“Yes, sure. As I said earlier, we are from Jharkhand,” Biram-kumang said.
“You see, I have been to Jharkhand,” Mr Rao said, surprising Biram-kumang with the slight hesitation he began with. “To Ranchi and Palamu... It was a long time ago; it was all Bihar then. Jharkhand became a separate state only a few days ago.”
“Yes, in November,” Biram-kumang said.
“Er... Mr Soren, I hope you won’t mind my asking this... Will you?”
“No, sir. Not at all,” Biram-kumang said tensely. “Please, ask.”
“Er... Isn’t Soren a tribal surname? Please, I just want to know. For information’s sake.”
Biram-kumang was shocked at being asked this so directly, especially by the gentle-seeming Mr Rao, but he kept his composure.
“Yes, sir,” Biram-kumang answered. “We are tribals. Santhal.”
“Please, I hope you don’t mind, Mr Soren, I have nothing against tribals. I have worked with tribals in my various postings all over the country. I have even lived in Ranchi. I respect all communities. And in this city, you see, even we are outsiders.”
“I... I understand that, sir,” Biram-kumang said, unsure what Mr Rao was getting at.
“You see, Mr Soren, I asked this because not everyone here might have the same attitude as me.”
Biram-kumang was all ears.
“Vadodara is a strongly Hindu city,” Mr Rao continued. “People here believe in purity. I am not too sure what this purity is, but all I know is that people here don’t eat non-veg. You know? Meat, fish, chicken, eggs. Nor do they approve of people who eat non-veg.”
“Yes, sir.” Biram-kumang nodded.
“Tribals, even lower-caste Hindus, they are seen as impure. I hope you understand.” Mr Rao seemed almost contrite as he said this.
“Yes, sir. I have some idea of this,” Biram-kumang said.
“Muslims and Christians, they don’t stand a chance here. They have separate areas where they live. Cities within a city. Separate bastis for Muslims, for Christians.”
Biram-kumang kept nodding.
“Mr Soren, you seem like a good man, a family man. We trust you. But could I ask you to do one thing?”
Biram-kumang hesitated, then said, “What is it, sir?”
“You see Mr Soren... people may want to know about you. They are always curious. If they ask you where you’re from, please, will you just tell them that you’re from Jharkhand? Just that much, nothing more. Better still, can you tell them that you’ve been transferred from Bhubaneshwar? Mentioning a well-known city usually clears the air quicker. You understand, don’t you?”
“Sure, sure, I do.” Biram-kumang relaxed a little. He had been told to expect all this.
“As for me,” Mr Rao added, “if someone asks me, I’ll tell them I know you through colleagues and friends I know and trust. I’ll say that you are a good person.”
Biram-kumang forced a smile. “That would be very kind.”
Mr Rao heaved a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Mr Soren. You see, even we used to eat meat and chicken. And eggs. We used to have eggs for breakfast almost daily. My sons, they eat non-veg. But not when they’re here. When we decided to settle here – because this place is so neat and tidy – we had to pay a small price. I hope you understand.”
Biram-kumang only said, “Of course, I understand.”
“But still we can’t be sure. Who holds a grudge against whom. What tensions there are underneath all the civility. I don’t know how many people here, in this colony, where we’ve lived for a decade or so, hate us for not being from Gujarat. One can never tell. The family living in that house there,” Mr Rao pointed to the house right across the narrow street, “the Mohammeds. Not everyone in this colony is comfortable with their presence. So you see, one has to be cautious all the time.”
“That’s right,” Biram-kumang nodded in agreement.
“Er... Mr Soren,” Mr Rao began hesitatingly again. “Speaking of caution, can I ask you for one more favour?”
Biram-kumang thought for a second or two. What else was coming? “Yes,” he said. “What is it?”
