One kilogram of holy meat

by Saleha Chowdhury

IT WAS about time to go back to London, after my annual six-week summer holiday in Bangladesh. All the packing and other bits were done, and I was looking at my two travelling suitcases. Three new jamdani saris that I got this morning  how to put the saris in my suitcases which were overflowing already. I always carry two suitcases — one for my personal belongings and other for gifts, medicines, etc. Sabrina asked me to get some books from Dhaka. I could not say ‘no’ to her; she was one of my best friends. The books with other gifts to deliver to people in London were fully packed, too. My relatives and friends loved to send some gifts from Dhaka to give it to their respective favourites, so I always got some extra luggage when I come back to London. Though in London we got all sorts of Indian shops for Indian sweetmeat but they never listened to my reasons for not giving those and always gave me something for their friends and relatives. Also sometimes I got containers full of hilsha, koi and other half-cooked foods to give others.
‘Look no need to send fish as probably you know we get the biggest hilsha and koi in the Bangladeshi shops in London and also others. They are big and beautiful; you will never find those in Dhaka’s markets. As you know those fish travel all over the world to catch pound, dollars, yen for the clever expatriate green-grocers.’
But who’s gonna listen? So my other suitcase carried fish, sweetmeats, green vegetables (the senders believe when those green vegetables reach London they do not look so green after all), honey, pickles, ghee, etc. So I was thinking hard where to put those three saris and how to manage them. I was allowed to have seven kilos in my hand bang. I thought that was the only place I could squeeze those three new saris. My hand bag carried some travelling books, Sudoku, crossword puzzles, some useful medicines, one set of outfit and three fresh knickers. Sometimes aeroplane loo gets filthy and spoils clothes; I would feel fresh at least if I could change my soiled knickers. A jotter pad and a pen came in handy too so I carry them as well.
When I was thinking about sorting out the luggage, the phone started to ring.
‘Hello.’
‘Hello apu, it’s Rini.’
‘How are you, my dear? You never came to see me in six weeks. Is everything all right with you?’
‘My family is suffering from flu. One gets better then another gets it. It’s a kind of peculiar virus, they say. I just recovered from it and was wondering if you were still in Dhaka or had gone back to London.’
‘I’m still here but going back to London tonight.’
‘When do you think you will leave home to go to the airport?’
‘The plane will depart at ten at night and I leave home about seven, I guess.’
‘Good! Then I can come to meet you.’
‘Ok.’
‘But apu, please do me a favour.’
‘What’s the favour? Please do not ask me to carry some presents for your sister Rosie and her family. No room for that. Moreover, Rosie lives in Leeds and I in London. It’s not convenient, you see.’
‘Please apu, it’s not much, just a kilo of qurbani meat. We slaughtered Shurovi this year and probably you know Shurovi was Rosie’s favourite cow. She could not make it to come here for Eid-ul-Azha and it’s a golden opportunity to send Rosie some half-cooked meat with you. Apu, she would be so pleased.’
‘Are you suggesting that I take the meat to London and then go to Leeds to deliver it?’
‘You don’t have to go. Her husband Naim is coming to London soon, so you can give this meat to him. You can keep this meat in your deep-fridge for the time being.’
‘We get all sorts of cow meat in London, Rini — Jersey, Devon. I saw a shop in Surbiton; its signboard says, “We sell all sorts of colonial meat.” Then, what is the point of sending some meat to London?’
‘But this is holy qurbani meat, apu. Not just one kilo of ordinary meat. In the name of Allah, we slaughter animals and the meat is supposed to be really holy.’
‘Look, Rini, though by choice I’m a vegetarian but I know what qurbani meat means. But how come you slaughter Shurovi? Why on earth did you slaughter her? Last year, in your farmhouse, we saw her. Shurovi was so cute and docile that I fell in love with her.’
‘This time of the year Allah wants something which is very dear to us. To please Allah Prophet Ibrahim wanted to slaughter his dear son Ismail. But Allah stopped him and asked him to slaughter a dumba instead; dumba is nothing but a special sheep. Our prophet Mohammed included this ceremony in his doctrine so we have to do it in Eid-ul-Azha.’
‘Do I need this lecture on religion? I know the history and geography of it and more.’
‘I know you do not like slaughtering animals. But the rest of the Muslim world observes it, apu.’
‘I sacrifice some of my savings and distribute that money to the poor. My idea of sacrifice is not the same as yours. My saving is very dear to me; it’s always my friend in rainy days, so I sacrifice some of that, Rini. It says in Quran `sacrifice’ and I do just that — sacrifice my money instead.’
