Living in Delhi, as everyone would agree, is always a capital experience (hyuk hyuk). Living inside the rather innocuous ISI Delhi campus in the rather unheard-of Katwaria Sarai, though, did put things in a different perspective altogether.
The mess cooks kept on conjuring one bland, healthy, taste-deprived meal after another: meals that depended largely on pneer (in Delhi, there’s no a between the p and the n), rajma, chhola-batora, potatoes, carrots, egg bhurjees and a brown, semi-thick gravy of chicken that got boring on the second day. There was also the occasional mutton, which resided in gravy that resembled the chicken one in thickness, colour, texture, smell and taste.
All this meant that we looked outside for food that had taste as one of its necessary parameters. They also had to come at a reasonable rate, since we had to save chunks of our stipends for Poorva Express tickets and bottles of White Mischief.
The Jawaharlal Nehru University was a favourite hunting ground for us. It was nearby (by Delhi standards), had a substantial count of females (by ISI standards) to ogle at, and the canteens offered a large number of non-vegetarian food options (by any standards), and at a staggeringly low price (even by Kolkata standards).
As the leaves on the gulmohars on Shaheed Jeet Singh Sansanwal Marg turned a gorgeous golden-orange in November, an interesting bit of information came our way. One of the JNU canteens had actually started to sell lamb.
Now, this might not seem to be a big deal in 2012. But in 1998, lamb was virtually as rare as a soft porn movie living upto the expectations of adolescent males. We just had to go for it.
It wasn’t that I had not had lamb before. But after months of monotone provided by the brown gravy (the only variety coming on the days when the chicken got slightly burnt), it seemed heaven.
Of course, as with everything, volunteers popped up out of nowhere. They promised us they would be kind enough to travel to JNU (the winter chill meant the girls would be clad less scantily) and bring back lamb for all of us. We coughed up cash for the noble purpose, got hard looks from our strictly vegetarian peers, and sent them off.
Lamb arrived. As the small oblong foil boxes with white cardboard covers revealed themselves to us, we could hardly hold ourselves back from pouncing on them.
The boxes opened. The brown pieces looked delicious, and about ten or so rotis per person later, the hungrily licked clean boxes were all that remained. Then began the analysis.
Now, there were four kinds of people that took part in the meal.
- First-generation meat-eaters, generally classified as meat-eating philistines with no care for values and the lot. These people were mighty satisfied.
- Mid-level meat-eaters, having never tasted lamb or mutton before. These people seemed satisfied as well.
- Upper mid-level meat-eaters, having never tasted lamb before, but having tasted mutton. These people seemed content, but not without groans on the lines of "I expected it to be something similar to mutton".
- Seasoned meat-eaters, having been brought up on mutton and having tasted lamb, pork and beef multiple times before. This contained me. This group, sure of the fact that the meat wasn't mutton, lamb, pork or beef and having realized that neither the bone-structure nor the texture of meat resembled a bird’s, got into a long, convoluted conversation regarding which quadrupeds were most likely to be found in a large campus of a metropolitan city.
Beef was rare in 1998-99. More importantly, it was available in most Indian cities in a region-specific layout that depended largely on religion. The Uttar Pradesh-born mess cooks would never have consented to cook beef; which implied that we needed to obtain it on our own.
We got to know that there was a small joint in Munirka that sold beef kababs. This time I decided to take no risks, convinced a friend, and volunteered to be the scout myself.
We reached the shop; we had a couple of kababs; it was beef all right. We went ahead and placed an incredible order, something of the magnitude of three hundred kababs. Of course, we had to wait.
We paid in advance. He asked us to take a stroll and come back after, say, an hour. He proceeded to write us a receipt. At this point of time, he asked my name.
I don't blame him for taking an educated guess at my religion after I, having ordered 300 kababs, definitely qualified as his Customer of the Day.
That remains the only time that my name got written down as अभी शेख.