In defense of the chicken leg-piece

My fellow desis, it is with a heavy heart that I begin this epistle to you. The humble chicken leg, which for years had been a principle source of nourishment for the head and heart, is under severe attack from various imperialist forces. My fear is that if we do not act soon, we will be reduced to a spineless people who eat tasteless poached bits of nameless meat in overpriced sandwiches.

The peacock may be our National Bird, but it is all fluff and feather. It cannot be eaten. It does not lay eggs that can be eaten. The only positive attribute it possesses is that virtue of being called a mor in Hindi, it allows countless writers to attempt annoying puns.

The chicken on the other hand is the real National Bird. It originated on our subcontinent. We were one of the first races that domesticated it. Unfortunately, like other good ideas such as basmati rice and turmeric, we never filed for intellectual property protection. Over time, smart people in other parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe stole our idea and ran with it. But, we must never forget that the chicken is an integral part of our heritage. It is our bird.

Further, out of the various parts of the chicken, no other exemplifies desi ingenuity and flexibility like the leg-piece. It is the vahan of the god of jugaad (if one did indeed exist among the 330 million other gods in our veritable patheon).

Consider the practicality of the leg-piece. Because the principal function of a chicken is to feed and fatten itself until it is ready for market, the mechanics of this bird are unique. Chickens are flightless birds with atrophied wings. They stand around all day. It is muscles that form the meat of the two leg-pieces and the thighs which perform the vital job of providing the bird with stability and mobility. It is an inalienable part of fowl. Now, you tell me what is the function of the chicken breast?

Consider the design of the leg-piece. Shaped like an irregular drumstick with a convenient handle at one end for holding with the obligatory right hand- the business end is at the other. There is economy in the design. It is made for people who eat with one hand. You can rotate your right wrist and access all of the delectable meat on the stick for a no-frills experience. It is instinctive. A three year-old can do it. Watch his eyes light up as he expertly chomps the leg-piece. No help from mommy or daddy is required. Let those who use a knife or fork to cut what is natural and into man-made pieces focus their evil machinations on the breast or the thighs.  Leave us our leg-piece.

Consider the flexibility of the leg-piece. You can bake it, grill it, fry it, tandoorify it, chop it into a keema, or curry it in myriad ways. It retains moisture. It pulls flavor from bone and sinew. In curries, it is often overshadowed by the other major, dark portion – the thighs, but the leg-piece truly shines when fried or baked. In addition, it is miles ahead of bland white meat which have given rise to the incorrect notion that everything (and therefore, by extension nothing) tastes like chicken. No fast-food chain pulverized and pasted a chicken leg-piece to make misshapen chicken nuggets. No street-vendor disguised a massive pile of meatless breading to make a chicken lollipop with the respected chicken leg-piece. No one doused its skins and bones in vinegary hot-sauce to make “Buffalo wings”.  It is an honest piece for honest, hard-working people.

Let the Americans gorge on chicken breast (which we with our sense of prioreity will not even pronounce in polite company). Let the Chinese eat chicken feet; one day they’ll realize that the good meat is slightly higher up.

Our earlier generations fought for our right to eat chicken leg-piece. Were their travails in vain?

My immediate ancestors were not vegetarians, but before my father’s time, no one ever ate chicken. It was reviled meat, which even Brahmins in Eastern India who occasionally ate meat did not touch. (Even now, I have relatives who will eat duck eggs, but won’t touch chicken eggs for religious reasons which I cannot comprehend.)

My ancestral home is in a village very close to the Bengal-Orissa border. Not much has changed in decades since my father lived there. He went to school far from the village, in a mofussil town where he became quite rebellious.

One day, my father decided to cook chicken back in the village.  My father was a leader in these types of mischievous adventures. He round up all the other children. They decided that they would buy live chickens from Santhal tribals living on the outskirts of the village. Back then, there were no poultry-raised hens in villages and orthodox Hindus never raised or ate chickens out of fear of being ostracized. (Muslim households and tribals raised chickens).

Once the desi chickens were procured, a plan to butcher the chickens by an ancestral pond was made. The boys and girls would cook rice and chicken by the pond on a mud chula in typical picnic-fashion. There would be singing and poetry recitation. They would eat the meat in a singular act of defiance.

Their fatal flaw was that had not invited one of the youngest members of the extended family, one of my father’s cousins, who, as you can understand, was very upset at being rebuffed. This relative, who I shall not publicly name out of fear of starting a blood-feud among descendants,  spied on the arrangements and decided to report back to the elders in the family.

