By Damian D'souza Sep. 12, 2016
There’s more to Eid than biryani. In the dark alleys of Mumbai, goats are pitted against each other, before they go under the knife.
The chorus of bleats is accompanied by the faint thud of a subwoofer somewhere. Throw in the vegetal smell of peepal leaves, the acrid smell of urine, and this sensory overload is guaranteed to make you retch.
I’m at Govandi’s Bakra Mandi, or Goat Market, where about a thousand people have gathered to peruse a thousand more goats. The animals are being poked, prodded, fondled, and groped by a multitude of men, who are looking for signs that’ll help them zero in on that one perfect specimen they can send to Allah.
But then there are those like Salman – my guide to this goat market – who are looking for a bit more than whether the animal has sufficient fat or whether it’ll feed their extended families and neighbours for Eid. Salman is examining the animal’s head, precisely the spot where its horns meet its forehead in a bony plate. He’s inspecting the hooves and more importantly he’s looking for fire – fire in the animal’s eye. For this, he gives the goat’s ear a quick, savage and sharp tug. Now if this goat is just another docile animal fit to be sacrificed, it’ll let out a mournful bleat – that sounds like its saying “but why?” – it’ll put its head down, and quietly try to slink away, even though it’s tethered to a nearby pole. If this happens, this goat isn’t coming home with us. And that’s exactly the outcome.
Salman tugs another animal’s ears and gets the same meek reaction. Finally, he pulls up to a goat that’s tied to a pole. He rubs its coat, checks its hind legs, hooves, teeth, and ears for signs of disease, and then he puts it to the test – he gives one of its ears a brief yank. The goat bleats, but this isn’t one of those feeble cries, it sounds like a bellow, a deep, throaty bellow that comes from within the animal. A few human and goat heads turn. It sounds like a war cry more than anything and the dark-brown billy, lunges at Salman. Salman evades the attack, while giving me a thumbs-up. We’ve found our fighter. We call him Shahenshah. The price is set at ₹15,000.
Salman and I go way back. We grew up together, and our childhood was spent getting in all sorts of trouble. Back when we were broke and unemployed, we hit upon a hare-brained idea to purchase the scrawniest and cheapest goat we could find, feed it corn and protein powder, pump it with steroids, and train it to fight ahead of Eid. With Salman’s connections and my expert knowledge of goat physiology and drugs, we could be millionaires by the time we were 30, all with just one goat and some anabolic steroids. There was one problem, however. The goat we bought died a day after and we spent our steroid money on weed. That was the end of our empire. We’re both older and wiser now, but Salman is still an avid fan of bakra fighting.
Last night, Salman was given the coordinates for the place where the fight will go down. (The secret arena is revealed only to the participants since the sport isn’t legal.)
He knows all about the breeds and where they come from; he knows which breed is best suited to fighting – the Saanens, Barbari, Boer, and there are the Jamnaparis, Surtis, and Beetals. The males or anduls are the ones chosen to fight. Salman knows that each goat has characteristics that hark back to their histories. The Boer was originally bred in South Africa for meat production, while Saanens are an Alpine breed. But when it comes to master-class level knowledge on breeds and training, he looks up to Kader bhai.
Kader bhai lives in Mumbra, the modern-day Wild West of Mumbai, atop a small hillock of slums. Over cutting chai, Kader bhai drops lines about the price of Boers being driven up by the beef ban, how finding Saanens is becoming tougher, and how he watched an andul crack a brick wall with a headbutt. He spends a good month bulking up the fighter goats on cracked wheat or daliya, grains, and pulses. Sometimes, depending on the value of the goat, he will include dates in the diet. According to him, this gives the goat an edge over its opponents in the competition.
Then comes the combat training, which is making your goat spar with another weaker or docile goat. It’s like a pump-up match where top sports teams beat their weaker, less proficient competitors. The training is not rigorous because goat fighting in Mumbai is not a blood sport: It’s a status symbol and the participants all end up eventually as biryani.
In Andhra Pradesh, goats bred in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are trained to be aggressive. As part of the preparation for the fight, goats are made to ram banana trees head on. Some trainers use female goats to get the fighters riled up before a match, so that the animals think they need to win in order to mate. Here, the fighting is an income proposition for the owner, unlike in Mumbai where it’s largely a matter of pride.
Kader bhai spouts all these facts with the eloquence of an Urdu poet, with a glass of chai in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. But while he talks a good game, I’m keen to see whether his trivia translates to a superior goat purchase.
After chai, he takes me down an alley, which opens up into a small courtyard with a goat occupying most of it. This is one of the biggest goats I’ve seen. In fact, I may have dated women who are shorter than this goat.
Sikandar stands there, eyeing us suspiciously. Statistically speaking, this goat weighs about 50 kilograms, stands 4’11” tall from hoof to shoulder, and is about 5′ long, but his presence is so much larger. He’s got decorative patterns shaved into his coat and is currently muzzle-deep in a pot of daliya, dates, and nuts that look like a pair of oversized Amalfi lemons.
I pull out my phone to take a picture, but Kader bhai says I can’t. Sikandar is a prime specimen and his buyer has got a big reveal planned for Eid. He plans to milk the goat’s astounding size for all it’s worth.
As we speak, a tempo pulls into the alley. The goat is loaded into a covered tempo with the help of six men and he allows his displeasure at the manhandling to be known with an infernal bellow, which sounds like the trumpet of the apocalypse.
I get dropped to Mumbra station, with strict instructions not to tell anyone about Sikandar. I learn later that Kader bhai has been paid ₹3 lakh for this goat and the buyer will make only a third of that back by winning a fight. The difference in cash is made up by notches of respect that he will rack up within the community.
I watch the tempo zoom past me, feeling terrible for the poor bugger who will go up against Sikandar on Monday evening.
Last night, Salman was given the coordinates for the place where the fight will go down. (The secret arena is revealed only to the participants since the sport isn’t legal.) There he will be informed about his opponent and without too much fuss, the fight shall begin.
I ask Salman whether he’s worried. Before I’d seen Sikandar, I thought Salman had got himself a pretty good deal. But now Shahenshah sounds like too big a name for the tiny goat he’s put his money on. Sikandar would nibble Shahenshah like an amuse-bouche.
Salman is not worried. Shahenshah will fight in his own weight category so it’s unlikely he will bump into Sikandar, and even if Shahenshah loses the fight it’s no big deal. This Zen-like attitude, he tells me, is common across all those fighting their goats today, including the owner of Sikandar. All the men on the ground know that most of the fun is in the build-up to the fight, the cheering, and the participation of the community. The duel will be nothing more than just two goats adamantly butting heads, until one gives up, turns tail, and runs – or simply loses the will to fight and stops. There’s nothing much to lose and even if your goat loses the fight, he will still win the culinary war. Or as Salman so eloquently puts it, “Saalan me namak jyada gir sakta hai, aur kuch nahi.”
Damian loves playing videogames. If all the bounties he collected slaying zombies were tangible, he wouldn't need to write such bios. Seriously though, Damian used to be a cook who wrote, now he's just a writer who cooks.