Bonding over Biryani
By Rakhshanda Jalil
Oct 06, 2014
Meat is divided into three equal parts: one for the poor, one for friends and neighbours and a third for one’s self. No distinction is to be made between who it goes to — for it must be sent to friends and neighbours regardless of religion or rank.
Ai Aab-E-Rood-E-Ganga Woh Din Hai Yaad Tujhko
Utra Tere Kinare Jab Kaarvan Hamara
The idea of going home for Id is a highly evocative one, especially for those who live in cities round the year. This year, as Id falls during a long weekend, I find myself celebrating it en famile in a small town in eastern Uttar Pradesh. All around me the sights, sounds and smells convey the excitement of the big day tomorrow. Sewaiyan, a special dessert for Id, have been bought and cooked in vast quantities; this being the heart of the Gangetic plain, the syrupy version made out of an incredibly fine variety. Mountains of finely sliced onions have been fried to a nice crispy brown. Stacks of crockery and cutlery have been washed for the feasting tomorrow.
New clothes have been stitched for the young and old. The Chooriwali has already made her round and sold dozens of glittering glass bangles. The Mehndiwali has been instructed to show up by evening to apply intricate patterns on the palms of eagerly waiting young girls. And, of course, the goats have been bought and tethered in the compound; I can hear them bleating and can see rows of little children solicitously offering them tender green leaves.
Unlike the other Id — Id-ul-Fitr that is celebrated after the month-long fasting during Ramzan, this Id, or Id-uz-Zuha, also popularly known as Bakrid in India, is a solemn occasion. While the word “Id” literally means festival and both occasions are festive, Id-uz-Zuha is also a day of remembrance. It reminds Muslims the world over of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice the thing that was dearest to him — his first-born child Ismail — to a command from Allah. It also marks the culmination of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, which is not merely Farz (obligatory) and one of the five pillars of Islam but also a matter of great pride and joy for Muslims the world over. And on any given Bakrid, every Muslim will know of some relative, friend, or neighbour who is away for Hajj and is, as we speak, performing this most sacred of duties.
If Id-ul-Fitr gives the occasion to celebrate and partake of the bounty that Allah has granted after a month of abstinence and introspection, this Id reminds Muslims of the importance of Qurbani (sacrifice) as well as patience and constancy — the hallmarks of a true believer. While peace and salutations are offered to Abraham everyday as part of the daily Namaaz, on this day his obedience and willingness is commemorated by a token act of sacrificing an animal such as a goat or sheep.
The day begins with congregational prayers in an Idgah; across South Asia women still do not normally go to the mosque to pray, preferring to offer their daily prayers as well as the special Id one at home. Whereas women in the Far East, West Asia and other Muslim-dominated areas do go to mosques where they offer prayers not alongside the men but in demarcated areas. The Id Namaaz is followed by a special Khutbah (sermon) and then, after the customary Id greeting of embracing three times, the men usually go to graveyards to offer Fatiha (special prayers) to their ancestors.
The family graveyard in Bhadohi, which is where I am to celebrate Id, is a charming spot located next to the Idgah; it is cathartic to remember the dead in this serene space with towering trees and flowering bushes.
It is at such times, surrounded as one is by generations of ancestors sleeping the Eternal Sleep under mounds of earth, that all questions of identity get resolved. Generations have lived and died here; the trees that shelter their graves are as much ours as is the soil that covers them. How can one, then, be anything but a Hindustani?
Back home, the sacrifice has to be performed at the earliest possible. Its meat is divided into three equal parts: one for the poor and needy, one for friends and neighbours and a third for one’s self. No distinction is to be made between who it goes to — for it must be sent to friends and neighbours regardless of religion or rank.
And while the men and boys laze around, drink tea; go visiting relatives and friends soon after the Qurbani, the women’s work begins. Keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings, ensuring the butcher who has taken over the job of cutting and cleaning from the men in the family has cut the meat just so, dividing the meat with mathematical precision, wrapping the apportioned pieces in paper for distribution and then launching upon the humongous task of cooking the many delicacies that are Id favourites — it is a long day for women.
The first of the many Id dishes to tickle one’s palate is Kaleji, goat’s liver cooked in a pungent sauce and redolent with the robust flavour of Methi seeds. What follows is a day of relentless binging. Having had one’s fill of whatever has been cooked in one’s immediate family, one embarks on a gastronomic journey that has many known and unknown delights.
The Biryani at X Dadi’s house is a cherished memory as are the Kabab’s at Y Chacha’s home, not to mention the akhra (ribs) cooked by his sister. The new daughter-in-law of Z Bhabhi, so one is told in tones of hushed awe, makes the most incredible Paye (trotters). And then, of course, the sheer (milky Sewaiyan) made by Z Bhabhi herself is the stuff that sweet dreams are made of. And so, going by past experience and new gossip on the family grapevine, one sets out on a house-hopping adventure.
The young get to stuff their pockets and purses with Idi money and the old fill their bellies to bursting point with layer upon layer of special dishes. But for those who have come from distant places, Id is a time to reconnect and replenish family bonds.
Rakhshanda Jalil is a literary critic and translator. Her most recent book is Liking Progress, Loving Change: a Literary History of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in Urdu