Continuing with her series of fortnightly columns written exclusively for The Telegraph, Mamoni Raisom Goswami recalls the brutality with which animals were killed for food and sport when she was young
I have already mentioned in my previous article about my great love for animals. In Assam, meat and fish hold a very significant place in the social and cultural life of the people.
Fish is important even in the various rituals of a marriage ceremony. Brahmins in Assam are also very fond of fish. Over the years, my feelings for animals grew so strong that I gave up both meat and fish. I became a strict vegetarian.
The annual shraddh (ceremonies performed for the deceased) of our forefathers in our Amranga Satra was conducted with great pomp. A common feast was arranged and those from nearby villages were invited to the feast.
Hundreds of people would gather in our two sprawling courtyards (sutal) under the tents (rabha) and be served food on specially designed plates, made from the trunks of banana trees.
The cooks were Brahmins from Heramdo and Bhagavatipara in South Kamrup. They were generally the Brahmins who conducted our various rituals. The rice served was of the fragrant joha variety. A huge tub, generally the size of a large room, was created out of banana tree trunks to keep the rice in. From a distance, it looked like a tub made of ivory tusks.
There would be Brahmins who would cook, there would be those who would be busy grinding spices, while the rest would prepare the vegetables for cooking. I vividly recall the Brahmin cooks and their assistants, sweat streaming down their bodies, all busy in their respective activities. The work of cooking for hundreds of people was a great occasion for these people and they would sing, make jokes and encourage each other in their work.
Two or three well-grown goats would be cooked to feed the people. These goats were brought a few days before the feast, and everyone, from children to elders, would take delight at feeding and fattening them. On the day of the feast, the goats were killed one after the other. Our backyard was a sprawling (spread over one to two km) orchard of fruit, shal, jamun and bamboo trees. Some deep holes were dug in the earth there and a goat would be dragged to a hole. Its head would be forced into the hole and be covered with earth. It was death by suffocation for the goat.
The animal would struggle hard to get free and breathe, but many people would hold the goat firmly to the ground till no more spasms of life were seen. We children were not allowed to see the spectacle. But, as always, I never obeyed the elders, and would quietly hide behind some tree and keep staring at the way the goat would be brutally killed. I would feel an inexplicable sensation all over. I was a small child then, never sure whether that sensation was of revulsion or sadness or anger.
Once killed, the goats would be skinned and their skin would be hung out in the sun to dry. On one side, the colour of the skin would be black, brown, dappled or whatever the goat was like. On the other side, it would be the colour of raw flesh, as if pieces of flesh were still sticking to it. For years, I would see in front of my eyes the sight of those flesh-coloured skin that were to become hide soon, and hear the dull sound of the goat stamping its hoofs on the ground, struggling for its life.
My love for animals, I think, grew over time. It wasn’t something that happened in an instant. As we grew a little older, the spectacle of the goats being killed felt more and more repulsive to both my elder brother Satyabrata and me. We finally told the elders that we would not go to Amranga for the shraddh if goats were killed for the feast. We were so adamant that the elders gradually gave in and the practice was finally abandoned.
There were other instances of cruelty towards animals that I saw as a child. I still remember the night when someone had brought a huge python, half-alive, spiked to a spear and put it in our courtyard for us to see. The python was coiled around the spear in pain. Later, the skin of the python was sent to us as a gift and it decorated our walls for many days. I used to touch the skin and feel strange that a living animal had worn that skin just sometime ago. Nalinibala Devi, the famous poet, used to visit us frequently. One day, she told mother that the skin could be kept somewhere inside rather than being put on display in the sitting room. I felt very happy that she, too, felt the way I did.
Tortoise meat was another common delicacy in Assam that even the Brahmins in Assam enjoyed. The practice of eating tortoise meat was prevalent in our family, too. But what shocked me was the brutal way in which the tortoises would be killed. So violent was the method that it left a deep impact on me as a child.