What the cluck is this Chicken Song about?

What I’m trying to say is that Chicken has been sitting and clucking away to glory on the dividing lines that run through Indian kitchens. It’s not the division of India and Pakistan, Hindu and Muslim – it runs through the family.

To understand why and how I wrote the now famous #ChickenSong from Bajrangi Bhaijaan, you’ll have to allow me to paint a picture of my childhood. This rib-tickling ride is gonna be peppered with a few chicken stories, and since we’re going back three decades, you better order a tangdi or two, because by the time I’m done, you will be hungry.

In late 70’s and early 80’s, a calendar image of ‘Bharatmata‘ was a standard fixture on the walls in living rooms, offices, shops etc. She was an impressive Goddess – this ‘Mother India’. She had her arms spread across from Kutchh to Kolkata (Calcutta, of those times). The Indian Ocean washed her feet. Her head was held high and mighty like the towering Himalayas behind her. In her hand, a tricolor waved in all its glory. No nation in the world has been personified like India. She was too painstakingly detailed, too palpable, too real to be just an ‘idea’ of a nation. She was real, we loved her and were proud to be her children. I grew up with that image of India. Image of a perfect nation. Big. Diverse. All encompassing. A nation worthy of devotion.

Now, my family has a gene pool as wide as the span of Bharatmata’s arms in those calenders. Puris and such other Suryavanshi Khatriclans came from Punjab and were proud descendants of King Porus and Lord Ram himself. Kshatriyas have historically been non-vegetarians, being a warrior community (not kidding, that was the justification given) but my mother’s side of the family were staunch Brahmins, descendants of Maharshi Bharadwaj from the basins of holy Ganges. I grew up to be a strict vegetarian with insistence on extremely saatvik cuisine because of my Mom. My Dad was forced to become a vegetarian because Mom would not have malechchh aahaar in her kitchen. But this vegetarianism was not enforced in totality. Dad could cook eggs in dedicated, separate utensils as long he washed them on his own. But neither my mom nor her maid would touch those utensils. Dad took pride in the fact that he could cook an egg in over a hundred ways, but one look at Mom’s scowling face and he would hurry up to say: ‘Bana nahin raha, sirf bata raha hoon!’

This comic tussle between vegetarians and non-vegetarians is a part of the family politics of many Indian families, like my own. And it didn’t always happen in homes from intercaste marriages like my parents’. My grandmother, for example, was a pure Punjaban but she became a vegetarian of her own accord as a child. Poor Dadaji had no clue he was marrying a ghaas-phoos-khanewali. By the time he realised after marriage, it was too late. All his life, he had to gorge on morsels of chicken from his friends and employees. (I have a theory that he preferred hiring Muslim mechanics in his shop for precisely that reason).

History tells us repeatedly that the more you enforce rules, more the people want to break them. My father and all my uncles grew up to eat non-veg food. In fact, one of my uncles was so fond of chicken that he started a poultry farm in partnership with his friend. They lived in Ajmer and the Pushkar valley in 80’s had a thriving poultry business. The weather was conducive, land and labour was cheap and there was ample demand because of the constant influx of tourists. But while all poultry farms did well, my uncle’s business ran only for 6 months because he and his friends literally ate all the 600 chickens within 6 months of opening the farm! (Yes, I come from a mad family).

And it wasn’t just my family. In early 80s, every small town in Gujarat (like Mehsana, where I grew up), would have a highway dhaba called ‘Janpath’ or ‘Sher-e-Punjab’. Since there would be no non-veg restaurants inside the town limits, these highway dhabas would be the only place to score some ‘chicken’. These dhabas had a getaway door for the ‘vegetarian’ patrons. (I swear I’m not making this up.) In case, you saw your uncle walking in from the main door, you could quietly leave from the back door, without your reputation as a vegetarian getting ruined. (You could also confront the uncle and ask him what he was doing there, but I guess, that never occurred to the guilt filled Gujjubhais).

