Give us this day a feast of flesh: November at Navayana

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Give us this day 
a feast of flesh 

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November 2015 

“How is this piece of fiction,” he said, laughing. “My thatha told it in a believable manner. His thatha narrated it as if it were the well-believed truth. It’s the story of your and my birth. Where’s our birth? In a curse. 
It’s in the anger of the devatas. In the piece of meat that splattered and fell.”

The irony of fiction is what propels G. Kalyan Rao’s protagonist in Antarani Vasantam (Untouchable Spring), the anti-caste revolutionary Ruben, to mock at the myth around the Kamadhenu. His grandfather’s tale was about the disappointment of the gods, but in his retelling, Ruben accounts for his own. The mouths of the devatas watered at the thought of the flesh of the divine cow, but they cursed Jambavan and Chennaiah eternally for their failure to follow their cooking instructions. In Kaliyuga, Jambavan’s progeny become Madigas and Chennaiah’s children become Malas. 

Paintings of the Al-Burāq, a steed in Islamic mythology, described as a creature from the heavens that transported the prophet, is said to have influenced the winged Kamadhenu images we see today. However, the iconic image of the Kamadhenu that has pervaded Indian art for centuries claims support from the Vedas where eating cow meat was indeed celebrated. Today, the holy cow in art has been reborn in the realm of self-conscious urban kitsch—where it is joined by garishly painted trucks, autos and cycle rickshaws as ubiquitous symbols of an Indian life, consumed by a class that reduces it to just that. 

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The artist Chandru, former principal of Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai, imagines the Kamadhenu to be any other dead cow, stitched up and mounted on a pedestal. Although it looks like bejeweled twice-born royalty, it shits like any other animal. For bare facts, read The Myth of the Holy Cow by D.N. Jha, and join N.D. Rajkumar in demanding a rightful feast of flesh 

Here, lay the cow 
Down in the middle of 
The living room 
Gut it, slice, and dice 

O, Women, I have come 
The God of the Forest 
Give us this day 
A feast of flesh 

The meat of our fellow mammal is as much a maligned metaphor today as B.R. Ambedkar diagnosed it to be in 1948 in The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? He argued that many Hindu ritualistic beliefs like Brahminical idolatry, vegetarianism and devotion to the cow came into practice only as the stronghold of Hinduism was threatened by the popularity of Buddhism. Thus what was “sacred” needed to be constantly performed, uttered, and upheld—but always in ways that were oblique. As Ambedkar, following from Durkheim, explained: 

The interdiction on contact rests upon the principle that the profane should never touch the sacred. Contact may be established in a variety of ways other than touch. A look is a means of contact. That is why the sight of sacred things is forbidden to the profane in certain cases. For instance, women are not allowed to see certain things which are regarded as sacred. The word (i.e., the breath which forms part of man and which spreads outside him) is another means of contact. That is why the profane is forbidden to address the sacred things or to utter them. 

Dating back to the debates of the Constituent Assembly to the opinions of today, it has been difficult to define and legalize the sacrality of the cow. Speeches by Syed Muhammad Sa’adulla and Frank Anthony, among others, pressing for clarity regarding the “cow question” in the Constitution are cited and reproduced today. So are statements of outrage about how being a cow is safer than being a woman in this country and that “a community that exiles its widows to miserable marginal lives in exploitative ashrams is unlikely to fund the emancipation of homeless cows.” 

Similarly, Sahitya Akademi-award winning writers who held on to their awards after Delhi 1984, Godhra 2002 and Kandhamal 2008 are willing to return them even as some among them hem and haw. None of them has ever had much to say about the every day murder-sacrifice (bali) of dalit lives, which is evidently needed to sustain even the milder brand of Hinduism (not counting rapes and other ritual humiliations). It cannot be the “secularism” of the Congress that is being bypassed, for after 1950, Congress-led Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were the first states to enact laws banning cow-slaughter. Since the so-called anticolonial period, the Hindu Right has been comfortably accommodated within the party. What the returners of awards and liberal-seculars perhaps long for is a return to “Liberal Good Hinduism”, an oxymoronic idea Ambedkar had severely mocked. 

Meanwhile, people’s appetite for the contraband has increased. At a documentary festival in Delhi, the government proscribed the screening of a film made by students of Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Caste on the Menu. What’s heartening is pro-beef campaigners are not necessarily Dalits or Muslims: it was one Gaurav Jain who tried protesting outside the BJP office in Delhi by eating beef. The people queuing up at Kerala House for their plate of buff-beef belong to all jatis, as are the surnames behind Caste on the Menu. The more you ban‬, the more you proscribe, the more you make transgression appear both a beautiful and necessary act. 

Let us chew on this excerpt from a powerful poem by Digumarthi Suresh Kumar (translated from the Telugu by Naren Bedide): 

When its udders were squeezed and milked 
You didn’t feel any pain at all 
When it was stitched into a chappal you stamped underfoot and walked 
You didn’t feel hurt at all 
When it rang as a drum at your marriage and your funeral 
You didn’t suffer any blows 
When it sated my hunger, it became your goddess?
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