A Beef History of School Recess

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A Beef History of School Recess

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

grew up in the Madras of the ’90s, among a group of three perpetually hungry friends. The best thing that our school canteen had to offer were tiny onion samosas and old, rubbery chicken biryani. This would lead us straight outside the school gates to the ice-cream anna who sold orange-flavoured crushed ice. For three rupees, you could suck the cool, liquid deliciousness straight out of the plastic pack. There was also the anna who sold us chilli-powdered mangoes. We weren’t allowed to eat either of those forbidden snacks, but they were nothing short of relief during our amber-tinged Madras afternoons.

These began to feel like petty crimes, once the Kerala beef stall opened in our school.

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Entering into our lives like a temptress in a sleepy marriage, our senses were suddenly stirred. For many of us, it was a moment of epicurean awakening. Gone were the days of time-pass snacks. Dabbas lay severely abandoned. At a steep ₹20, when our allowance was a piddly 5-6 rupees, it was time to break open the piggy bank.

Navjot, Rachel, and I became fast lunch buddies. We would wait for the lunch bell to ring, find a tame front-bencher to donate our idlis or cheese sandwiches to, and rush downstairs before you could say recess. Nandu would greet us with a friendly “Sapatiya?” (the Tamil equivalent of “how are you?” that literally translates to, “have you eaten?”)

We’d fervently gaze at the wrought-iron pan into which Nandu would throw the beef that had been marinating, and follow it up with his genius tadka. Without any preamble, we would roll the beef into flaky Malabar “barottas” (paranthas) and bite right in. The beef would be coated in a delicious, bold masala and the fried onion, coconut, and curry leaf tadka added an edge to the melt-in-our-mouths preparation.

In all of this, Ashwin would feel very left out. He would hesitatingly circle us, watching the feverish glint in our eyes, but turning away politely at the time of the kill. Ashwin was in line to be Head Boy. He read Tolstoy and played cricket for the State. He wasn’t a gasping, “I won’t touch your plate with my veg spoon” sort of Iyer. He had a healthy appetite and he wasn’t afraid of much, except maybe his feisty, iron-fisted mother.

It was only a matter of time before he cracked.

On a particularly sunny afternoon, around Sports Day, Ashwin’s spirits were flagging fast. He’d had it extra hard, having had to lead the march past twice under the sweltering 2 pm sun. By the time the day was out, he walked grumpily to the ice-candy anna while we rushed to Nandu to get our daily fix. Two ice candies later, we could tell he still hadn’t revived.

Navjot looked meaningfully at him, pulled out his remaining cash, and took a fresh plate of beef to the basketball court, away from prying eyes. Would Ashwin follow?

In the few years that I spent at school, the PTA meeting that ensued after the beef incident had the largest turnout ever.

He did. Rachel and I hung back casually, before following to the court at the back of the school. Ashwin took his first bite, and his face bore a sort of strange, melty look – a glazed shine took over his eyes. The three of us felt that we were witnessing a turning point in Ashwin’s life.

From the following day, Ashwin was a changed man. Ever the trendsetter, by the end of the month, he wasn’t the only Iyer on the basketball court. Or in the cycle stand. Or in staircase landings. Siblings would hide from each other across school and indulge in this forbidden food. We had all fallen hard for Nandu’s comforting cushions of soft beef rolled in even softer barottas.

But when you’re in a school like ours, word travels fast. Secrets spread first to the teachers and eventually cross the school gates to the parents. It appeared that Ashwin’s sister had cracked under pressure and admitted to his mother that all of his extra pocket money wasn’t going toward a cultural programme or a charity fund, but to a new, popular school snack.

In the few years that I spent at school, the PTA meeting that ensued after the beef incident had the largest turnout ever. A number of disgruntled parents descended upon the school – leading the battalion was Lakshmi Iyer, Ashwin’s mother. In her short bob and starched maroon shirt, it was hard to tell that she was ferociously conservative. Our principal, on the other hand was a red-faced genial fellow, who believed that children’s personalities should develop, away from the hovering influencing of their parents.

Getting wind of the oncoming battle, we all gathered outside the staff room. Cliques and rivalries were forgotten, as we awaited the verdict. Would Nandu’s be shut down? In our school, where homemade dabbas ranged from sambhar-rice to aloo paranthas to luchi-begun bhaja, Nandu and his beef was the glue that brought us all together.

Eventually our school staff won, arguing freedom of choice. A collective sigh of relief rang across the grounds, louder than the school bell.

Ashwin was severely reprimanded at home and asked to stay away from Navjot and other “bad influences” like Rachel and I: a dictum he hardly paid heed to. He continued to devour beef, mixing it with homemade gunpowder dosas, sniggering at the thought of what his devout mother would say if she knew.

It’s been years since that day. Today, as I see the fracas surrounding beef all across the country, I can’t help but think about my school days. We’re now in a time when your food divides us so severely – but somewhere, in a forgotten corner of time, it united us.

I met Ashwin recently when he was in town. The beef, I learnt, had such a profound effect on his life, that he even married a Malayali girl: Legend has it that they fell in love while scouring authentic Kerala barottas in Delhi. Over pints of beer, we took deep sips of nostalgia and drew from the vivid well of school memories, of forgotten tastes, smells and people, of a sleepy seaside metro that we had both left behind.

When it was time for dinner, I ordered the shrimp salad.

Ashwin ordered the beef steak.

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