Quaintly nestled in a fairytale valley amidst the lofty mountains of the mighty Himalayan range, in the backdrop of the mystic snowcapped peak of Mount Kanchenjunga glittering towards the pristine cerulean sky, stood an old and beautiful Anglican Boarding School, in the Darjeeling district of India’s West Bengal state. It was a magical land where one could touch the moist ivory clouds during the day and wonder at the beauty of a million dazzling stars brightly lit up across the night sky.
Established sometime in the sixth decade of the nineteenth century, with only thirty-one boarders and a few day scholars, now in the year 1980, around 600 students walked the stone halls of this historic educational institute. For the past hundred and twenty years, the academy had been churning out leagues of extraordinary gentlemen through its haloed gateways earning the nickname ‘Oxford of the East.’
The four teenage devils, Rana, Adil, Sunny, and Robbie though good in studies and games, were the most infamous boys the school had ever seen. These best of friends, and hostel buddies since their primary school days, were the most notorious students in this little piece of heaven. It was their last year in the institute. They were to appear for their board examinations in a few months and leave for good. Some of the strict teachers eagerly looked forward to the day they would leave school.
Over the years, the residential academy for boys had developed an international, multicultural, and cross-regional cosmopolitan character. While predominantly it had students from all over India, boys also came from countries like the UK, France, Thailand, Bhutan, Japan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates. The four besties were also from different nations. While Rana was from the city of Patna, Adil came from Dhaka, Sunny from Osaka, and Robbie from Newcastle.
Embroidered in a pedigree of a strong and long list of British heritage, the students were expected to follow a strict set of rules, which ensured the rowdiest of hooligan’s ultimate transformation into an admirable gentleman by the end of his school tenure. Things like dressing in prescribed suits and carrying umbrellas on all off-campus trips were to be strictly followed. Great emphasis was given to the smallest of things to ensure discipline. Irrespective of all the strictness, boys were just boys, and the mischief makers had their fun now and then, with the four devils always topping the naughty list.
While various hobby clubs and societies honed artistic and technical skills, extracurricular activities such as dramatics, elocution, debate, Classical Indian and Western instrumentals, art, model making, photography, wood and lathe work, cybernetics, textile design, and even cooking, made sure that the energies of the growing boys were positively channelised.
Exceptional performers appeared for music and speech examinations held by the Trinity College and Royal Academy of Music. Boys were sent on educational tours to historical sites in India and other neighbouring countries and even to NASA in the US. The sports curriculum dominated by soccer, cricket, athletics, volleyball, basketball, squash, table tennis, Eton fives, gymnastics, and rock climbing ensured a physically fit upbringing.
“I am fed up with having veggies all the time,” shouted Adil and banged his fists on a dusty desk while Sunny bobbed his head to the tune of ‘We Will Rock You,’ by Queen blasting into his eardrums through the orange foam earphone of his latest Sony Walkman, sent by his dad straight from Japan. Rana and Robbie tussled, locked in a deadly bout of arm-wrestling on the teacher’s table of the abandoned classroom at a restricted nook of the old school basement. The four used to gather there to hatch their mischievous plans, smoke, chill and hang about. It was their one corner of freedom in this institute of a million restrictions.
“I want to have the Furious Mutton Handi,” said Sunny bringing down the earphones from his nog to the nape of his neck. The sudden utterance of a mouth-watering non-vegetarian dish in their insipid hostel-food lives instantly brought the others to a statue-like stance with a fixed gaze. Like dogs suddenly becoming alert to the declaration of their favourite treat, the three dropped everything and glared at their mate.
“Well, we do get chicken and egg for two meals a week. On special occasions, we do get lamb,” spoke up Robbie, letting go of Rana’s hand, breaking away from their arm-wrestling game, and continuing into a lengthy monologue about the different kinds of sad food served at the hostel.
“Well, the last time we had lamb was three months ago. I don’t even remember the occasion, but I do remember the taste. It was horrible, and we lapped it up like dogs,” said Rana, adding fuel to their parched taste buds. “Not lamb; I want goat meat. I want mutton. Not just any mutton; I want the Furious Mutton Handi,” screamed Sunny getting impatient at Rana and Robbie’s divergent line of conversation.
“I know the recipe. Have seen my mom cook it every time I went home for holidays. I think I can prepare it. We need charcoal, a pit and a large clay pot to begin with,” declared Rana in a mixed tone of hesitation and confidence. “Tell me what else we need? Let’s make a list,” quickly added the studious Robbie taking out his little red notebook and his trusted Onoto fountain pen.
“Let’s see now – mint, yoghurt, red chilli powder, garam masala, turmeric, and of course salt. Hmmm… I am not sure whether black or green cardamom or both. Certainly, need a lot of garlic and onions. Oh wait, need coriander powder… and and and mustard oil, that’s it,” declared Rana with a satisfying grin that could be the envy of any mediaeval alchemist.
“What about potatoes? Can’t do without potatoes. We need to add a lot of potatoes to the dish,” enthusiastically prompted Adil. “You never add potatoes to mutton. Mom says it spoils the dish,” protested Rana. “Nonsense, we Bengalis add potatoes to mutton all the time. It’s just heavenly,” protested Adil, as a huge debate broke on the use of potatoes in a non-vegetarian dish.
“Forget the dam potatoes. Aren’t you forgetting the main ingredient? Where will we get the goddam mutton from,” calmly enquired Sunny while putting back his beloved Walkman in its pristine cardboard case with the utmost care? “It has to be Doobie, Warden Albuquerque’s pet goat,” said Robbie drawing a knife and three little teardrops of blood and scribbling down the animal’s name beside the gory artwork in his little red notebook.
