As vegetarianism makes steady inroads into the community, Kashmiri Pandits find their own culinary tradition coming under strain.
There is a sardonic joke shared among the Pandits of Kashmir and it relates to our singular obsession – the eating of meat.
The geography of our beloved Valley has demanded a severe carnivorous preoccupation, long before horses, then buses, and then airplanes made their way into Kashmir, bringing vegetables from the south throughout the year. Since the dawn of mankind, presumably, vegetables were a summer fancy. Don’t get me wrong, we LOVE our staple haak or collard greens, also called geilan in Chinese, our monje or kohlrabi and our ubiquitous fresh (and sun-dried for winter) turnips, squash and eggplants. But being carnivorous was a survival tactic long before all that, and is deeply ingrained in our psyche as a metaphor for life, love and happiness. We did observe Ashtami and other mandatory Hindu vegetarian strictures, but blithely ignored those we could. On such deprived days, my grandfather would say with a resigned sigh, “Okay, let’s have lunch, and let’s get it over with!” Even spiritual and religious old biddies felt no qualms in chomping on ear cartilage or marrow bones long after the meal was done, pulverising everything into a heap on the thali. No one batted an eyelid.
No surprise then that even for Kashmiri Hindus (all Brahmins to a man or woman, no satisfactory explanation so far), the prasad offering at our most holy of holies, Shivratri puja, was a charger piled high with rice, cooked lamb and fish, and a luscious raw fish in its entirety atop the pile.
After wintering with my itinerant army parents, my grandparents fled the plains for the Valley every spring, frightened by the alien whir of the ceiling fan, and also by the desire to celebrate Shivratri or Herath at home. One year, my father, posted as brigadier in Delhi Cantonment, persuaded his parents to stay with the lure that his regimental priest, a Sanskrit scholar, had promised to officiate. Thus it came to pass that we had the longest puja pravachan, or sermon, ever, and finally, to everyone’s immense starving relief, the prasad was called for. My grandmother emerged proudly with her standard Shivratri platter held aloft and presented it to the guruji. He, obviously a ferocious vegetarian, stared at the raw fish, shell shocked, then instantaneously leapt to his feet and beat the hastiest retreat ever evidenced in those military precincts, shouting “Traahi! Traahi! Traahi (Help! Help! Help!)”
A single instance of the many cultural disconnects that have had worse ramifications in today’s Kashmir.
My grandmother could not quite understand what she had done wrong. After all, she, and generations of Kashmiri Hindus, had taken whole raw lamb innards up to the goddess’s shrines as sacred offerings. One piece lamb trachea, lungs, kidneys, liver, were ordered and sent uncut and un-detached by our Muslim butcher as per the centuries’ old tradition, which he knew and respected well. Carried in covered wicker krenjuls, dripping with blood, these oblations were taken to Hari Parbat or Zeethyaar with pride and joy.
The sacred shrine of Kheer Bhawani, called Tulla Mulla by us, and a couple of other holy sites were the rare exception and ABSOLUTELY vegetarian. In fact, even the Muslim homes surrounding Tulla Mulla were vegetarian, though lately this is reported to have been dropped by some households, following the growth of Islamic insurgency in the Valley.
I never saw a pig in Kashmir, let alone pork, and the Muslims never ate beef. This mutually harmonious and respectful understanding allowed us to consume large quantities of the right kind of meat cooked as per our fabulous Kashmiri cuisine. Oddly enough, it was a violation of that unspoken taboo that indicated to me that something had gone seriously wrong with our Sufi life in the Valley. A childhood Muslim friend invited me to lunch on the green grass under the grand old chinar in her vast backyard, as she had before. Her stepmother, a contender in family politics and property, joined us. As we dug in, the stepmother informed us that the meat was bod maaz, big meat, beef. Pin drop silence ensued, but I continued as if I had not heard her, but also because I knew we were eating lamb. I know my lamb. The wretched woman failed to sabotage the lovely lunch my friend had organised, but the fact that she could even say this openly, in the middle of a meal, spoke of a loss of innocence and provocative brazenness that I had not witnessed before, ever.
Last year on my visit to Kashmir I was stunned by the sight of beef carcasses in butchers’ shops in Srinagar. Obviously they were not expecting Pandit customers to return to the Valley anytime soon. When I remarked upon this change to my companion, a Muslim, he said “We never touch the thing. It’s these low caste fellows who eat this stuff.” No comment from me, but somehow his discomfiture comforted me a little.
When militancy and betrayal finally led to the flight of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley, it did not happen overnight. Things changed slowly but surely. A creeping vegetarianism from the rest of India had been taking hold in the Valley albeit to the dismay of most of us. Beleaguered Pandits began to feel a kinship with the Hindu forces who sympathised with their increasingly marginalised existence in the Valley, where Islamic fundamentalism was also ripping at our centuries-old symbiotic fabric.
Which brings me to the joke mentioned at the beginning of this piece, sorrowfully narrated by one of our inner city relatives. Like so many of us, he was not comfortable with the pan-Indianisation of our unique Kashmiri culture, he had long railed against Kashmiri songs in Doordarshan style. But he was most vociferous against sacrificing an entire day, namely Tuesday, to vegetarianism, a new-fangled enterprise in Kashmir. He could see us losing our way of life, and eventually our entire Kashmiri existence.
Lamenting the loss of Kashmiri home and hearth he said, “They say that this was going to happen. When they started taking cottage cheese and collards and fruits to our goddess as offering, she was pissed off at the vegetarian gifts. She said, ‘Go! Go live in those parts where they eat all these things.’ ”
And we have and we do.
All, except a handful who have doggedly stayed on, despite all.
Sudha Koul is author of The Tiger Ladies: A Memoir of Kashmir.