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Jonathan: Eating Beef in Hindusthan (and other adventures)

May 1, 2011

In many ways, Rajasthan is viewed as the heart of ‘Old India,’ that storied conceptualization, and often times anachronism, which has also gone by ‘Traditional,’ ‘Historic,’ or the less flattering and profoundly damaging ‘Backwards.’  This, of course, all comes from the fact that Rajasthan is deeply conservative and has maintained many cultural practices from its history as the Land of Kings (i.e. not East India Company) during British colonial rule.  Venturing just to the north, Delhi seems a world away, perhaps an India away, and has been a fascinating picture into another iteration of Twenty-First Century Bharat (yet another Hindi name for India).

Delhi, as the nations capital a city-state, is largely an intersection of different India.  With close to 13 million people, it is a sprawling metropolis with an ancient heritage.  Perhaps the Metro provides the best demonstration of Delhi’s (pronounced Dilli in Hindi) complexity.  Begun in 2001, the Metro is a rapidly expanding and changing the way that the city functions.  What could once be a 300/- rupee (or more) ride across town is now a just 30/-.  The train stations are spacious and clean, bright, cool, uncrowded.  The train cars are large, well lit, and smooth.  While they become incredibly packed during the evening rush hour, they remain curiously calm and quiet.  While the chaos swirls uncontrolled above, Delhi underground is an oasis.  Two cars in every train are reserved strictly for women, and female attendants guard the entrances to enforce the rule.  While I am wedged between the bulging belly of Bhai Sab (trans. ‘respected brother,’ a term used to describe any middle aged man not actively cheating you) and the lanky arms and legs of some hapless young office worker or student, my female companions are resting in luxury, chatting away with Dadi-ji (respected grandmother) about the best places to buy samosas.  But all that aside, it is during the off hours that the most interesting images emerge.

The trains by no means show the breadth of Delhi — after all, they are unaffordable to most migrant and day laborers — however they do show interesting social phenomena amongst the middle class and some of the working class climbing the class ladder.  The most noticeable is the clothing.  Muslim men, young and old, wearing kurta and skull caps.  Young workers in Indianized western clothing (bell-bottoms, wide-brimed stripped button-downs).  Professionals in ties, polos, jeans, khakis.  Most striking, of course, are the women: sarees, soots, but also tee shirts, mini-skirts, and with short hair.  I have seen the forearms and calfs of women, a sight that after four months has come to surprise me.

They all mix in Delhi, where street signs come in Hindi, Tamil, English, and Urdu.  Where one can eat foods from across the breadth of the Sub-Continent.  Where the calls to prayer come in various languages and various times of day for various reasons.  India is too called Hindusthan in Hindi, but it has never felt less apt to describe this country of diversity in language, culture, color, skin, and history.  This, of course, brings me to the shocking title of this post; well, shocking if you’ve been dodging cows for the last four months.

Opting to leave the insane hustle of Delhi’s tourist area behind, with its seedy hotels, cast of characters, and constant din of tourists being cheated (Real Pashmina scarfs for 1000/-! Silk sarees for 7500/-!  Train tickets to the Moon, just 100/-!), we chose a hotel in the small Tibetan Colony just a little off the beaten path.  Called Manu ka Tila, the small neighborhood is the local heart of the Tibetan refugee community.  With just a few hotels, a smattering of (delicious) Chinese restaurants, and a collection of shops who sell primarily to Tibetans and therein lack the brash character of so many other small business owners and cart-wallas, it is a fantastic refuge.  It too, I should add, has beef.  Beef like I’ve never seen before.  Beef that costs less than the vegetable means.  Beef that costs less than chicken!  BEEF!  Pardon me if I sound crass, or giddy for that matter, but it is truly a site for an omnivore such as myself.  Do not be mistaken, vegetarian Indian food is perhaps the most amazing I have ever eaten, but the novelty of eating COW, in Hindusthan, will not wear off easily.

The colony itself is fascinating.  With few tourists, it is a bustling, distinctively Tibetan community all its own.  A new India, no more or less valid than that of Rajasthan.  Perfect Hindi is widely, if not predominantly spoken.  Some wear north Indian clothing of kurta and salwar kameeze, many wear trendy western gear.  At times, it looks, smells, and feels much like my recent trip to Beijing (quite a feat, given that Tibet is both geographically and culturally far from the Chinese capital).  Each morning, as I walk through the market, Buddhist chants are played live throughout.  Monks, in their maroon and yellow robes, are everywhere.  Punjabi parantha are served on carts next to noodles and chowmein.  But it is just one of the interesting iterations of India and Delhi; others have proven themselves.

On our first day, we decided to head towards Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque built by the Mughal Shah Jahan.  A sprawling and beautiful red-sandstone complex, its large open space for prayer is the spiritual meeting place of thousands of Muslims each day.  It’s minarets are so large the call to prayer reverberates throughout those in the temple complex at five o’clock.  Muslim sites in India are always, what I find to be, a manageable chaotic: throngs of people going about their days through the general insanity which comes with thousands of people crammed into streets too small for cars.  Hindi sites are often overwrought with pushy salesmen selling poorly made tourist goods, the shop-wallas grabbing, pushing, and yelling.  Mosques, by contrast, have throngs of worshipers, salesmen, tourists, and local mingling together; largely respectfully ignoring each other under the constant din of chatter.  Outside Jama Masdid one can find silk scarfs sold near to severed goat heads, elderly women bickering with the vegetable salesman next to men in wire frame glasses playing backgammon.  It is a booming place with a relative and contradictory serenity.  It is in this context which I had my second encounter with meat in Delhi at one of the local institutions, Karims, known for its Mughali cuisine.  I still have not figured out what exactly Mughali cuisine is, but I do know that I ate a lot of chicken and mutton, and that “Goat Brains and Rice” was on the menu.

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