‘Apu, this is not the time to argue about that. I know you have your reason for not doing it like we do, but my request is please take one kilo of meat for me.’
I looked at the suitcases, overflowing and overburdened with stuff — no place for even a needle to squeeze in. She almost cried and started sort of begging me to take a portion of Shurovi to Rosie.
‘Make a good packet of that holy meat of yours. Put it in a tight plastic container, then put that into another carrier bag, string it well. I do not want my clothes get holier by the minute from Shurovi’s juices. Dear Allah! Help me.’
‘I will do just that, apu.’
Rini lived in Pubail about thirty miles away from Dhaka. She had a farmhouse with some animals, gardens, etc. They loved to live like Good Life. Good Life was a popular serial on British television and she liked that serial very much and started to live in `Good Life’ style.
Overjoyed, Rini hired an auto rickshaw with handsome fair for her return journey too with fifteen minutes waiting.
The jamdanis were not going with me then, I thought. I could keep those in my wardrobe in Dhaka and use it next time. My mind was trying to work out a solution. No way could I put that meat in my hand bag. Food items are prohibited in hand bag.
Rini came, gave me the packet of holy meat with a million of thanks and a huge hug, and then rushed back as her house was infested with some unknown flu virus.
‘How many kilos of “good deeds” for Allah are going with one kilo of holy meat, Rini?’
‘Only Allah can tell.’ Rini went out like a bout of gusty wind. She was always like that.
After coming to London, I put that holy meat in my deep-fridge and started getting on with my life.
One of my colleagues at school had left the job to be a check-out girl in the super market. ‘I’ve had enough. No more of that,’ she had declared just before the summer holiday.
The head teacher would probably ask me to take her classes. I, too, wanted to leave the `honourable’ profession and was even willing to sweep the street to earn money instead but could not make up my mind. Perhaps, a bit of ‘showing off’ was there when I told my friends and relatives back home that I was a schoolteacher in London. Everybody has a weak spot somewhere and I was not an exception. So, I was busy planning, recording, making games, etc for the autumn term.
The hooligans in sixth grade could really make one’s life so miserable. I always preferred nursery but that was not always given to me. I had to phone Rosie to tell her, ‘Rosie, the holy meat is here. Please come and take it.’
‘Naim is going to London soon. You give that meat to him. Mila apu.’
‘Are you coming with him?’
‘No, Mila apu. Srabonti’s exam will start soon. I better not.’
Then I was very busy with home and school and other works in between. Sometimes I had to write some articles or stories for Bangladeshi newspapers and magazines. I always remember an anecdote of a German writer. Once a reader asked him, ‘How can you write so many big books with other works of your everyday life? I cannot even write a letter for lack of time.’
‘You know something?’ he replied. ‘The difference between you and me is just one. I mean just one difference between a writer and a non-writer.’
‘What is that one difference?’
‘After all our everyday works and duties we can make time to write, non-writers cannot do that.’
I forgot his name. But I remember the story when I sit at the table to write, sometimes at the middle of the night.
Busy, busy and busy! I forgot all about the holy meat and Naim coming over to London soon. One day the phone rang. ‘Mila apu, this is Rosie.’
‘What’s up Rosie? Is Naim coming over soon?’
‘No, Mila apu. His conference has been cancelled. Apu, why don’t you come over for the weekend. We decorated the house so nicely that you wouldn’t believe. The spare room looks immaculate. We have nice chair and table for you too, if you want to do a bit of jotting down.’
‘No way I can go now. Ofsted Inspectors are coming soon to visit our school. No time to die even. If Azrail comes I have to tell him to take my soul later. At the moment I will need that for the Ofsteds.’
‘Is it that serious?’
‘Yes. They will look for every reason to fail me. I have to fight back with my tooth and nail. It’s a question of survival. If they fail me I have a standing offer for a job though.’
‘What is that?’
‘To sweep up the streets of London No Ofsted there.’
‘Mila apu, you are so funny.’ She paused a little and said, ‘We have to find someone who can get us the meat. Keep it in your fridge for the time being, if it is not much trouble.’
‘No trouble at all. Shurovi is not asking for any green grass or leaves. She is sound asleep there. Inform me if you find someone to take your holy meat.’
‘We will.’
What portion of Shurovi was there? I kept wondering. Was it her leg, thigh, back, neck or her heart? Could be anything. Then I was busy doing some weekly planning for the hooligans to keep them real busy.