Back then, my grandfather and his two brothers still had a few annas share in the zamindari system. They were respected for their erudition, but equally feared. The most feared of the trio, was my grandfather’s eldest brother, who I’ve heard fit the physical description of all zamindars – he was a fair-complexioned, tall man with a booming voice. To cite a proverb, he could make “a cow and a tiger drink water from the same ghat.” Never mind, that he probably contributed to the extinction of tigers from our district.

But I digress. Back to the story. The uninvited relative went straight up to zamindar babu and said, “Do you know that all of the others are all by the Nara-Mohanty pond cooking kukra?”

“What!? They are cooking kukra?”  I am sure zamindar babu’s voice could be heard on the other side of the Bengal-Orissa border. Cooking kukra was an inconceivable sin.

Needless to say, my father received a proper thrashing that day.

I retell this story, but I am sure this is not an isolated incident or that my father was the only one who had to rebel on behalf of future generations. The Americans eat turkey to celebrate Thanksgiving – an act of defiance. Why should we be any different? Let us raise our chicken leg-pieces to honor the struggles of our own elders.

Time machine

This nomadic life was of my own choosing.

I was restless in a small town; the pull of the unknown was strong. And so, over ten years ago, I tore myself from everything I knew and packed two bags and left my home for good.

In a new land, I kept few possessions. I told myself that should I need to move again, I’d pack everything required for my journey neatly and efficiently.  I’d leave everything else behind – like a man walking out of a burning building who has nothing to lose, no reason to look behind.

I would always continue to accumulate mental baggage – gnarled recollections of places, people, and events, which, I’m sure, bear little resemblance to an absolute truth. But I promised myself that I would strive to stay unencumbered by physical detritus.

Recently, I visited the home I had once called my own.

The names on the marble slab next to the gate I had to enter to get inside were the same. But the letters had faded over the years.

I walked inside. The saplings in the yard had long given way to majestic broadleaves.  When I knew them, I was green too. Now, like the aging trees, if you cut through me, you would have noticed the annual rings that marked the shifting seasons of my life.

I looked at the house. It needed a fresh coat of paint. The wooden panels of the windows needed to be sanded down. There were clothes hanging on the line, but not one of them was mine.

Stepping inside, I instinctively removed my shoes exactly where I would have put them ten years ago. The mosaic floor, which was missing a few pieces from the intricate puzzle, needed polishing. The walls looked rougher than I remembered them through the filtered distemper of memories.

The house had become older without my knowing it. I had sought variation in my life, clinging to the comfortable thought that there would be a small house –my home –that would remain unchanged in a distant part of the world.

After all, isn’t a home supposed to be a permanent unchangeable physical embodiment of our deepest desires? It is the reason we happily succumb paying off loans that last longer than our lifetimes.  The reason we bequeath our cherished spaces to those we love the most.

My home will last longer than me. It will be around forever.

It is a dream we routinely pursue as we draw lines across sand and soil. As we pile brick upon brick and reinforce stone upon stone.

The countless digital photos we take of every nook and cranny perish as inevitably as the physical remnants, to be slowly engulfed by the bushes they rudely displaced.

And so with much trepidation I entered my room.

I took a good look around. It was just as I had left it. Was I hallucinating?

The pictures which I had hung up on the wall were still there. The ceiling fan still screeched and shook as if it was about to rip itself out of the ceiling. The books on the shelf, although now yellow and dusty, were still arranged in a familiar order.

But the more time I spent in the room, the more I felt like I was an outsider. Even though through some wondrous phenomenon, the possessions of my youth remained trapped inside the time-capsule, this room was alien to me.

At that moment, a younger version of me would have been lying on the bed staring at the ceiling fan with affected eyes, his ridiculously impractical floppy hair a badge of seditiousness.

What hackneyed aspirations and naïve musings would be going through his head?  It would hard for me to guess. He would never have shared his intimate thoughts with someone like me. Of course, he didn’t know that he would turn into me.

And so, here were the facts – plain and simple. I could be transported through time, but this would never be my room again. It belonged to someone else. I was inside a house which would never be my home again. It was gone forever.

It was time for me to find another temporary confine, to aspire to make it my own for a brief nomadic season.

I shut my eyes and left. If I had kept them open, the house would have crumbled in front of my eyes.