I first tasted beef when I was eighteen and had accompanied a few friends for a drunken jaunt at Calcutta’s junta bar, Olypub. One Hayward’s down, I heard a friend recommending the eponymous Olypub Beefsteak, driving Bengalis into poetic and political frenzy (especially when accompanied by Old Monk) since 1981. “Guru, ekhankar beefsteak na khele your life is empty!” Reiterating its proverbial importance in our lives. I hadn’t ventured anywhere near beef ever since I have memory of eating out. It’s something my parents would never recommend. No religious reasons. Maybe out of sensitivity towards cattle. (At this juncture, it would be safe to state that my maternal grandfather had nurtured a loving cattle shed complete with three beautiful cows each of which were named with utmost care – Heeremoni, the red one, Chintamoni, the white one and Kalomoni, the black and white one. The bovine creatures would graze on the expansive backyard and chew cud all day. I still remember a very pregnant Chintamoni giving birth to a rickety red calf in the middle of one winter night.) But we were talking about beefsteak at Olypub.
So, the famous dish arrived on the table looking nothing like the gourmet serving I was expecting. It was steak alright, served with copious amounts of potato mash and boiled green peas. To my knife and fork, it felt hard and stringy. To my mouth, it tasted like spiced rubber. I finished it off as soon as I could settling for a “No, thanks,” when another friend generously offered me a bite of beef from her plate seeing that I had finished mine already. I have never touched the meat ever since because I found it unpalatable.
Five years and many a drunken jaunt later, I was dating a guy who swore by the Olypub beefsteak. It was uncanny that he had repeated the exact same line that my friend had uttered, “Guru, ekhankar beefsteak na khele your life is empty!” I had politely declined the offer and was very happy to sit with a plate of cocktail sausages wishing that they didn’t look so emaciated and weren’t peppered with what looked like cockroach legs. But that’s another story.
Today, I read vociferous opinions against the ban of beef sale in Maharashtra on social media. A fine of INR 10,000 and a jail term of 5 years is the punishment for selling or having possession of beef in the state. For some, life, as they knew it, is over. For others, beef will soon emerge in cartels sparking contraband wars. For most, it’s a big blot on ‘democracy’. “C’mon yaar, now we can’t even eat what we like?”
India has a booming beef export industry. Strangely, what it exports and what earns the country huge foreign exchange is not actually cow meat but buffalo meat, often called carabeef. No match for real cow meat of course, I’m told. In fact, a quick research revealed that most of what is consumed inside the country – the delicious ‘beef’steak is also buffalo meat. This is also exported in figures close to some million tonnes to South East Asia and the Middle East where the preference of ‘cow-like’ meat is gaining fast ground. However, it’s not that true cows are not slaughtered for meat. Truckloads of them are smuggled across the border to Bangladesh every year illegally where they undergo the most depraved ways of butchery to render them into meat. A very sensitive piece of undercover reporting was done by the Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika. The journalist happened to accompany the middleman till the border in a truck full of bony cows. They were branded on their bodies according to their ‘potential’ (read taste, weight etc). This served as codes for the handler across the border so the cows can be segregated according to their meat quality. Inside a single truck often fifty such animals are loaded. If they misbehaved, chilli powder was smeared over their eyes or they were tortured with sharp iron rakes shoved inside them…
At the risk of being accused and labelled as a ‘Hindu sympathiser’ (what risk, I would ask, except for outrageous comments on social media from my pro-liberal and ‘secular’ friends), I would like to say that the furore on social media surrounding the banning of beef is best called hypocritical and baseless. Because A) it’s BEEF (cows/bulls/bullocks) that’s been banned not buffalo beef which will probably continue its 25% share in the export and Indian market. B) This is a welcome step to arrest illegal cow slaughter in the state. It does nothing to our democratic rights, doesn’t change it in any way. And it’s not as if we grew up eating beef with our Cerelacs and dalias. It’s at best an acquired taste. For many communities, it’s a cheap option for red meat (thus protein). Beef is cheaper than mutton. Following are some other attributes of the meat.
Beef is also known to contain a substance which goes by the name of Dioxin – poisonous in a trillionth of a gram. It is associated with causing cancer, endometriosis, ADHD in kids, reproductive defects and blood disorders. That apart, eating the meat of large animals is a particularly wasteful way of satisfying energy and protein needs. A single half-pound beef burger eaten daily by a consumer in Brazil or the United States uses up enough grain to meet the entire total daily energy and protein needs of three people in India with a combined grain and milk diet. Beef is also a great advertising bait especially for certain fast food brands. In the fast food industry, especially in countries like the USA, beef forms an important element needed to project the ‘feel good’ factor for brands which mostly target kids and their parents associating ‘eating out’ at those restaurants is fun and a positive recreational activity.
“Beef chhara Bangalir jibon ondhokaar”. It literally translates to ‘without beef a Bengali’s life is dark’. So far Bengalis have been the most garrulous rabble rousers and pebble throwers on the beef ban. Almost as though a birthright has been snatched away. And this is just one glimpse of the pseudo-secular mindset nurtured by Bengalis since time immemorial. The need to project their ‘liberal’ image finds vent in consumption of beef. It actually happened more than a century ago during the Young Bengal movement.
