Mariam had put our tea and murukku on the kitchen table and she had left for the day. We washed our hands and sat down. I bit into a murukku and through its pleasant crunch, I mumbled, Dada, what happens if we eat pork?
He looked at me from under his white eyebrows. He was not smiling. He blew on the rim of his steel tumbler and took a cautious sip. Lukewarm, as he knew it would be, but he can never stop blowing at the rim first. My brother’s caught the habit from him.
Nothing happens to the body. These people eat. Our neighbours. Workers. Forest men. They used to hunt wild boar. It’s a huge beast. Very strong. Not easy to kill. Not like goat or sheep. They ate it. Many people eat. In foreign countries, I hear, the pigs are pink. You must have seen pictures in your storybooks. The pigs around town don’t look so nice. Grey. Black, from rooting in the gutters. Don’t feel like eating them, do you? But, well, I don’t suppose they are, as such, well, their meat is not poisonous. It may give worms in the stomach.
He proceeded to take his usual big, loud slurp but his eyes never left me. Why do you ask, my little baby?
I broke a murukku in two, then broke the two parts into four. One-fourth of a part into two again. I put a thin sliver between my two front teeth. I didn’t eat it, I said. I mean, I didn’t swallow. I spat it out.
He laced his fingers around the tumbler, waited for me to look up. I kept my eyes fixed on the murukku, crumbling it into smaller bits.
They mixed it into the rice. They said, It’s our special type of biryani. It didn’t smell or anything. I didn’t know, Dada. I don’t know what it tastes like.
Yashika was there and it was from her cousin’s tiffin. They said, Try it, try it. So I ate one spoon of rice. Then they said, Try the meat too, you must try it with the meat. So I took another spoonful. And then those other girls came and stood around. Deepika and her group. She’s the one I don’t like. And Yashika’s cousin, he was staring at me. It felt funny. The meat was not like our usual meat. It was like a glob of fat. Like some resin had been melted down. There was no taste in my mouth. I tried to spit it out into my palm. But then Yashika and Deepika –
I reached out for my tumbler of tea but Dada caught my hand in his. He began to dust off the murukku crumbs from my palm.
Yashika too, eh?
I nodded. They had grabbed my hands and they were laughing. Then I guessed. Looking at their faces, I guessed. They were telling me, now eat it properly. They were holding my hands down. Like this. One on each side. I kept trying to chew, then I just spat it out. It fell on the front of my tunic. They said, yuck yucky yuck! Then Yashika’s cousin said, See? I told you! She won’t.
I was not crying but Dada lifted my palm to his lips and kissed it like he used to when I was howling. That was when I was little. He didn’t let go of my hand as he picked up another murukku. He took a bite and fed me the rest with his own hand. I reached for my tumbler and drained my tea in one gulp.
Dada, you know what? Your Abubaker has gone to the big city and he has turned into a big donkey. But I am here. I’ll manage the estate. I don’t have any obsession for university. Studying and studying and studying. For what?
Well, your brother wants to be a college professor. You have to study many years to become that.
I harrumphed. Who knows if he actually wants to be a professor? Political Science, he says, but I only see him reading novels and poems.
Dada smiled. This was his favourite topic. A book is a book. It does not hurt to read stories and poems. They give you knowledge of people’s hearts, which is the most precious knowledge of all.
But, I protested, he doesn’t even learn that much. He keeps giving and taking books from Devaki. She went off and got married, and still he’s going to her house to borrow storybooks. Stupid boy!
Before our grandfather could reply, I pushed back my chair. Yes, yes, I know! I never say these things outside. I’m just telling you. Mariam also knows. She says that Devaki is a gone case. She also sent a book of poems through Mariam and you know what she said? Fareeda might enjoy it. You should have heard Mariam laugh. Straightaway she went and put the book near Abu’s pillow.
Dada leaned back in his chair and sighed, then he sighed again. Poor boy!
He said nothing else for the rest of the day. I was feeling much lighter, having told him. But later that night, when I was doing my homework, he came into my room. He sat down and watched me work. My brother, as usual, was out gallivanting somewhere. Dada picked up my school diary. Not to check it. Just turned the pages. Even when my class teacher sends a disciplinary note home, he doesn’t read it. It is up to me to inform him whether I’ve been naughty at school.
I was bent over my notebook. I had to write three hundred words on the political imperatives leading up to the Partition. Capital P, as Garuda sir says. I was only forty-three words down.
What is the homework?
It’s rubbish homework, I muttered. Dada didn’t say anything and I thought, sheesh! Now I am starting to sound like Abu. I straightened up.
It’s from modern Indian history, I said. I have to write about the first half of the twentieth century, the years before we got freedom.
Dada’s eyes lit up. He had been only five years old when we got freedom but he claims to remember the day. I was worried that now he would start telling me the whole story again. So I bent my head, pen pressing down on the paper, and waited. But for a long minute, he didn’t say a word. Then he came close to me and kissed my forehead.
Listen. If it ever happens again – god willing it will not happen again – but if it does, don’t fight. Just eat it.
Excerpted with permission from Prelude To A Riot, Annie Zaidi, Aleph Book Company.