Of Cabbages and Kings: The best biryani ever

The ghost of Godhra hung overhead like a dense fog. Dictating the politics of Gujarat and the rest of India ever after. Dividing us into beef and non-beef eaters.

 |  7-minute read |   19-05-2017
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"Madam you can't carry a gas cylinder," said X in a pink shirt and grey pants as he helped me weigh my cartons at the luggage section of the railway station. "Of, of course," I said aloud and then to myself, I added: How stupid.

Why would it be legit to carry a gas cylinder on a train when exactly this item caused such large scale violence in Gujarat 15 years ago? Images of charred bodies from the Godhra train station from the year 2002 came to mind. Did Muslims set the bogey on fire, killing 59 activists from the Hindu Right? Or was it the gas cylinders they were carrying to cook en-route, illegally, that burst when a fight erupted and a gathering mob at the railway station threw burning rags into the bogey?

15 years and two politically motivated investigations later, we may never know exactly what caused those deaths. Deaths that sparked off a genocide against Muslims in 16 districts across the state of Gujarat. So much trouble by something seemingly innocuous like a cooking gas cylinder. No wonder X saw mine and cried foul.

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I offered to sell my gas cylinder to X for 500 rupees since I did not want to be the cause of any violence  - large scale or small. The Kalupur Railway Station in the grime filled, grey city of Ahmedabad can be quite a subversive space, like much of Gujarat; I've come to learn. If you stop and listen to the men that carry 1,500 kilos of cargo on their backs and the mad woman who chuckles as she encases torn cargo in plastic PVC covers and stitches them together with a large needle and some thread.

Because I was packing my whole house and carting it in boxes in the luggage compartment of the train, I had been introduced to X by someone who knew someone, so that there would be no trouble getting my boxes onto the luggage bogey. Otherwise, who knows, there may not be space. There may be fish from the Gujarat fisheries, loaded onto the luggage compartment that spill their essence all over the floor and leech into my books and paintings. This last bit of information isn't my imagination, it's X's. That's why, it helps to know someone who can eventually lead you to X. He has a band of boys that sit around the luggage section, carting stuff in hand-drawn wheel barrows for 1,500 rupees a round.

While X disappeared to attend to other cargo that needed fixing, one of his acolytes turned to me and grinned widely. "X tried to kill himself twice, you know. Threw himself off the bridge because he was fed up of his family. But both times, he didn't die. Ha ha ha ha ha!" And then another turned to me, clearly needing to outdo his pal in the macabre quotient. "Look there, at that man across from the tea stall, sitting on a plastic chair," he said, pointing to a slightly plump, grey-haired railway official. "He's just recovered from a heart attack. He keeps having them, you know. But I'll tell you this. If you go pull his oxygen mask in the hospital bed and tell him - "There's a cargo gig to be attended to, he'll sit up immediately and listen." More laughter followed.

"We don't get much work you know, we're mostly sitting here, bumming around, waiting for cargo to be lifted," said one. After lifting mine - a mean 1,500 kilos across to the other end of the railway station, they sat down, listless and sweaty, but still performing for their new audience.

I had opened up a tall tiffin full of spicy mutton biryani and liver made by a dear friend as a farewell present. This is because I was leaving the city that has been my home for two and half years. "Come, dig in and have some biryani," I said to my new friends. "X eats meat, but we don't madam." And this was followed by a line I fell in love with: "The only non-veg I have is two pegs every evening ma'am."

"That's not either veg or non-veg," I said, smiling. "What do you drink," I asked, since drinking is prohibited by law in Gujarat but of course everyone out-drinks the rest of the country just for that. "Vodka or gin," he said. And named some unheard of brands. "Blue Eye Vodka" and "Revotional Gin." I am still trying to figure out whether the brand of gin is meant to be revolutionary or devotional or a mix of the two.

At this point I opened up my big box of biryani and asked if there was any way in which my new friends could get hold of some spoons. Perhaps the snack stall further down the platform had some? And suddenly X's eye caught sight of a large cargo box a few feet away from where we were, the corner of which was slightly torn. So it was possible to see even from a distance, a few shiny plastic spoons, gleaming temptingly from their packing. But right in front of the box of spoons stood a burlesque railway police-man, inspecting all things railway.

X looked at me and grinned. "Should I go and steal some?" I asked. "I do have fairly good sleight of hand you know," I said, wanting to prove to my new friends that I also had a skill or two. "No, you sit here madam. I don't want you to get into any trouble on my account." And then he summoned one of his boys - the leanest of them all. "Go pull out a couple of spoons, will you?" And there, right from under the policeman's nose, four shiny spoons were snatched from the cargo and delivered to X and me. The already spicy, succulent mutton biryani tasted a thousand times better. We sat it down on the edge of the wheelbarrow that had delivered my luggage and ate out hearts out.

"Can you tell from the camaraderie we share here madam, which of us is Hindu and which Muslim? I wish the world was like this," said X, a tad wistfully. By now we had talked of many things. Cabbages and kings. Why railways were such boiling points and why it made some from the mob, the country's new kings. The ghost of the 59 kar sevaks who were burnt at the Godhra railway station hung overhead like a dense fog. Dictating the politics of Gujarat and the rest of India ever after. Dividing us into beef and non-beef eaters.

"What liver have you got packed in that tiffin, is it beef?" X asked. "No," I replied. "But I eat beef and pork and every kind of meat I can find." I didn't need to add that I too had broken the law in my two and half year stint in Gujarat, by eating beef and drinking on occasion. That was implied. It was in the air. The subversive undertone to all things Gujarati.

The official version is one part of the story. It spells one word. MODI. His rise, his stupefying, dizzying success, built on the backs of many fans in election after election in Gujarat. The politics and PR of that now radiating out to the rest of the country. And then there is the subversive innerwear. Where elections are done and dusted and you vote for the BJP like a bad habit you've acquired. Like the local hooch you buy from a guy in a dark alley. And then you disregard mostly anything the party and everything else in the country stands for.

This is the land where Gandhi and secular politics are disregarded and spurned. And now, their replacement - the politics of Godse, or Gandhi's assassin, in their act of becoming mainstream, are slowly being treated the Gujarati way. With a bit of forbidden biryani and stolen spoons.

Also read: Of Cabbages and Kings: La La Lump

Writer

Revati Laul Revati Laul @revatilaul

Independent journalist and filmmaker, currently based in Gujarat.

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