Sunday mornings are characterized by sleeping in, late and prolonged breakfasts, multiple cups of coffee or tea, head buried in the newspaper, telly or the iPad depending on your age group and last but not least the ‘Mutton Run’ (a trip to your favorite local butcher to procure your choicest cuts of succulent mutton for the holiest and most anticipated of rituals – the Sunday afternoon fiesta (typically comprising of steamed Rice, Dal (optional), salad (Indian Style)/Cucumber Raita and but of course the star of the show, ‘Mangsa jhola’ (Mutton curry)).
The cooking of the mutton and the associated aromas (of the meat and the fat in particular, the oil and the various spices used to enhance and accentuate the flavor and aroma) wafting across the household teasing the nostrils and precipitating a mini flash flood of saliva in the mouths of the family members is as eagerly expected an event for the beneficiaries as is the act of the preceding ‘Mutton Run’ for the benefactor (read runner). Some have this ‘act of greatness’ either thrust upon them as an heirloom in the shape of the passing of a baton of family tradition. Some acquire it from the society at large, influenced and inspired by this ‘noblest of acts’ during one’s formative years . But of course, there are a select few that are ‘born to run’…..I mean ‘born to mutton run’!
The Sunday Routine
Post the 2nd cup of tea, I lumbered back to change into a freshly ironed pair of churidar-kurta (my Sunday attire to lend that extra air of sobriety to my persona). I headed out to Hussain’s mutton joint in our archaic yet trustee Hyundai Santro as the cuckoo clock chimed eight times. The first wave of ‘early bird catches the worm runners’ throng the joint from 6:30 AM until 7:30 AM. The second big wave arrives post 8:30 AM. The intervening period is what I call the ‘golden hour’. You don’t want to be caught on either side of this window as the hordes mean the butcher is slammed his ‘delivery’ will suffer. Hence, the run must to be timed to perfection.
You see the choice of ride is equally important as you don’t want to roll-in in a big swanky ride lest you exude that patrician vibe and thereby upset the sensibilities of the plebeian butcher and the many of his clientele as well as get extorted by the butcher himself. The image you are wanting to project is that you are one of them but a first among equals.
Did I tell you already that the ‘run’ must be meticulously planned and executed to perfection in order to secure the tenderest most flavorful meat there is?? Sorry, I just cannot emphasize this enough!
You disembark from the car and immediately Hussain (the butcher) and his assistant’s eyes distract from the job at hand and track the familiar sight of the creaseless Kurta clad ‘gentleman’ and a faint smile is contrived by both in acknowledgement of the arrival.
I nod in response with self-importance writ all over that gesture.
“Sir Kete debi?”, (How much Sir?)Hussain asks.
“Dedha kilo”, (One and half Kilograms) I responded with the best baritone my vocal cords can summon to scoop up that extra dollop of gravitas (much required in this setting).
And then I’m relegated to being a mute spectator for the next 20 mins. I stand there and witness a steady stream of ‘runners’ roll in and out. The expression upon egress even on the most hardened of faces is always one of ‘absolute relief ‘ and ‘extreme satisfaction’ (the kind you experience when you run into the loo bursting at the seams and immediately relax the anal muscles to let loose a barrage of fecal matter). Veni, Vidi Vici! (I came, I saw, I conquered).
“Seita nuhen ma, Phadiyaru de, Aau tike seena ru daunu, Kaleeja paka, gurda jamma deni, charbi etiki tike?!”. (Not from there; Carve me a piece from the leg/rump, give me some more from the shoulder/foreleg, no kidneys please, Is that all the fat?!), a ‘veteran runner’ discharges a volley of verbal bullets from his well maintained semi-automatic weapon. A natural (remember the born to run variety!) and years of running mean he has ‘developed’ all the tricks there are to learn. He can run zig-zag, sideways, backwards, in circles and of course blindfolded and yet he will take home the ‘prize’ every single time. Ladies and Gents, practice does indeed make perfect!