“Can you assure us that you won’t cook any non-veg in my kitchen? No meat-mutton-egg-chicken-fish. Nothing.” Biram-kumang came downstairs and recounted the meeting to Panmuni-jhi. She only clutched her head in her hands and kept sitting where she was, silently, for a long time.
“Jhapan, where have we come?” Panmuni-jhi lamented on a visit to her niece.
Jhapan-di said, “Don’t worry, jhi, you will get used to this place.”
Panmuni-jhi asked in outrage, “How can people dislike those who eat meat? We need haku or sim-jill every Sunday, and eggs nearly every day!”
“What to do, jhi?” Jhapan-di said wistfully. “Jyamon des, tyamon bhes. While we can buy everything here in the campus market – mutton, chicken, eggs, alcohol – we don’t do that outside. Anyway, nothing is available outside, not in the entire Vadodara bazaar.”
Panmuni-jhi shook her head in disbelief.
“Don’t worry, jhi.” Jhapan-di laughed and patted Panmuni-jhi on the knee. “When you feel like eating jill-haku, come to our place. Have you got your phone connection yet?”
“No, not yet,” Panmuni-jhi said. “We”ll get it next week or so.”
“All right, jhi. As soon as you get your phone line, call us. Then we’ll fix a date for a lunch or a dinner. A traditional Santhal meal – daka and sim-jill. Done?”
After the landline had been fixed, the first call Panmuni-jhi made was to Rabi at his hostel in Cuttack. “Son, we haven’t eaten chicken for two weeks. Not even eggs!”
“That’s good, Bo!” Rabi laughed.
“Yes, at least you won’t spoil your tummy. Each time you eat chicken you get indigestion.”
“Not when I cook the chicken, son.”
“Don’t worry, Bo. Change your diet. You’re getting older. Old people shouldn’t eat meat and eggs. They cause heart problems, cholesterol, fat, indigestion. And gout!”
This only annoyed Panmuni-jhi more.
In spite of the restrictions on her diet, Panmuni-jhi fell in love with Vadodara within a year. The markets, the roads, everything was so clean and neatly arranged.
It was an old town but there was so much open space and greenery. It was so unlike Odisha and Jharkhand. The shift in loyalties was finally sealed when she went to eat at a restaurant in town.
“Let us eat outside today,” Biram-kumang suggested one afternoon during a shopping trip.
“Outside?” Panmuni-jhi was stunned.
“Arrey! You have to eat out to see how the restaurants here are. They are not like the hotels in Bhubaneshwar. They’re different. Cleaner.”
Curious, she followed Biram-kumang into an eatery.
It was a simple place, but spacious, airy and – as Panmuni-jhi noticed right away – clean. There was ample space between the tables for patrons and staff to walk. The tables had white tops, but they had been cleaned so well there were no haldi stains, no stains from the bases of glasses and cold drink bottles. Also, there were no puddles of water accumulated anywhere, no dirt deposited in the corners, no shoe or mud stains. It was like Panmuni-jhi’s own house.
Biram-kumang and Panmuni-jhi ordered a Gujarati thali each. Panmuni-jhi liked the taste of the food, plain as it was. However, it was the cleanliness which made the strongest impression upon her.
The Sorens would regularly visit Jhapan-di. But as the family grew busier – with Biram-kumang’s office and Hopon’s school – and as Panmuni-jhi too got used to Vadodara, their visits decreased in frequency. Still, they ensured a meeting at least once a month.
Similarly, their menu at Jhapan-di’s too underwent a change. Jhapan-di would be more than eager to entertain her aunt’s family from Jharkhand, and would cook a lot of chicken and fish. However, as the Sorens more or less stopped eating non-vegetarian food, and began enjoying the vegetarian meals that they often had at restaurants in Vadodara, they asked Jhapan-di to not bother. Bhat, dal, one tarkari, and for that token non-vegetarian dish, even a simple egg curry would do.
