Sunday, 15 December 2013

Smoke

The barbecue is always a good excuse to get a family together. We hadn’t seen each other in while. A long while, now that we came to think of it. These days no one seems to see each other much– and no one seems to bother about not seeing each other. But the barbecue after Eid was just the opportunity. Everyone in the closest family would be invited and everyone would be there. The thought made me feel like a child again.
The second day of Eid is celebrations still in Kashmir. The shops are all closed, as is everything else. The day is long with a procession of people coming and going to give the sacrificial meat. The meat is divided into three parts, one each for the poor, relatives and family. Charity, of all places, has to begin at home. The cuts are precise and politically correct, what each household gets depends on the nearness of relation. Often, families of newly (and about to be) married couples exchange whole legs of mutton. In Kashmir, save the politics, everything is politically correct.
By the time the last guests had left and the closest of family had arrived it was late evening already. The muezzin’s call for the maghrib prayer had reminded the guests that it was late already. A few pleasantries were exchanged, tea cups were cleared and the guests allowed to leave. The kitchen looked as if a storm had passed through it. Cups and saucers piled in the sink; the pans on the stove, a dasterkhwaan hurriedly rolled up, crumbs littered on the shelves – all souvenirs of a good time.  One may thank God for the company, for people who chose to visit on Eid.
The younger ones in the house had decided to do the barbecue outside in the lawn. The adults had protested, it being too cold, them being too sick. The kids hadn’t paid attention. The gridiron was brought out from the storeroom and dusted. The skewers washed and arranged in a tray. The meat had been left marinating since afternoon. The marinade was a serious affair and no one was sure what had finally gone into it.
The gridiron was carefully balanced on a few bricks. One of its legs had rusted away. A few dried leaves started the fire and the coals burnt brightly spurred into a blue flame by the vigorous fanning of an enthusiastic cousin. Everyone drew the chairs near to the fire. Temperature takes a sudden tumult in the evenings. A kangri was passed around. A hot water bottle was quickly dunked into the blanket. Everyone settled down. The ladies huddled close on a straw mat on the grass sharing a blanket. It was almost dark and suddenly the barbecue didn’t seem like a good idea. The lights around the lawn were put on. The electric bulbs created small halos of yellow light around themselves. The cold air cut through the light, making it appear dim and distant. A second kangri was heated  with the coals from the gridiron. Someone suggested that they move into the kitchen, but no one stirred. The air though cold, was fragrant. Cold air always carries a mellow perfume.
The first batch of skewers smoked a lot, impregnating the air warmth and aroma of fat slowly melting on the rods. The meat was cold and took a long time to cook. The coals glowered red. A spoonful of ghee carefully added towards the end rounded it off and the gathering took it in greedily. It wasn’t quite Khayam, but flavourful still. The night’s chef, the nephew who had blown the coals red, smiled proudly. It’s hard to say if anyone paid attention to the taste. We were picking off from where we had left last time. Last time, when was that? Goodbyes are never said. They are only solemnized. After some time has passed, greetings become awkward and painful. We were waiving off our farewells. The barbecue was just a reason to be together. A throwback to the past, to the youth and our times together, when things in general were settled for ever. To the times before unsettling.
It was dark by then. A bluish darkness made grey by the smoke and cold. The air was gripping and the young cousins were all packed round the embers. The plates were passed around. Everyone was discussed and dismissed, the whole extended clan. Everyone was interested in knowing the future, and all the better it was, for no one likes to dwell on the past. Only the happiest memories came to mind – picnics, colleges. Weird hairstyles. Relatives who had been fashionable in the eighties. An uncontrolled laughing fit ensued. The kids looked at us in awe, surprised.

The white full moon was hanging behind the clouds. The fall’s moon shone languidly in the sky overlooking the warm smoke rising from the joyous gathering. The falling leaves rustled as they settled on the ground, where (I always like to think so) they shall lie in wait for snow. Or they may be swept away and burnt. The kangri felt warm in the hands. Somebody was going round with a second or perhaps third round of skewers. By now the careless group of youngsters had taken over the gridiron. They were disposing off the meat by themselves and laughing loudly. A visiting nephew  was telling about his college in Bangalore. How he has had to make do with the vegetarian meals served in the hostel mess, and how the simple barbecue was heaven sent.
Who were these people? World weary already! Flying without wings, perhaps.  But flying, nonetheless. Some disgruntled aunt shouted that if there were no more skewers left they might as well return inside. No point of sitting in the freezing cold. The kids ignored her.
The coals and were now getting cold. I dragged the chair farther away and lit a cigarette as people began to break the party to move inside. Falling leaves have made many a poet. Or maybe it was the moonshine that night. Clear and cold. Wistful yet content. I let the silence hang a moment. The cold wind blew over the leaves. The last embers in the furnace glowered red and turned into ash. The barbecue had been an excuse for looking over the happy autumn fields. The cold wind made eyes watery. By then, everyone had disappeared inside the house even the kids. Someone was asking for tea.
Yes, a cup of tea would be wonderful.

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