Two months had gone by since I got back from Dhaka. One day the phone rang up again. I heard Rosie’s sort of sweet sugary voice. ‘Mial apu, Dr Siddiq is going to London for a day. He is coming back next day. As you know, Srabonti’s 10th birthday is on the 23rd of this month. Dr Siddiq would not miss the birthday party for the world. So by the afternoon train he will try to come back here. Are your Ofsted still there?’
‘Just started it. They will be with us for seven days from 8 o’clock to 5 o’clock.’
‘Mila apu, Dr. Siddiq will be very busy in there. He will not have any time to visit you in Kent. So I tell you what would be best for him. Take that container of meat to your school, and Dr. Siddiq will collect the meat from there. Your school will be on his way to the station.’
‘What a solution! Are you telling me to get Shurovi out of the fridge and take her to my school?’
‘Would that be too difficult for you, Mila apu?’
‘They say difficulty is a word to the dictionary of fools. I will manage! But you know something, Rosie, sometimes I wonder where I can get that special edition of dictionary for the fools. I need to look at it sometimes.’
Rosie giggled. ‘You are so funny. Please do not forget to take the meat to your school.’
‘I will not forget.’
‘Thanks and sorry for all the trouble.’
‘No need to say sorry nine hundred times, Rosie.’
It was a difficult task to take out that icy container from the fridge. I had to fight with it. And after a lot of pushing and pulling the container came out but the carrier bag in which the container was torn into pieces. Never mind that! I could always make a fresh packet, I thought.
Some of my things in the deep fridge were screeching and squeaking in protest. I ignored them all and uttered, ‘Come out Shurovi, let’s go to school with me.’
Rosie told me Dr. Siddiq would come between 1 and 2 o’clock — my lunch break. But there was no time to have a nice lunch when the Ofsteds were inspecting and suspecting all the time, an apple was good enough for my lunch at that suspecting moment. Not only Shurovi, I had to carry all my weekly, monthly and daily planning folders and some homemade games to please those toffee noses or to tell them, ‘I’m a creative teacher.’ So my hands were heavy. After a lot of changing and chopping I reached my school at 20 past 7. Then I thought it would be better if I kept that container in the school’s fridge. I had to explain that to school secretary Doreen. She was not very happy for all those meaty business but smiled to cheer me up. (God bless her). Dr Siddiq did not come between 1 and 2 and I had to go to the third floor for the inspectors. They were not looking at my paper works through their glasses but under the microscope. They were good at scrutinising everything. But it seemed they liked my home-made games. I was feeling a bit better for it.
Old chubby Doreen climbed up all the stairs from ground floor to the third floor to tell me that a gentleman called Dr. Siddiq was waiting for me. ‘ You better hurry up Miss, gentleman said he has to catch the train shortly.’ Doreen was breathing heavily. I asked permission to go to the ground floor for ten minutes. I wondered why there were no lifts and intercom in old Victorian schools. So like a sputnik I climbed down to meet Dr Siddiq and hand over the packet of holly meat with a sigh of relief.
‘Sorry, I’m late.’ Dr. Siddiq apologised with a refreshing smile.
I tried to conceal my heavy breathing, controlling it well, and ignored my lower back pain.
I handed over the packet. He gave me another smile, thanked me genuinely and then went off to catch the train.
So after two months in my deep fridge Shurovi was going to meet Rosie who loved her a lot and vice versa.
At about 9 o’clock that evening I was going to phone Rosie to ask about the party and meat. The phone started to ring before that.
‘I was going to call you just now, Rosie. How was the party and everything? Have you got your qurbani meat?’
‘The party went splendidly well.’ Then she paused. But her voice was not all that enthusiastic.
‘What is the matter? Have you got the meat?’
‘Dr. Siddiq had kept all those stuff in overhead shelf of the train. He got everything out from there when train reached Leeds — a three-foot doll for Srabonti, some personal shopping, three medical books but forgot that special packet of meat.’
‘What?’
‘I guess it’s in the train’s overhead shelf or locker whatever they call it.’
‘So Shurovi was still on the train and heading for an unknown destination? Good luck Shurovi, travel well.’ I uttered.
‘Naim believes in the lost property office Milaap. They are ever so good and efficient, he says!’ Then she went on and on about the lost propery office. I was tired and exhausted spending all day long with those toffee noses. As if like some bad dentist they were trying to pull out my teeth.
‘Naim told me to tell you that a clear description of the container would help us to trace the packet. Would you tell me the colour, size and shape of the container?’
I had to put the phone down. I was craving for a long warm shower and cool off my head a bit.

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