Ever smelt a rat and tasted it too?
Not to me.
Last summer, a friend drove us to a small village nestled in the hills. An escape from the ruthless city heat, we wanted to trek through the wooded hills and relax over the weekend.
The hills around us were a fresh green. The narrow path that we were trekking on overlooked the deep valley. Sounds of silence echoed in my ears. Silence interspersed by the faint hushes and whispers of the flowing brook.
Panting, I stopped by a huge rock to catch my breath. The gentle wind blew past me. I closed my eyes and inhaled the pure mountain air.
The traffic jams and polluted city commotion flashed across my weary mind. What a contrast! The villagers co-existed happily with Mother Nature. They had utmost respect for her. And for all living beings, including strangers like us.
City dwellers seek money and pleasure in cheating gullible people. The gentle natives of the hills wouldn’t harm others. They’re pure hearted, like the clean spring water that meanders through the meadows.
Everything was in perfect harmony in the hills.
The clouds also gave in to the joy. It began to drizzle slightly. We quickened our pace, deciding to trek to the distantly visible waterfall.
The route was lined with tea stalls serving refreshments and a shelter for respite. The long hours of trekking did little for our growing hunger and thirst.
“One mineral water bottle, please!” I exclaimed, running towards a stall to cover myself from the rain.
My friend, Anamika, who followed close behind me, tugged on my shirt. She had an anxious expression on her face.
“Don’t drink this water. They might’ve filled the bottles from unreliable sources.”
She began describing the various illnesses we’d suffer from due to contaminated water.
“It’s packaged, Anamika.’’
“Do you really trust their packaging?” Anamika rolled her eyes. She insisted on drinking tea.
“Safer bet.”, she reasoned, believing that boiling the milk would destroy all the germs. Standing beside the man preparing tea, she ensured he used fresh ingredients and clean utensils.
The aroma of freshly roasted meat drifted in the air.
A few meters from the tea stall, was a short mud platform. A young man wearing a dull white shirt sat cross-legged on it.
He was roasting pieces of meat on a skewer. He placed the skewers on a small fire till the meat turned golden-yellow, and finally a wonderful reddish brown colour. Occasionally, he’d sprinkle some herbs and spices on the meat. An old board was hung behind him. ‘Chicken Tikka’, it read, in fading paint.
“Let’s eat that!” I turned to Anamika, pointing to the board.
Anamika gasped. She looked up from the tea cup, her eyes wide open, cheeks turned pale.
“It’s not chicken.” she whispered, narrowing her eyes.
“Is it rat meat, then?”
Anamika pulled a straight face. She replied in a serious monotone. “It could be.”
I burst out laughing.
“Mountain rats are present in high numbers here. Rat meat is cheaper than chicken. So, it’s seen as an ideal alternative for chicken.”
Looking at the frail man with sunken cheeks roasting the meat, I was somehow inclined to think otherwise.
“My friends frequent this area. They have warned me about this dish.” She cautiously argued.
I suspected this to be one of the many aversions Anamika had to any food that was not home cooked.
I shrugged and went ahead to eat the Tikka anyway. And fortunately so.
I sunk my teeth into the piping hot, crispy exteriors. The meat was juicy and tender on the interior. There was a nip in the air. Closing my eyes, I relished the spicy, sizzling meat.
I was glad to have not paid attention to Anamika’s excuses.
Seeing me lick my lips, Anamika couldn’t resist her temptation either. Or perhaps her hunger got the better of her principles. She nervously walked up to my plate. Her trembling fingers lifted a small piece of chicken and popped the meat in her mouth.
Soon enough, the rain had subsided. We resumed walking along the path.
After a while, the thunderous gush of the waterfall was heard distinctly. We were passing one of the last tea stalls in the route. The now familiar aroma of Chicken Tikka lingered in the air.
On a mud platform in the corner, an old woman was roasting the chicken.
The woman had tied her grey hair up in a neat bun. She wore tribal necklaces, bangles and nose rings. Her wrinkled face lent her an air of experience and wisdom. Her eyes shone as she looked at us passing her by. A bold, fiery spark in those eyes.
A healthy, plump white hen was tied to the tree next to the stall.
“Will you slaughter the poor thing right here?” I asked the old lady, out of curiosity.
She grinned displaying her yellow, stained teeth.
“Not really.” She answered coolly.
“Then why did you tie the hen here?”
A playful smile spread across her face. Her eyes twinkled mischievously.
“Would you buy it if I tied a rat?”