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Bengalis worship Durga as the “mother”, with feasting, plunging into an unbridled food-fest, devouring everything from plain khichuri (lentils and rice gruel) served with a light vegetable dish—to lamb, chicken, fish and prawns, not to forget the tea-time favourite, devilled eggs. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Bengalis worship Durga as the “mother”, with feasting, plunging into an unbridled food-fest, devouring everything from plain khichuri (lentils and rice gruel) served with a light vegetable dish—to lamb, chicken, fish and prawns, not to forget the tea-time favourite, devilled eggs. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Will Durga conquer evil?

Is Delhi turning into Mumbai, where the Jain community successfully imposed a city-wide ban on meat during the Jain festival of Paryushan?

In Ethiopia, the unending season of Lent is observed with a degree of mealtime restraint that would earn the respect of the most devout vegetarian. It’s a nation overflowing with gastronomical delights. During Lent, delicious, delicately flavoured vegetable stews and lentils are placed on a massive, single piece of injera (a flatbread that tastes a bit like a sour southern Indian dosa), to be shared by all around a low table.

In some Ethiopian homes, if you looked up from your food to the ceiling, you’d be greeted by a large fresco of Jesus or Mary or both looking down with kindly approval. Like Indians, you’d be eating with your fingers in the presence of gods.

A day after the end of Lent, my devout Orthodox Christian friend—a former heavyweight boxer—headed straight for what can only be described as a “raw beef joint". He pointed at a carcass and selected the cut, which the butcher sliced out in thin slivers and served him along with some dry condiments. “No fear of Salmonella or tape-worm?" I asked. Nope, replied Sisay, “Never been sick from eating this yet." He then fished out a handful of pills from his pocket—possibly deworming medicines—which he had brought along for me, and urged me to take them before trying out this original African beef carpaccio.

Some dhabas—roadside north Indian eateries—in South Delhi are trying very hard to emulate the Ethiopians. They’ve been shutting early and one wouldn’t serve me tandoori chicken the other night because it had turned vegetarian. I was told to come back 10 days later, after the Hindu festival of Navratri. My contempt for something called “mixed vegetable", where carrots are barely distinguishable from peas, meant having to traverse my neighbourhood. Like an errant schoolboy, I was turned back by three angry dhabas before finally finding my dinner of choice at a restaurant—at three times the normal price.

“There’s no demand for meat in this season," one dhaba owner said.

This is not the Delhi I knew. Navratri was never so big. Dussehra was—and continues to be. Importantly, you ate what you liked during Dussehra, while the rest of the city went about its business of burning very large effigies of evil mythic monsters in public parks. And now?

A colleague told of how his local deli, which stocks very high-quality, ready-to-cook pork products (made from a breed of English pigs), changed overnight into a little shrine, and not of the gastronomical sort. He walked in one morning to find the butchers lighting joss sticks to idols of Ganesha with unpractised hands. A prayer song played in the background. And now they have shut down entirely for the period of Navratri.

Nine days of veg? Is Delhi turning into Mumbai, where the Jain community successfully imposed a city-wide ban on meat during the Jain festival of Paryushan?

Many Delhi-ites—meat-loving or not, they’re a breed apart, like Londoners, New Yorkers or Romans—say there’s been a trend over the past 15 years or so of Hindus observing Navratri with increasing austerity and devotion. It’s big among Punjabi Hindus, the dominant business community in Delhi. “A restaurant refused to serve a friend an egg paratha," reported one grumpy Delhi-ite the day after.

But although Punjabi Hindus are the dominant religio-linguistic group in Delhi, there is a certain unstated “chill factor" among them, unlike the Marathi-speaking upper castes of Mumbai—and they are meat eaters.

Delhi is a diverse place, without a dominant group, which means vegetarianism will be hard to enforce in the city. Hotheads may try underhand means, which always hit the poor the hardest. There is, for instance, a new breed of “cow vigilantes" who have either taken it upon themselves or are acting on orders to disrupt the trade in cow slaughter. They stop trucks transporting cows to the slaughter house, release the animals and give the transporters a sound thrashing. In one case, in the state of Himachal Pradesh, they killed a transporter.

It is the poor who suffer the most. Mobs killed a Muslim villager in his late 50s in Uttar Pradesh and a Muslim truck driver in Jammu and Kashmir for allegedly eating/transporting beef. Demand for non-veg, low in any case in the festive season, may hit rock bottom among certain population groups as a result of pressure from such acts of violence.

Will this have a long-term impact on diet? Will people stop eating mutton, chicken, pork, beef or fish in Delhi? I doubt it. Here’s how diverse Delhi is:

Within Delhi, this is also the week when Bengali Hindus let their hair down for Durga puja festivals, worshipping the goddess Durga who descends from the heavens to slay a half-man, half-beast asura who’s been bothering humans and the gods. She’s the celestial superwoman, rescuing helpless males from distress with her 10 hands wielding 10 weapons. Bengalis worship Durga as the “mother", with feasting, plunging into an unbridled food-fest, devouring everything from plain khichuri (lentils and rice gruel) served with a light vegetable dish—to lamb, chicken, fish and prawns, not to forget the tea-time favourite, devilled eggs.

The public worship takes place under massive marques, where only vegetarian food is served—free of charge. But in my childhood, a piece of fish was served with at least one meal. Happily, marques are lined with food stalls that serve all manner of non-vegetarian parathas, cutlets and chops. A caterer of home delivered meals in East Delhi has come up with an offer of puja specials, made up of: prawn cutlets, fish fry, chicken curry, lentils, vegetables and sweets.

“Don’t make the mistake of seeing all of India through the prism of a particular group of people," was the gentle advice of a man who organizes one of these public pujas every year in South Delhi. This year, and in the years to come, I thought, superwoman’s going to have to muster up all her weapons, armoury, strategy, power, spunk and genius to slay the asuras springing up in our midst.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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