On most lazy afternoons, my kitchen is filled with the aroma of simmering Pappucharu (a South Indian lentil soup), and Atti Tunakalu (sun-dried beef) pieces being pan-fried in some oil, seasoned with chilli powder and salt. I pour the Pappucharu onto piping hot rice, with chunks of Atti Tunakalu by the side. I bite into those luscious portions alongside slurping down the lentil soup and rice.
I particularly enjoy my food with beef in it, but this is also one of the most carefully kept secrets by people like me.
When I say “people like me”, I speak of people who belong to Dalit (untouchable castes) and minority communities in India, whose staple has invariably been beef. The Indian law has banned cow slaughter in many states since some time now, in the interest of protecting Hindu sentiments who regard the cow as a deity. The rise of strong right-wing politics boosting gau-rakshaks or cow-protectors has led to accelerating events of vigilantism in the name of protecting the cow, by lynching beef-eaters. The increase in cow vigilantism is when the media turned its scope towards beef politics in the country. But in reality, beef has had a long and complicated relationship with most Dalit communities like mine before being prohibited legally.
Most leather tanning and cobbler communities like the Madigas are also scavengers of dead cattle in India. For decades, these Dalit community members have been regularly called for clearing animal carcasses from streets and cattle sheds. Most people, including my family members, were part of this caste vocation in our Madiga gudem (a Dalit ghetto).
When a cow, ox, bull or buffalo dies, Madigas clear the carcass, tie the carcass legs to a sturdy stick, place it on their shoulders and carry it to the outskirts of the village or town. Then, the skin is carefully removed, and later tanned for footwear or making Dappus—a sleek round drum. The meat is set aside for human consumption if the carcass isn’t too decayed. “People who own cattle, mostly people from castes considered to be superior to us, call us as soon as they have a dead animal in the shed,” said Raju, a 28-year-old cobbler and scavenger hailing from a town in Andhra Pradesh. “Unfortunately, however menial the job of clearing up this carcass is, it serves as a source of leather and food for the sustenance of my family.”
Unlike Raju and his family, my immediate family is no longer involved in the caste vocation. Still, I grew up hearing several stories about beef and scavenging from my parents. I’ve been told that the meat would come into our Gudem and distributed amongst the families there. Chandramma, my paternal grandmother, would wash the meat thoroughly, separate the parts—Nalli bones (bone marrow), ribs, meat, etc.—and put an assortment of these pieces into a massive pot for them to be slow-boiled on a kattela poyyi (stone-lined fireplace used for cooking). If there was leftover meat, she would cut it into long thin strips, marinate them with turmeric, salt, ginger and garlic, and sundry them until they were completely dry and stiff. These sun-dried meat strips or Atti Tunakalu were then cut into finger-length pieces and stored in the kitchen, as they could be then used for months.
I’ve seen my father like beef more than any other meat, and his love for the meat comes from his memory of it being the only source of food for a vast part of his life. This is apart from the incredible taste that beef pumps into a dish. He even frequently mentions how he was unaware of the existence of several vegetables and fruits until he went to university.
“The untouchability in the society has denied us access to several basic food materials that are easily available for everybody else,” 70-year-old Maisamma, a resident of my Gudem, told me. Her late husband was a cobbler and brought home the beef, after which she would clean the meat and help him process the leather for the footwear. “Beef was a celebration; the people of our Gudem came together when one of us was called to clear a carcass. It meant we had food to eat and store. Filling our stomach was nothing less than a festival.” Cow/buffalo meat was the only accessible food source of high protein for many Dalit communities because of being rejected by the village or town they’d inhabit. These communities were never part of groups that could afford to worship the cow. Regardless of centuries of being shunned from the caste society and the denial of self-respect, Dalits are not only regularly filled with a haul of guilt for eating what has to be worshipped but also humiliated for being animal carcass eaters.
The beef on my plate reminds me of home and the history that it holds within, despite the severe ostracisation and trauma attached to its roots. Even though a bowl of beef curry gives me utmost contentment, these are secrets I’ve to keep in my own home, in the metropolis. The fear of being humiliated and the eyes that pierce through our bodies for hurting particular religious sentiments make our families hide behind the curtains of our own homes while eating the food that has been a part of our kitchens longer than we can remember.
In my home state of Telangana, ox, buffalo, and bull meat are permitted for sale, while the slaughter of cows and calves is prohibited. Today, various Dalit communities—mostly scavenging communities like the Madigas—consume cow meat if brought in as a carcass or at times slaughtered meat, but that stays under wraps. The stigma has been taken forward, not only with religious morality and untouchability but also by legally criminalising Dalit, Muslim and other marginalised communities for eating food that has been part of their diet for several centuries. Beef is typically called Peddakura, which translates to big meat, to avoid spelling out the name of the meat or the animal. Growing up, I was asked to quietly celebrate in my house since I lived in an urban town with upper-caste neighbours. The education my parents received could bring us out of food scarcity but not out of fear due to the humiliation and stigma attached to us. Some relatives, who’ve moved out of our gudem, have even given up eating beef despite their fondness for it.
Today though, a new wave of self-respect has risen from Dalit students, writers and artists, countering the upper-caste rhetoric of what comprises Indian culture. They’ve started to emphasise the need to assert our identity through something that is heavily opposed, stigmatised and yet has a huge place in the hearts of many Dalit homes. Prominent educational institutions such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Hyderabad, Osmania University and many others across the country witnessed a series of “beef festivals” to assert self-respect through food cultures that have been shunned. These festivals brought together marginalised students to reclaim the pride in diverse marginalised cultures and to counter the dominant cultural idea of what India is and should be. “To affirm our identities in a diverse space like the universities was a dire need, especially after the severe increase of ‘cow protectors’, lynching incidents, and killing beef eaters since the ban on cow slaughter by many state governments in India,” M Sree Charan, the vice president of the student union at the University of Hyderabad, told VICE.
When I think of beef, I think about the trauma, the celebration, and the fear that marginalised communities carry while speaking about it. But most importantly, I think of reaffirming our self-respect through a plate of deliciousness. Food is a part of our everyday lives, and the politics that lie behind our kitchens should not be dictated by fear of humiliation and death.
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