Book review

This account of Delhi’s meat industry is fact-filled and fascinating (but it may make you squirm)

‘Delhi’s Meatscapes’ is an informative and wide-ranging study of the Qureshi butchers and the trade, but also packed with annoying errors and poor writing.

Some of my earliest encounters with butcher shops took place when I accompanied my mother to south Delhi’s congested, kiosk-dominated Hauz Rani market, to buy beef treats for our cat. At the time, I was only vaguely aware that the shopkeepers had names like Suleiman and Qureshi and that they were Muslim; it was years later that I learnt about the politics of eating beef (or “buff”) and the discourses around it. I don’t remember speaking to the Hauz Rani butchers as a child – maybe just a nervous nod – but today, when I visit a tidier, air-conditioned meat shop in a Saket mini-market, I exchange small talk, in a mix of Hindi and English, with a new generation of tee-shirt-and-jeans-wearing Qureshis.

This swathe of experiences led to a casual curiosity about the Qureshi clan and its ubiquity in the meat trade, which is why I was intrigued to hear of Zarin Ahmad’s Delhi’s Meatscapes: Muslim Butchers in a Transforming Mega-City. This academic book provides a broad-based view of the Delhi Qureshis, their history, and what has changed for them over time, including the challenges facing traditional butchers in a fast-mechanizing trade and given the recent controversies around beef.

The Qureshi questions

Ahmad divides her research over six chapters, covering such subjects as the principal sites of Qureshi life (home, abattoir, meat shop), the increasing diversity of Delhi’s “meatscapes” – from roadside vendors to posh supermarkets in malls – and the effects and attendant tensions of the Pink Revolution, which has seen a growth in India’s meat exports. In the early chapters, she discusses aspects of Qureshi lifestyle and speech that mark them out as being a distinct biradri within the Muslim community; the power equations as they once were – including the status of authority figures like the Chaudhry – and as they are now, in the impersonal city; internal differences of opinion (about how lavish a function or ceremony should be, for instance); the growing independence of youngsters; the initial schism between “bhainswaale” (bovine butchers) and “bakrewaale” (sheep and goat butchers), and how this became more relaxed over time.

She tells us about the few writings available by and about the Qureshis, which “express a biradri in search of its own historical narration” – trying to shed demeaning perceptions, seeking the respectability that has often been denied to those who do “dirty” work, being Muslim while also caring for the Muslim-minority country they live and work in (and aware that they are sometimes expected to make an extra effort to show their loyalty to India). “There are tensions in the Qureshi presentation of their history,” Ahmad notes, “They would like to have no association with the khateek Hindu butchers, so they stress upon an Arabic past. At the same time, since cow and all forms of bovine slaughter is an emotive political issue, they know that their future is entwined with larger Muslim politics in India.”

Not personal enough

Early on, there is a translation – by the author herself – of an autobiographical sketch of Sadruddin Qureshi, author of a three-volume magnum opus about Qureshi history. This chatty, four-page interlude, which includes an account of the historian visiting Pakistan in the 1960s and being stuck there for months during the Indo-Pak war (enjoying the hospitality while also yearning to return home), is among the more charming things in the book, and I wish there had been more asides along these lines – humanising individual members of the biradri, using the personal to shed light on the historical. (Later, there is another short profile – again, demarcated from the main text – of Sirajuddin Qureshi, the prominent exporter who established the processing unit HAIL.)

It would also have been nice to get a fuller sense of Ahmad’s own participation in this story. In her Introduction, she fleetingly mentions the initial difficulties of winning her subjects’ trust (in the current climate, Muslim butchers are understandably wary of a writer approaching them with questions about their trade), or the challenges of venturing into male-dominated spaces like the Idgah livestock market. But frequently, just when the book seems to be adopting an informal or personal tone, it draws back and returns to being a chronicle of dry facts.

Ahmad covers a lot of territory, not just about the Qureshi history and lifestyle, but also about the intricacies and challenges of their profession. As the narrative moves from the lives of the biradri to the workings of the realms they have affected and been affected by, she takes us into the Idgah abattoir (which was shut down and relocated to Ghazipur, amidst protests, in 2009, but which Ahmad chooses to write about in the ethnographic present), and the various “actors” present here, from veterinarians who must pronounce an animal “fit to slaughter” to the slaughterers and cleaners.