“Of course, this city is neat and clean, jhi,” Jhapan-di said to Panmuni-jhi. “This is one of the charms of living here. Everything here is in order. You haven’t been to Ahmedabad yet, have you, jhi?”
“No,” Panmuni-jhi said. “I’ve heard about it, though. It’s a nice place, no?”
“Nice? It’s beautiful!” Jhapan-di’s eyes shone. “Such good roads, you can lie down on them. And the markets and the shops...”
“Hmm... I’ll ask your kumang to take us there one day.”
“You must, jhi. You see, jhi, cities in Gujarat too were dirty. All kachra on the roads and congestion. But there was a plague epidemic here – you remember? Some six-seven years ago?”
Panmuni-jhi nodded. She remembered. She had been at the Ghatshila Railway Station one day that year when the station master had announced that the Ahmedabad-Howrah Express would pass through the station, and people had started moving away from the platform. As soon as the Ahmedabad-Howrah Express arrived, whistling wildly as it thudded through, everyone had turned their faces away and covered their mouths, noses and faces with their palms or handkerchiefs.
“Ever since that outbreak, the government here has made sure that the towns and cities are kept clean,” Jhapan-di said.
“I tell you, Jhapan,” Panmuni-jhi often said to Jhapan-di on their Santhali-lunch afternoons, “I always tried to avoid eating at roadside restaurants in Bhubaneshwar. Whenever Rabi and Hopon bought me any outside-food, I would fall ill. Stomach ache, gas. I was so scared I would hardly eat outside. If your kumang asked me to eat out, I would tell him to take me to a good and clean place, an expensive place, like Swosti or Mayfair, or I wouldn’t go. But here, Jhapan, I like eating outside.”
“I told you, you’ll get used to this place, jhi.”
But old habits die hard. The Sorens did wean themselves – and quite successfully, to some extent – away from fish, chicken and mutton. However, at times, they would crave the simple sin of an egg.
There was a small shop in a far corner of the market near the Subhanpura Colony, run by an immigrant from Bihar. It was the only shop in the entire market which sold eggs, and there were always a fair number of people at that shop. Biram-kumang or Hopon would go there, look around to make sure there were no familiar eyes spying on them, buy two eggs, wrap them up discreetly, put them in their cloth shopping bag, and return home.
If buying eggs was a difficult task, cooking one was a mission in itself. Cooking more than one egg at the same time was the same as getting caught. If Hopon ate one egg on a given day, he would have the next egg only after a week or so, when Panmuni-jhi was sure that the odour of the egg she had cooked had wafted out of the house, out of Subhanpura Colony itself.
Also, disposing the eggshells was a problem.
Each morning, the Sorens would tie up all the garbage – vegetable peels, wrappers, waste paper, tea leaves – in the polythene bags they lined their garbage bins with, and either Biram-kumang or Hopon would throw these bags into the municipal garbage bin outside the colony. On days the garbage included eggshells, they would go even further. On some days, when they couldn’t throw the eggshells in the garbage, they would bury them in the kitchen garden.
On days like these, Panmuni-jhi would miss the freedom of Bhubaneshwar, and the cool sea breeze of the Bay of Bengal which touched each person in the same way. In Bhubaneshwar, Panmuni-jhi remembered, she would regularly cook two-egg omelettes for Rabi and Hopon. She would make delicious katla-machh which all the Santhal women of the city would praise. And, of course, there were the regular chicken and mutton dishes. The aroma of eggs, fish, chicken and mutton dishes would waft out of her kitchen and flow all over the HIG Housing Board Colony. No one raised an eyebrow, no one came to her house to grab her husband”s collar and demand of him: “Soren, didn’t I tell you not to cook non-veg?” No. Instead, her neighbours would only ask her: “Bhoujo, ei dish tawmo kemti taiyar kawrochho?” And she would happily tell them how she had made the dish.
Excerpted with permission from the short story 'They Eat Meat!', The Adivasi Will Not Dance: Stories, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Speaking Tiger.