All the ‘runners’ stood there with their eyes transfixed on the butcher block. Some with their hands crossed across their pushed out chests and both legs and the spine ramrod straight (body language matters and this is the alpha-male way of asserting themselves), others with one of then knees bent with the weight of the body resting on the favored leg (more relaxed than the alpha-male) and yet others leaning on anything they could find around them for support (the also-rans). There were always a couple of ‘runners’ every single weekend who would meander in so close to the butcher block that all the little specks of flesh, cartilage, tendons and splinters of bone would render their shirts/t-shirts into a spray painted work of abstract art. Yet, these folks could care less. They had ringside seats after all all the debris was crucial evidence to take back home!
Each one of us was recording every chop, incision, slice, nick, hack of Hussain’s meat cleaver without blinking an eyelid like we were under a spell. In the meantime, Hussain’s lieutenant Ashfaq who had discreetly left the scene almost unnoticed emerged from behind the shack flaunting (and teasing as well) a freshly slaughtered baby goat with its throat slit hanging upside down from his leathery mitts. The very sight of that magnificent animal that had been freshly sacrificed at the altar of human craving precipitated a concerted mirthful squeal from all the ‘runners’. One that was audible to just this band of brothers and not anybody else within an earshot of us!!
The trance was broken when a lady walked in with a ‘Jhola’ (a bag made out of braided plastic strands and one that is reused for groceries, produce and meat) in one hand and her 6-7 year old daughter in the other. Even Hussain who is challenged with respect to etiquette exhibited the manners of the most well-bred of gentlemen. He put all ongoing activity in a temporary state of suspension and invoked the ‘ladies first’ policy. The lady with a sense of entitlement moved all the way to the front and without an iota of uncertainty asked for 250 grams of meat. Dunno if that was all she could afford or if that was just enough protein for the twosome. We shall never know. Regardless, she did not express any preference for any particular part of the goat and neither did Hussain give her an option. He preempted her with “Mixed dauchi Madam.” (I’m going to give you a mixed cut of meat Madam). The term ‘Mixed’ is quite self-explanatory and stands for meat (or anything else for that matter) sourced from all parts of the body of the animal but in practice (for this undertaking) it usually comprises of a higher percentage of less sought after cuts of meat and one that is primarily reserved for folks seeking quantities below a certain threshold.She quickly put the polyethylene bag into her ‘Jhola’, handed out exact change and vanished in the unheralded manner she had arrived.
Hussain established eye contact with me. The hair on the back of neck stood up instantly. I knew it was showtime!
“Sir, khali Phadiya aau seena ta?”, he sought confirmation. I nodded in an abbreviated manner. A full-blown nod was a sure shot giveaway of overeagerness and one that I wanted to avoid giving away the impression of at all costs. Hussain proceeded to carve out my preferred cuts in a deliberate manner putting on an exhibition of his knife skills. “Sir, extra kalija deli” (Sir, I gave you extra liver), he announced with effect. I experienced multiple waves of goose-bumps! Ashfaq was his efficient self and packed everything up neatly into a polyethylene bag and then dropped it into another one (since I wasn’t carrying one of those ‘Jholas’). I handed him two crisp Rs 500 notes which he quickly passed on to Hussain who tendered the saturated blood smeared change that was due to me and made lingering eye contact whilst handing me the cash. The eye-contact had a latent message. He had given me a little discount on the price aka loyalty benefits for a regular.
The victory lap and the Podium
“Aasuchi”, I said. Both their heads bobbed from side to side in acknowledgment. I grabbed the bag turned around casting a final sweeping farewell glance across my tribe. I strode toward my car with as relaxed a gait I could restrain my muscles into orchestrating (although I wanted to sprint back to my car). I fired up the engine and rolled away in a blaze of glory.
I reached home, parked the car and galloped up the stairs with the impatience and eagerness of a five year old who had just caught a dragon-fly for the very first time and couldn’t wait to announce his/her feat to the world (read parents). I handed the bag over to the lady of the house without uttering a word. Fleeting eye contact (with the eyebrow raised ever so slightly, the head cocked back a tad and an expanded chest) was made with family members scattered across the ‘drawing room’. The message was loud and clear – I ran again this morning and I have brought home the prize – yet again!