During my college days in Ahmedabad, I’ve known of friends who wanted the guilty pleasure of tasting non-veg food once in their life before they went back to the smaller towns from where ever they had come, because once they went back home, they would never have this ‘opportunity’. One such poor soul from Rajkot, was extremely frustrated with the thought of having khichdi-kadhi for the rest of his life. So, on the last day of college, he goes to Bhatiyar Gulli – the most infamous ‘non-veg area’ of the city, where several roadside vendors are roasting kebabs. He selects a better looking restaurant and walks in. There are no menus. All available items are written with a chalk on a black-board and our man, having been a vegetarian all his life, cannot tell a tikka from a tangdi. Words like ‘Gurda-kaleji’, ‘Bheja-fry’ and ‘Nalli-Nihari’ are dancing in front of his eyes. He is thoroughly out of his wits but he cannot let it show to the ‘Mohammedan’ waiters and the ‘Nirashi’ meat-eaters (North Indians) sitting in the restaurant that he doesn’t belong here. So he takes a deep breath, calls the waiter and orders with every iota of confidence that he can muster:

Wo picture mein dikhatey hain na? Aisa ulta chiken – do taangwala? Wo le ke aao!
(“Bring that Chicken thingy they show in movies – the one with two inverted legs”.)

He came back to the hostel room and lay on the bed, looking at ceiling fan, smiling with contentment. There were two things important for every Gujju boy in the hostel to grow up. First was sex, which was in short supply but the second one, my friend had just achieved. He was a man now. After five hours of lying on the bed he got up and had two spoons of gow-mutra (cow urine) to purify himself. I asked him if the chicken was worth it. He said he now knew what freedom tasted like. I was still a strict vegetarian at that time and couldn’t understand what he meant. I lost my vegetarian virginity a few months later and though the chicken I ate wasn’t the best in the world, I could understand what my friend meant. I’m not a big fan of non-vegetarian food myself, but if there are no vegetarian options I wouldn’t fuss for a second before digging into it. And my mother knows it that I eat non-vegetarian food at times now. She still makes a face and my Dad smiles just with the thought that his son is having his kebabs and ‘living-it-up-like-a-true-punjabi’. And history repeats itself so, don’t be surprised when I tell you that my wife is a vegetarian Gujarati Brahmin and my sons don’t eat chicken. (At least for now they don’t because of their mother’s influence but we’ll see… Hail Freedom!)

What I’m trying to say is that Chicken has been sitting and clucking away to glory on the dividing lines that run through Indian kitchens. It’s not the division of India and Pakistan, Hindu and Muslim – it runs through the family. Vegetarians scowl at non-vegetarians and vice versa – BUT – they have been sitting on the same table and eating together for centuries. This is the dividing line that gave birth to the first two lines of the Chicken song…

“Chawk Chandni, Chaudhri Dhabha
Adha hai non-veg, aur Veg hai adha!”

The rest of the song speaks for itself. It’s such a loaded situation and I’m glad that Kabir Khan and Pritam gave me this opportunity because complex situations are best for a lyricist. It’s so boring to write another party song or wedding song or love song. But when someone comes to you with a situation so unique as Kabir had created in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, you know that this is a great opportunity. Yes, there is a risk of offending a billion overzealous right-wingers (some from my family itself) but it’s a risk that someone must take because we live in troubled times. Vegetarianism, though being touted to be as high and mighty as a religion in India, has never been really a religion and it’s a shame that we allowed politics to seep into our lunch-boxes.

I feel that I grew up in a much much more tolerant India. Where everyone’s wishes, though scowled over at times, were respected. Where diversity was not tolerated but celebrated. And no piece of a tangdi kebab could infuse hatred between two people. Unfortunately, those times are gone. We still call ourselves secular and diverse but our tolerance has diminished like never before. The tricolor in the Bharatmata’s calendar has been replaced with a saffron flag, and for the first time I’m really scared that the fabric of this nation’s secularity is being torn beyond repair. A line like: ‘Sabhi Ik Plate Mein Adjust Ho Jayein’ is not just a line about food. That line is my prayer to the Bharatmata in the calendars of my childhood. I know those years cannot come back. With the current political and social scenario that celebration of diversity seems like a Utopian ideal. But imagine, how nice a world would that be if we could learn to live without scoffing over each other’s meals…

*The article was first published on Pandolin.com

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