a blind driver is that the damages he or she causes isn’t restricted to just his or her own vehicle, but also to harmless, innocent pedestrians. Here, when certain norms of an ideology you swear by force you into blindness, you are also naïve to the social and economic implications of your actions.

For now, I know that many of our meals will never be the same again. What are we without love? What am I without beef!

#food #india #politics #currentaffairs #beefban