What is the taste of the meat of dead cattle?

27 June 2015

Baluta, by Daya Pawar, first appeared in print in 1978. The book is set in Mumbai and rural Maharashtra in the 1940s and ‘50s and describes in detail the practice of untouchability and caste violence and how the Dalit communities featuring in the book fought for their dignity. In this excerpt from the first translation of the book by Jerry Pinto (Speaking Tiger, June 2015), Daya Pawar, born into a Mahar family, is made to go back to his childhood by a question posed to him about a Mahar eating practice.

"So have you eaten the meat of dead cattle? Tell me honestly, how does it taste?" I was asked recently by an intellectual at Sahitya Sahvas, a writers’ colony in Mumbai. The question took my breath away. I answered in some confusion: "When I ate it, I was not at the age at which one remembers tastes. I only knew how to assuage my hunger, by filling the hole in my belly. During a famine, Vishwamitra ate the leg of a dog. During the great war, the Maratha platoons ate the meat of horses. So I won’t talk about the dead cattle that I may have eaten."

But it is true that the death of cattle brought great excitement to the Maharwada. It is also true that if the animal had died falling off a cliff, the excitement was even more acute. Such an animal’s flesh would be fresh. News that an animal had died in the wilds did not take long to get to the Maharwada. It would pass along faster than the telexes of today. When the vultures and kite began to circle, like aeroplanes, the Mahars would locate the fallen animal. They would rush to get there before the birds picked the carcass clean.

How many vultures? Fifty or so. Their wings flapping, they would make strange sounds, ‘Machaak machaak.’

[Social reformer] Annabhau Sathe has compared vultures to the velvet-jacketed sons of money-lenders. If you threw a stone at them, they’d flap and move away a little but their greed drew them back to the body. They probably hated the Mahars. After all, we were snatching food from their claws. Their cruel eyes, their sharp beaks! Were they considering me as a possible snack? I would wonder. "It’s been a while since we’ve had a good cut of meat in the Maharwada," many an aged person would be heard saying. "I’ve forgotten what it tastes like." Taking whatever was to hand, pots, pans, dishes, ghamelas, the Mahars would run. Until the last strip of skin had been cleared, no one took a break. The women would chatter excitedly with each other. Children our age would be delighted for an entirely different reason. Just under the hide was a membrane that could be used to make musical instruments like the dafli and the dholak. A piece the size of a lota or an empty rolling board was enough. Stretched out and left to dry in the sun, it would thrum like a percussion instrument in a day or two.

Daya Pawar was a poet, writer and Padma Shri award winner.