The most striking Bakri-Eid in our neighbourhood in undivided Bihar involved a camel. An elderly gentleman, known for fixing sprains and selling LPG cylinders on the black market, had obtained the status of a Haji – one who has returned from a successful pilgrimage at Mecca. In an exaggerated show of piety, a camel was brought to the mohalla, stirring morbid curiosity, especially among the children. No one had sacrificed a camel in our neighbourhood of tiny streets and open drains before (or since).
Those who could not afford a sacrifice and had received the camel meat that year recall it was delicious, salty meat. It is another matter that the camel was slaughtered by a method not advised for camels under Islamic practices, as I learnt almost two decades later.
The qurbani or sacrifice is mandatory for any adult who is nasb-e-maal, or a possessor of wealth. There are different schools of thought on what constitutes wealth. The Hanafi school in Islam, which my family and large sections of Sunni North India follow, considers any person in possession of the value of seven and a half tolas of gold or 52 tolas of silver as nasb-e-maal. The amount has not changed for centuries.
A nasb-e-maal must pay both the obligatory zakat during Ramzan and offer sacrifice from the 10th day of the Muslim month of Zil Hijj, the day we know as Bakri-Eid, to the 12th day. In more fortunate Muslim families, such as ours, there is often more than one nasb-e-maal. Consequently, there is more than one animal that is offered as sacrifice on Bakri-Eid. My grandmother went so far as to sacrifice one on my behalf well before I was an adult or in possession of anything other than an appetite.
In our neighborhood, 70% of the residents could not afford a sacrifice. Their Eid depended on the other 30% upholding their end of the religiously mandated social contract of sharing their festive bounty. The percentages may vary, but this is still the case everywhere.
Haves and have-nots
On the day of Eid those who can afford the sacrifice are in their homes, directing the kasai (butcher) to make specific cuts of meat for the kebab, the raan (whole leg), the qorma, the grail (slow cooked ribs and chops). Many of those who cannot are also in these homes, employed in their service, or tied to them by relationships of power informed by landed wealth and caste that have carried over several generations.
These include those who had once lived in the same villages as my grandparents and those who have worked for our family over the decades. Some run errands, some wash clothes, while others sweep the house or tend to the garden. There have been cooks who have stayed with us, and children of erstwhile cooks who have stayed in the house.
They will have claim to a third of the meat as advised by Hanafi jurisprudence – one-third for the family, one-third for the neighbours, and one-third for those who are socially and economically vulnerable. As a child, when I was instructed in the benefits of Bakri-Eid, this emphasis on religiously-mandated philanthropy was foremost. Hence, one-third of the meat (and often more), one-tenth of whatever fruit our trees bore, and 2.5% of our savings as zakaat are still duly disbursed annually.
The higher purpose, my grandmother used to say, is to please Allah, who would send these animals to bear us across the thinner-than-a-hair, sharper-than-a-sword bridge that crosses over the fires of hell to the doors of heaven.
This Bakri-Eid, as always, those whose families have not possessed seven and a half tolas of gold or its equivalent value in living memory will arrive at ours to remind us of our obligations. Shahnaz, who is our neighbour and our cook, will probably take the brain of the goat we slaughter to fry with a seasoning of pepper and cumin. “Just like eggs,” she says.
Although it is a delicacy in many homes, my family does not care for the brain: it seems slimy, and we prefer it stayed outside our threshold until Shahnaz can remove it from our presence when she is done with work. We will pretend that this is because Shahnaz enjoys eating the magaz, and that it has nothing to do with our own deep set notions of purity and pollution.
Bakri-Eid is not Shahnaz’s day off, even though it is a festival she observes. Every year, she busies herself with making the first meal of the day, the customary fry of liver and lungs (and, in some homes, the heart) that makes a late breakfast for the family. She puts the ribs and the chops on the stove to slow cook for the grail. She eats some of this after everyone else is done. She will share the same cutlery as ours, but this is a practice that we have adopted only recently, with several rounds of self-congratulations on our enlightenment.
Disgust for the unfamiliar is not unique to our home. The stomach of the goat and its intestines on the earth are a recurring annual spectacle. The visual familiarity, however, does not temper our revulsion. The sira (head) and the magaz (brains) we may be too queasy to eat, but the offal never crosses our threshold, or that of many upper-caste families. There are religious opinions that deem the offal makruh, a word of many interpretations, but in this case loosely meaning undesirable (as distinct from haram which is absolutely forbidden). Explanations range from “there is filth in the gut” to it is unhealthy and has germs from the excreta”.
Mehmooda, who is also a neighbor, and whose daughters were teenagers like us when they worked in our home several years ago, tells me that offal is delicious. She will wash the intestines at the tap in the garden and tear open the stomach. She will turn the gut inside out with a twig, like we pull the drawstring of our new Eid salwars, and will then scrub the blackened inner lining with salt or lime until it is white. We will vehemently deny that Mehmooda’s choice to eat the offal and our refusal to touch it has anything to do with caste. Islam, we remind oursleves smugly, has no caste.
Mehmooda will cook the meat in her own house in a vigorously fried masala of ground onions, ginger and an abundance of garlic to suppress the smell of the flesh. Our dishes are constructed on an edifice of spices, alliums and aggressive searing, so that we never have to smell the meat we eat. We call it bisaindh – a bad smell that must be exorcised out of all cooked meat and our homes.
Mehmooda also takes home choice cuts of meat from the hind legs for kebabs and the ribs for grail. But she rarely returns to her own kitchen until she has run an errand. This could be as small as grinding the garlic for the qorma. It is not a favour asked of her. It is a residue of the anachronistic relationships that have carried from a rural zamindari past into our urban homes.
Shaheen, who is employed as our cleaner, washes off the gore that has carried with the flesh into our home, our own delicate heads nauseous from the smell. The market price of nine kilos of the goat meat could pay Shaheen’s rent. But we will rarely, if ever ask Shaheen if she is making ends meet, or if she risks eviction. Instead we’ll assuage our caste and class guilt with spurts of charity that will allow us to keep up the facade of moral superiority and religious piety.
For Bakri-Eid, Shaheen will carry a kilo or even three of meat, that we will consider extremely generous. Perhaps she’ll take cuts from the tongue and cheek, which she will cook into a curry, or the tail that she’ll mix with the meat from the leg for a qaliya (meat with vegetables) or ishtew (stew) or a biryani.
She will salt the meat and heat it until the water evaporates, and preserve what she doesn’t cook that day in large vessels covered with cloth. She will heat this meat every day, twice in warm weather, to prevent it from spoiling. We, on the other hand, have stuffed away the small amount of meat that our cramped freezers can hold, having lost all appetite for it, at least for the next few days.
Zinat whose mother worked for us when I was a toddler will take home the fat that Mehmooda does not want, melt it down to a crisp churri and use the rendered fat to fry onion pua and kachri (a close cousin of the pakoda). Like Shaheen and Mehmooda she will stretch the meat out for as long as it can last. If there are no more takers of meat, we will send the rest to the madrasa, where the children will be asked to remember those who fed them in their prayers. Our left hand may not know what our right hand gives, but the stomachs that received what we gave should not be allowed to forget it.
By late evening, the nasb-e-maal will crumple in their rooms, still in their new clothes, exhausted from the day’s altruism.
Farah Yameen started out as a filmmaker, discovered it was not her calling and moved to public histories and digital archiving. Her public history works deal with diverse subjects: cultural geographies and the individual person, democratic movements, personal histories of journalism, and, lately, food.
This article is part of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, curated by Tarana Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. It has been funded by Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Read the other parts here.