November 5, 2015 at 10:35 am

What’s my beef? I’ll tell you…

What’s my beef? I’ll tell you…

by Meeta Chatterjee Padmanabhan

One of our friends told us this joke a decade or so ago: ‘Two Indian friends went to a restaurant and ordered steak. One friend asked the other, “So you are eating your mother today?” The friend promptly responded, “No, I am not. I am eating your mother”.’ It was one of those jokes that generated uneasy laughter and led to the suppression of unfunny questions. Were both of them Hindus? Which restaurant was this? The joke links two taboo topics into one: the embargo against eating beef; and cannibalism. Not to mention that eating anyone’s mother in any culture or country would be very bad manners.

Beef cannot be talked about lightly, at least not in India, at least not now. The communal pot has been stirred. Accusations of storing/cooking beef have caused the absurd killing of a Muslim man, Muhamad Aklaq, in a village outside Delhi. Debates have raged over whether or not Hindus ate beef in the past, whether what one eats or drinks should be mandated by governments or other forces, whether the beef industry in India should be stopped and whether cow slaughter should be banned. Religion and communal issues continue to hound India. Irrational acts of communal violence such as the murder of Kannada writer, M.M Kalburgi, have enraged Indian writers enough to renounce their Sahitya Academy awards. Mridula Nath Chakraborty’s Outrageous Acts, Courageous Acts offers a detailed discussion. The sad turn of events on the national front reminds me of a different reality in our private lives.

When I was growing up in a block of units in Mumbai, surrounded with Hindu, Muslim and Christian families, I was delightfully confused about our religious identities. My grandmother collected pictures of gods of all major and minor religions for her shrine. So, Jesus Christ on the cross jostled for space in the shrine with the pot-bellied Ganesh. Guru Nanak’s beard must have tickled Gautama Buddha, who was squashed by the framed three-dimensional picture of Mecca gifted to her by a kind neighbour who had returned from Dubai. Every morning grandmother distributed jasmines, marigolds or hibiscus equally among her gods. Since I was a resourceful six-year-old, she sent me on a mission to recruit hymn singers for all religious groups. A group of hungry eight-year-olds playing cricket on the rooftop came to the rescue. They sang, ‘Rudolph the red nosed reindeer …’ with gusto while she sang, ‘Om jai jagadesh hare…’ Not having found a good prayer for the image of Mecca, she requested a six-year-old to sing, ‘Allah tero naam, Ishwar tero naam.’ The last ‘hymn’ was a popular song sung by Lata Mangeshkar in the heydays of national integration. The line roughly means that whether ‘you are called Allah or Ishwar, you are the same divine being’. ‘That will have to do’, she said as she held her ears, prostrated arthritically and begged for forgiveness from the assembled gods in her shrine. The improvised ritual would seem blasphemous to self-respecting Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, but it didn’t bother anyone a tiny bit because grandmother had her performers and an audience and we had our prasad, in this case, delicately flavoured milk sweets which were offered to the gods. There was never a dearth of hymn singers for any religious groups for grandmother’s prayers as long as our friends played cricket on the rooftop and needed a snack. The ‘hymns’ may not have been the most appropriate, but eight children and an elderly woman were harmoniously connected.

Grandmother’s was one gesture among many. There was never a birth, death, elopement, success in exams, attempted suicides at failures, a grazed knee or stroke that one celebrated or mourned alone in our block of apartments. It is true that Jamila’s grandfather rejoiced when Pakistan won the world cup, and Dastoor Uncle distributed sweets when England won. The Mendes family always brought out their guitars and sang when Australia won in cricket matches.

Looking back, my grandmother enacted her own private form of secularism when she improvised those rituals. I have no idea what she was thinking, or whether she was thinking anything at all. She probably rejoiced in having young children around her since hers had grown up and gone away. Perhaps, one could assign to her a commitment to the secular cause. It is hard to tell whether the national integration slogans, carefully designed school education programmes, and the Bollywood film versions of it as a mechanics of social engineering worked, but a willingness to tolerate and live with diversity was evident. This may be an over-simplistic view of religion, communal and caste harmony, but on the public front, as I read Romilla Tharpar’s interviews and the transcript of her speech, I am convinced by her argument that in India, the co-existence of a diversity of religions and not the absence of them is central to secularism. So what is my beef? That despite our inclination to live in harmony, why do we still not have a working secular system that reflects our acceptance of social, religious and cultural diversity?

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