The ethics of slaughtering

While the word “transforming” in the book’s sub-title denotes a changing metropolis, Ahmad also uses it in another context that can make even staunch non-vegetarians (like yours truly) squirm. The abattoir is “the site where animals are slaughtered and transformed […] into four distinct commodities”, she tells us, a usage of the word that put me in mind of novels about serial killers who artistically “alter” their victims into something supposedly larger and more significant than they were in life. If that sounds like a flippant comparison, it isn’t meant as such. While reading a book like this, any reader – no matter how dispassionate or how non-vegetarian – must to some degree engage with the ethics of killing.

I certainly thought about it during the passages that describe the grisly realities of the slaughterhouse. The closest I ever came to turning vegetarian – the phase lasted three or four weeks – was when, as a child, I passed nearer than I had intended to a chicken-slaughtering yard. Later, after watching the killing scenes in Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, I went off beef for a few weeks. Reading the abattoir descriptions in this book was a reminder of those close encounters with the processes that go into producing the meat on my table, and how removed that final product is from what precedes it.

Of course, complicating any discussion about the cruelty of animal slaughter in present-day India is the knowledge that such conversations are often a mask for cynical politics. As Ahmad points out, even some of the animal-welfare activism that has affected the Qureshis’ trade (the stopping of cattle-carrying trucks from plying at night, for example) are thinly veiled pretexts for exercising hegemony over the minority community. It’s a reasonable point, but I found myself wondering if this book might not have had a bit of space for an apolitical discussion about the less savoury aspects of meat-eating – while sticking within the framework that Ahmad has chosen for her study. For instance, given that youngsters often rebel against their parents and their familial legacies anyway, are there any young Qureshis – even a tiny minority – who don’t want anything to do with the meat trade? And what are the realistic options available to them? It’s one of the questions that hung over the book for me.

Errors and repetitions

There is no doubt that Delhi’s Meatscapes represents years of research, so I feel a little bad pointing to its inadequacies. But there are lots of typos and grammatical errors, missing words, misplaced commas and even incomplete sentences. Annoying as this sort of thing is – for a reader who expects better from a major publisher – it can to a degree be overlooked if it doesn’t interfere with comprehensibility. But that isn’t always the case.

Reading, on page 137, that “a shop selling buffalo meat should not be located within a radius of 500 metres from a temple”, I found myself making bemused estimations of market-temple distances in Delhi neighborhoods I know well. Then, on page 183, one learns that it wasn’t 500 metres after all, but 50 metres. On another occasion, a footnote tells us that a word mentioned in the text “rhymes with flatter and barter” – two words that are pronounced differently from each other.

Most off-putting, however, is the wholesale repetition of chunks of text. For instance, a paragraph at the end of chapter three reappears, almost word for word, at the end of chapter five. As if that weren’t enough, page 190 repeats two full paragraphs from just four pages earlier. One understands that some recurrences are inevitable in academic books – often made up of chapters that present discrete arguments and may have been put together at different times, before being collated into a whole – but this is sloppy stuff at both the writing and the editing level, unworthy of what Ramachandra Guha calls “a model work of scholarship”, “lucidly written”, in a jacket blurb.

This is not to cast aspersions on the book’s other merits, its usefulness as a go-to text, and the seriousness and difficulty of Ahmad’s research. But given the perceptions (not always baseless ones) about academic literature existing in its own echo chamber, which even a dedicated reader from outside the field can find hard to breach, it is all the more important for such books to avoid confusing errors or imprecise writing.

Meatscapes works as a primer to a fascinating subject, with some sections (the personal asides, the bits about the complexities of Qureshi interrelationships and the account of abattoir and marketplace activity) that are more compelling than others. But given that this book is likely to be the only major English-language publication on a highly specialised subject for some time, I hope the author and her publisher fix its mistakes in a later edition.

Delhi’s Meatscapes: Muslim Butchers in a Transforming Mega-City, Zarin Ahmad, Oxford University Press.

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