“That is outrageous,” protested Adil. “Hey, you were the one to bring up the topic of having non-vegetarian food. Too scared to follow through now,” continued Robbie. “He is right. Where else will we get the mutton from,” added Rana, and the four started planning an elaborate scheme to abduct, slaughter and cook their warden’s pet goat into a ‘Furious Mutton Handi’ dish?
It was Friday night. They planned to arrange for everything by next Saturday and cook the meat in the fireplace of their secret hideout at night and eat it in the afternoon the next day. It being a Sunday, most of the teachers would either be in a resting mood or visiting the town for shopping, eating out or sightseeing. The four could not sleep that night. All of their minds raced with a million ideas to execute their plan as flawlessly as possible.
Though the initial plan was for the four to have a private dinner only for themselves, as the week progressed, others kept on adding to their list for playing their parts in making the meal happen. First, they had to include Batsa, the kitchen assistant, for his unrestricted access to cooking ingredients. Gardener Bonomali also joined the party by supplying a massive earthen flowerpot to cook the meat in. Juniors Roshan and Albert had to be taken in as they overheard a portion of the plan to abduct the goat. Baburam, the guard, agreed to the use of his trusted Kukri to slay the animal. Prabhu, the launderer, agreed to supply charcoal for the pit in exchange for allowing his wife and three kids also feast.
By the evening of next Saturday, the crew had nearly completed all the arrangements. At night, after most of the school had gone to sleep, they quietly sneaked out to meet at the secret kitchen. Batsa was the first to enter with a huge sack of potatoes and placed it in the middle.
The four finally managed to pull down a bleating Doobie to the basement, and the dumb animal who had been merrily chewing on fresh banyan leaves following the boys on a night stroll, suddenly realised that it might be in trouble. The setting of the basement, the crowd, a room full of cooking ingredients and paraphernalia, everything startled the timid animal, and it started bleating like hell.
Everyone ran around aimlessly, trying this and that to make the goat silent. While young Roshan vigorously patted the frightened herbivore on its back to calm it down, Baburam took out his Kukri and wielded it furiously, threatening the goat to keep its maw shut. Everything seemed to go haywire, and everyone was certain that at any moment now, their scheme would be discovered, and all plans spoiled.
Just when the scheme of things seemed on the verge of total collapse, Robbie jumped in the middle and placed Sunny’s dear orange foam headphones below the bleating goat’s flopping ears. Miraculously the flabbergasted animal calmed down to the tune of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ playing on the Walkman. Robbie had the sudden revelation that the rock-loving warden Albuquerque’s – pet goat might calm down to rock music. “Let me go you buffoons, not my Walkman no, no, no…” cried Sunny with tears spewing out of his eyes while Rana and Adil held their dear friend back.
“Go ahead Baburam, it’s time to do your part. Slaughter the goat now,” spoke up Bonomali, the gardener. “Hold on there now. I had said that I would allow the use of my kukri to slew the animal. I never said that I would kill the helpless creature myself,” protested the Nepali, placing his ancestral knife on the table. By now, the goat had calmed down. Chomping banya leaves vigorously, it nodded its head to the voice of Freddie Mercury singing in its ears.
Now, though the goat had stopped, the humans managed to create enough commotion themselves. The guard, gardener, and the launderer cussed each other for being spineless. “Baburam you are nothing but a paper Gorkha,” blurted out Bonomali. “And you Bonomali have pumpkin seeds for stones,” angrily replied the Nepali, with droplets of spit jetting out of the gaps between the few tooths left in his pan-chewing mouth.
When Prabhu tried to intervene, both the gardener and the guard teamed up to thrash the daylights out of the poor launderer, who in turn slapped the timid kitchen assistant for not saying anything or protesting in any way. The boys scuffled, infuriating each other with blame and rage. While one declared the other a coward, another said that none of them deserved to be even called non-vegetarian people.
Right about the time when the cacophonous bubble of their commotion was about to burst at its seam, someone raised the kukri high above and brought it down vigorously. Everyone dropped silent and became still. They stood there like statues, gazing at young Albert mercilessly slashing away. He went on chopping like a rabid lunatic.
No one said anything, and everyone got back to doing their part of the cooking. The cut pieces were soaked, cleaned with water, and poured into the giant earthen pot. Chopped chillies, onions, whole garlic, and pasted ginger-garlic were added and mixed. Finally, an earthen lid with a small hole in the middle was placed on top of the pot and sealed in place with a flour paste. Then the pot was placed in the fireplace, covering it with burning charcoal left to cook on a slow fire for the night. Everyone crept back to their rooms.
The next day in the afternoon, the party gathered back in the basement to partake in their long-awaited fellowship lunch. Everyone had brought rice or bread saved from breakfast or lunch. Fourteen plates were laid that day. Students Rana, Adil, Sunny, and Robbie, juniors Roshan and Albert, Batsa the kitchen assistant, Bonomali the gardener, Baburam the guard, and Prabhu the launderer and his wife and three kids sat in front of the thirteen plates, and in front of the fourteenth plate sat a bleating Doobie. The goat was served his favourite, freshly plucked banyan leaves.
At the climax of commotion in the basement last night, Albert had raised the kukri high above and brought it down vigorously on top of the potato sack. What they made that night was ‘The Furious Potato Handi,’ a new dish of spicy marinated potatoes slow cooked in a clay pot on a simmering charcoal fire. It was simply delicious.
None of them could slaughter the helpless animal. Doobie, the goat, had become a crew member, one of their mates, a party in ‘The Curious Case Of The Furious Mutton Handi,’ a well-known tale from the mysterious sanctums of the ‘Oxford of the East,” that you hear about now and then around campfires in the hilly terrains of Darjeeling.
Copyright © 2022 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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