The South Asian Equalizer

Samuel Colt, the founder of Colt’s Manufacturing Company, died in 1862. Eleven years after his death, the M1873 .45 single action Army SAA Mod P revolver ensured his posterity. It was known as the Peacemaker, and the Equalizer that won the West, even though history records an unequal contest. Had Samuel Colt been an Indian, he would have been called Samir Kalloo and his Equalizer a katori bowl of mouth-watering, belch-inducing lamb trotters, or payas as rightfully known.

Kala Hotel in Yakki Gate, run by the famous Kala Pehelwan following his retirement from kushti wrestling was known to Lahore’s select foodies.

Kala Hotel had a long, narrow dining hall of bare, smooth cement. There were tables for four at each side, covered with tacked down plastic. The walls had pictures of the Holy Ka’aba, a few saints’ shrines, and bulging-eyed, bare-chested and mustachioed wrestlers from Kala Pehelwan’s family holding decorated gurze maces . Some of the pictures were draped with tinsel garlands. Punjabi music played to the kahrewa beat of dholak, mirdhang and k’tara /iktara.

At the entrance to the dining hall, facing the street, were the huge deg pots and para’at trays of lamb payas, siri-payas or lamb’s head and trotters, liver and kidney, heart-liver-lungs and superb free range chicken chargha!

The meat was personally selected by the pehelwan every day, and the cooking was also supervised by him. It was said that all the cooks and waiters remained in a state of pre-prayer ritual wash known as vuzoo —ensured by the Pehelwan. When they smiled, you could see the stain of the walnut bark dandasa with which they had cleaned their teeth. Their clothes looked fresh, and they smelled of soap. Discreet incense sticks were lit in the corners. Underneath every table was an empty kerosene oil tin. Every table had a notice: PATRONS ARE REQUESTED TO THROW THEIR BONES IN THE TINS BELOW THE TABLE AND NOT ON THE FLOOR.

The discriminating clientele ranged from lawyers acocuntants and police officers to haard-core gangsters and day labourers of all castes and religions living in Lahore.

The classless impact of payas could be felt to the bone.

Yet, there was a wide gap between the street and the household. For cooking payas took at least twelve hours, if not more. In some homes they were cooked regularly, in others, a takeaway dish. There was a choice of being dependent or independent at the high price of twelve hours labour!

Then in 1964, Sheikh Abdul Razzak, of Sialkote’s, Majestic  company took pity on the households which neither had an army of servants nor a surplus of women. The Majestic pressure cooker, by uniting the street and the home with a single, classless dish, took democratization a step further. Households could buy raw payas in the morning and pressure cook them for lunch in as much time as it took to prepare a simple meat and veg curry. If they wanted the traditional taste of slow cooking, they could always buy payas.

Choice, after all, is a component of liberty.

The democratizing effect of payas can be traced to the end of the 18th century. During the beginning of the Mughal empire’s decline, Urdu flourished and the aristocracy, after a night of poetry and dance spectacles, enjoyed paya / nihari in the early hours of the morning and then slept off their hangovers! Payas, throwaway hoofs which the poor retrieved to nourish themselves had, by dint of talented hard work, become a gourmet delicacy that made it to the tables of the aristocracy. In their consumption, sensory pleasure superseded class.

In Lahore of the seventies karigars from Old Lahore moved to establishments in the suburbs, or opened their own, further narrowing the gap between social class and availability.

The final democratization came through press freedom.

Competing TV stations broadcast programs in which mediagenic chefs brought their skills into living rooms from which the kitchen was only short, dedicated step away. And there it rests, except that although the elephant has gone through the gate, its tail is stuck.

Like meteorology, democratization being an ongoing and imprecise process in the developing world, the taste of payas slow cooked by a karigar or a dedicated home-maker remains unmatched as an Equalizer. A lesson for politicians tripping over each other in dedicated power-grabs.