The cake was shaped like a woman’s face with a Cherry on her red lips. Krishnan picked up the cherry and asked “Have you heard of Abdul Latif Al Bagdadi?”
Nazar replied “No. Is he our shareholder?”
“A doctor by profession. Involved in Chemistry also. A religious scholar as well.” Said Krishnan, “from 12th century.”
“Oh.” Said Nazar uninterestedly. Dead people don’t benefit his business.
“Original name was Abu Muvafq Atheen Abdul Latif Al Bagdadi. Born in Hijri 557 in Bagdad. That is 1162 AD.”
“There was no Iraq then.” Said Krishnan. “He knew eight languages including Hebrew. He traveled all his life. His important book was on anatomy. In 11th century that was the one taught in European colleges. Actually European medical system owes more to Arabian tradition than Greek.”
“Interesting man” said Nazar offering a glass of drink to Krishnan “This liquor’s name is Shash. In Cairo we serve it to entertain dignitaries. “
“Is it Strong?”
“Very smooth drink. In fact it is non-alcoholic. A soft drink.” Said Nazar. “Not everyone makes it. A very few select companies own the secret recipe for generations. More like a family secret.”
“Egyptian Cola.” Said Krishnan.
“Almost. How is it?” Asked Nazar.
“Scintillating smell. Strange smooth taste.”
“That’s its specialty. Have a couple more and you will be addicted to its taste and flavor.”
Krishnan wiped his lips clean. “Latif came to Egypt in 1197 AD. Taught at the Ashar school. Wrote his Cairo experiences in the book ‘Al iqfath val iqthifar’. There is a strange mention in the book, came to mind when I saw the cake.”
“Let’s go get meat.”
“I’m vegetarian.” said Krishnan.
“Strictly vegetarian for generations.”
“Is it a religious thing?”
“No. My tribe’s tradition. Call it a mental habit. Now many do, but I cannot even imagine eating meat.”
“Strange habit. Do you eat Greens? Salad?”
“Sure”, Krishnan continued “what was I saying… from 1200 AD to 1203 Nile dried up totally. Egypt suffered a famine. Latif mentions that ‘Such grave famines were rare.’ About 150 thousand people died of hunger as per government records. People were madly looking for food, eating anything green in sight. Killed and looted. Ate dogs and such animals, even insects and worms. Then there was nothing. Everyone was famished. That’s how cannibalism started.”
Nazar stopped as he said “Vegetarian here..” looking keenly at Krishnan he exclaimed, “What?”.
“Man started eating man.”
“Yes. Latif has written what he saw. He never exaggerates. He was a scientist.”
“Everyone. First some people secretly roasted corpses and ate. Slowly it spread. When the initial inhibition withered people ate copse in groups. When there were no more corpses they started hunting, in gangs, with weapons. They hunted mostly children and old people. Shortly they go used to the taste. They started cooking various dishes. Sold the excess human meat. Soon it turned into a trade. Cooked human meat was sold in stores. In a place called Misr Latif has seen broiled child corpses kept for sale. Human meat was kept in salt filled jars for sale.”
“You have to believe it.” Krishnan continued. “Then food started flowing in from other places. Famine subsided. But many people had already acquired a taste for human meat, and felt comfortable trading it. They could not be stopped from hunting humans. When the Egyptian government tried stopping them they settled in groups in remote places. They killed and ate travelers. Once when the army attacked such a settlement they found heaps of human bones. It was common to take doctors on the pretence of seeing a patient and eat them, even priests… Then slowly the habit dwindled.”
“Thank God.” Said Nazar “Bearer, Salad…”
“But my theory is, such habits never die. They continue to be in one form or the other. What we call culture today is a collection of such ever transitioning habits.”
“You mean they eat human meat even now?”
“May be. Somewhere … some people, very secretly. Sometimes it might have become part of a ritual. Once in a year people might eat it on some conditions. In some form the habit will exist.” Krishnan said. “Taste is such a thing. Like language. Both relate to the tongue. Both have a direct link to our deep inner conscience. Our inner conscience is made up of several things that are buried and decomposed. No eating habit of humans would die off. It would live on in the tongue as taste. The tongue keeps yearning for that taste…”
“Cannot even imagine.” Said Nazar. “We prepare many types of breads made with meat to guests. But human flesh.. Oh no!.”
“Is it?” asked Krishnan. “Please ask for soup without meat.” Krishnan said wiping his face. “I would like to find out. I have nothing else to do in Cairo for two weeks. I would like to test my theory. We should research through the food habits of people around here.”
“Madness. In this century…”
“Madness is an essential ingredient in people’s habits. I am sure someone here eats human meat. In some form. We should find that out.”
“Wonderful days.” Nazar shook hand. “I did not expect you to stay for so long and did not expect that I would go around with you for so long. I consider this an honor…”
Krishnan smiled, ”You took good care of me Nazar. I would remember this forever. Especially this drink Shash! I have almost become addicted to its taste.”
“When you go to America it would be waiting for you.” said Nazar smilingly. “I have sent about 40 bottles ten days ago.”
“Thanks.” Krishnan looked at his watch.”It’s time.”
“Ten more minutes. There is a saying in my tribe, ‘When you part a friend for long days, the last seconds become those long days themselves.’” Said Nazar.
“Shash has the scent of a drink from my place, I just discovered yesterday.” Said Krishnan. “Sects of people cultivating in our lands prepare it. We perform rituals to goddess Kali for 40 days in a year. They bring the drink during those days. Only men drink it. I have tasted it a few times in my childhood. I’m not sure if they make it anymore. Don’t know if Kali rituals themselves are being done.”
“You said you were a vegetarian sect?”
“About hundred years ago we ate meat. Not as regular food but as part of rituals. We are the ‘Saktheyas’. We worship god as death, as an annihilating power, as a woman. We offer animals to her. Eat the meat. Liquor is also a part of it.”
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“I have not given up my theory” said Krishnan.”The tongue never forgets. It’s memory is deeper than human history.”
“Where else should we search in Egypt? We have seen almost all food habits, all tribes. “
“Yes. Certainly you did a great job. But as far research is concerned nothing is final. We may have gone the wrong path. May have missed something important. I might come back to Cairo next January..”
“but we are not researchers. That’s not our business…” Nazar said wearily.
“Yes. That’s why it’s our hobby. May be researchers do business as a hobby.” Krishnan smiled. Nazar smiled too.
Boarding started. Krishnan patted on Nazar’s back, smiled and began to leave. “Thank you Nazar. Great time. Nile is beautiful. Light skinned girls are beautiful. Shash is sweet.”
“Thanks. Come again.”
An old woman in traditional dress waved to stop the car. Cars were jetting out from the parking lot. She leaned inside the car and said “Sir. I am in a hurry. Could you please drop me in downtown Cairo? My car has not come.”
Nazar said, ”Come in.” She climbed on.
“What tribe are you from?”
“Vangai.” she said. “I went out of town. My daughter knows I would come. But she has not come to pick me up. May be she couldn’t. Thanks a lot…”
She had long nails, rolled in like sea shells.
“Your nails…is that a habit?”
“No. This is our tribal tradition. We grow nails for four years. This tradition is not so prevalent now here. But in villages a lot of people follow.”
“Like a ritual?”
“Yes. But not just a ritual. We collect bunches of these nails and soak them in a potion for six months. They disintegrate and blend with the potion. It becomes a sweet liquor…”
Nazar was awakened. “What liquor is that?” he asked.
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