In the early 19th century, the Young Bengal movement saw a lot of Bengali youth converting to Christianity, defying age-old beliefs and traditions, paving the way for an ultra-liberal and radical way of life. Led by a young Derozio, the era saw the rise of radical thinkers, poets and philosophers like Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Krishna Mohan Banerji, Ramtanu Lahiri and Kristodas Pal, among others. In fact the ‘Derozians’ also went to the extent of throwing beef at their neighbours’ houses as an act of rebellion. Strangely, the same bunch later started having Durga Puja at their homes. Despite their vow of defying traditions.
That was beef. About some other issues, many have chosen to be selectively secular on certain issues.
Freedom of expression got a beating when a painting of bikini-clad Gopis seen gallivanting with Lord Krishna allegedly drew the ire of the ‘Hindutva-mongers’ so much that the painting by an artist from Assam had to be taken off display. Much anger was vented on the fact that the Hindu mob can go on ‘without any punitive action against them’. This called to mind the whole Charlie Hebdo massacre (Happened when the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, printed insipid cartoons of Prophet Mohammed). This time, ire was drawn because the painting was just asked to be taken off by the angry protesters. No mass killings here, though.
Who can forget Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History which was the epicentre of controversy recently. The book approaches Hinduism from the perspective of an American Indologist who has interpreted symbolic references in Hindu holy texts quite literally. One example, she takes Sita’s purification by fire literally concluding that Lord Ram, the son of the ‘sex addict’ (Kaam-Atma) Dasaratha, is thereby congenitally lustful and thus had to ‘purify’ Sita since she had spent days in the bedroom quarters of Ravana. (A word here about the word ‘kaam’. It doesn’t necessarily always translate to ‘sex’. It could mean just ‘lust’ and lust driven towards not just sex but in a more encompassing manner towards objects of material nature and/or the pursuit of material delights. See, it’s really difficult to distill and deconstruct Hinduism and related paraphernalia in a linear manner without running into etymological roadblocks!) Elsewhere, she represents Lord Shiva through the symbol of the phallus, the linga, and terms it the ‘linga franca’ because it is understood as a symbol throughout the length and breadth of India. Yes. The linga is a phallic symbol because physically it resembles a penis sitting perched on a female yoni or the vagina. But that is just one representation – according to Tantric philosophy – the union of Purusha and Prakriti. The Linga Purana explains the Shivlinga from a whole different perspective. Read it to know it. But hey, Hinduism is a religion filled with sexuality and lust, right? And Hindus today are either shameful of their ‘lustful’ heritage or living in denial or both. Correct? No offence to Ms Doniger, though. I admire her courage and learning.
Cut to the year 1989. A book which allegedly perverts verses of the Holy Koran and paints Prophet Mohammed in bad light drew the ire of Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran who issued a Fatwa against it and ordered Muslims around the world to hunt down the author and kill him. Haha, much like good old Liam Neeson in the Taken franchise! It led to worldwide protests by Muslims. Later, in 1998, the ‘hunt and kill’ order was revoked though the Fatwa remained. The book was Satanic Verses and the author, of course, Salman Rushdie who, skipped the hallowed Jaipur Lit Fest in 2012 for fear of being assassinated. The then Indian Government had done all it could to keep Rushdie out of the picture especially after the Darul Uloom Deoband’s vice-chancellor demanded it.
Not so long ago, in 2007, the streets of Kolkata had turned into a war zone when the All India Minority Forum staged a protest against author Taslima Nasreen. The protests and threats follow a similar pattern – offers of money to those who can ‘blacken Taslima’s face’ and/or ‘behead her’ by an Imam in Kolkata for her ‘anti-Islam’ comments and writings. Of course the violence and carnage are petty here. But it’s Hinduism that has loads of sex in it? Awesome! It makes the bestseller list and trends #OnMyReadingListNext on social media.
I feel, if one wages a war for freedom of expression, one must be ready to handle others’ freedom (and thereby, right) to be offended – across cultures, castes, religion and creed. No selective treatment here. As long as the offence is non violent.
The recent gruesome rape of an elderly Christian nun in West Bengal’s Ranaghat district has shamed us greatly. No prizes for guessing who were behind it. Of course it was provoked by the Hindutva-mongers. Crime after crime after crime against minority religions in India saw exponential growth after BJP and Narendra Modi took office as Prime Minister of India. Has to be. He bleeds saffron after all. Even our Chief Minister didn’t flinch while blaming BJP (and CPM) for this heinous crime. My good friends in the media helped propagate the very sellable idea. What else but ‘ghar wapsi’ is the root cause of violence against Christians and Muslims in the country? Reports of the Ranaghat case screamed out in the largest fonts – lead headlines, spin-off anchor stories, but never stopping its front-page dalliance in leading dailies. Silent marches, candlelight vigils and a general pious mood prevailed on news channels. But all good stories have to come to the most unromantic ends! When illegal Bangladeshi immigrants (two Muslims and one Hindu) were nabbed for being behind this unpardonable crime, the story lost all flavour and like cold insipid undrinkable cha, seeped out of Page One and trickled to the rear pages before disappearing altogether.
Selective treatment and superficial logic will get us nowhere. And to those in favour of beef consumption, you are actually favouring the illegal transportation and slaughter of an animal. Beef, in India is cheap because it comes from water buffaloes – the female ones once they stop producing milk. They are NOT reared for consumption. And it is cheap because it is smuggled. But if opposing the ban ups your coolth, let’s keep the swag rolling, then? Waiter, bring me my Old Monk and Beef Steak!