Set in a meat shop, Sidharth Singh’s story is as much a meditation on creating as it is on butchering, the ways in which human existence disrupts as well as transforms its surroundings continuously. The story stays true to its titular admonition insofar as no significant event disturbs the smooth functioning of the Navala meat shop. But in the course of the story another kind of drama emerges, that of gulmohar leaves falling, eyes blinking, sneezing, toes imitating curves of alphabets, and cleaving of tails.
In this everyday hum of selling and butchering at the meat shop is introduced the discomfort of its youngest employee, Parth, whose subjectivity tantalises the reader with the possibility of ‘drama’ that might disturb the well-oiled machine. Parth’s sensitivity and empathy to animals is immediately endearing to the reader as a contrast to the practised indifference of his older colleagues. Ironically the drama of this story is in the inaction and stillness of this young man who is so moved by his feelings that his hands refuse to lift the knife. Singh’s richly detailed story directs the reader into thinking of the flow of these stillnesses, inactions, quiet resistances, and minor movements that lie beneath the usual carrying on of the business of living.
— Shivani Mutneja
The Bombay Literary Magazine
No Drama at Navala Meat Shop
A fly buzzed on to the tip of a dog’s ear. There it clung to the peak, and yet there was no irritated snap of the jaws, no shake of the head, not even a flick of the hairy cone. Only the slow carrying on of all that was happening. With folded paws to cradle its head, the dog was lying beneath a window on a red wall. The ground was covered with the yellow shedding of four gulmohar trees lining the street; their little dispatched leaves were long dried of green. Exhalation from the dog’s moist muzzle tickled these leaves and made them tremor but it could not blow them over. Then came the sounds from the window—the shuffle of footsteps, the slit of a latch, the creak of wood. Now the dog raised its obese body like a camel—the fly still clung to its ear. Gazing at the window’s dark mesh and grill it licked its chops. Extending out from the grill there emerged a single white bone which then fell to the ground with a clink. This window belonged to Navala Meat Shop, and as the dog began mashing the bone, the fly took off on its own and buzzed in through the window.
Inside the shop Gurdeep, Ravinder, and Rajkumar went about readying their workstations. The room was a short but rectangular strip, with a raised marble platform to the left; this ran the shop’s length, and all three of them sat here cross legged while preparing customer orders. The chain of command was well oiled and had been running for long. Gurdeep, the store owner, necklaced in gold chains and knuckled in rings, took the order mumbled by a customer and said it aloud to Ravinder. Ravinder, the primary butcher, picked his cleavers and knives before telling Rajkumar—shop assistant—which type of raw meat to bring. This was carved into a product and handed back to Gurdeep who sold it to the customer. And so mere words returned as goat livers, chicken breasts and drumsticks, the eyes and tails, the fillets of fish.
“Best start working lickety-split,” Ravinder said with a wink and gestured to the skinned and cleaned goat carcass in the blue tub next to Rajkumar. As his apprentice lifted the meat Ravinder adjusted his stool behind the large tree stump on which his cleaver lay in a charged silence; the telling sort of quiet which contains the premonition of all sounds about to come by a known action. Rajkumar tried to lay the meat on the stump, but Ravinder halted him with a palm. Turning the outstretched hand into a finger he pointed out the white and red tendrils of muscle still stuck to the stump from the previous day’s work. After wiping it clean with a rag, the goat was laid down for chopping. With cleaver raised high above the head, and Rajkumar gazing on, Ravinder brought down his hand with a metallic thud precisely at the base of the tail, slicing it clean off. He tossed it aside as if he had corrected an error in nature.
While he went about removing the white tendons with a sharper knife, Gurdeep looked up from his phone to observe the first customer. Mr Sharma was looking on with a quiet smile at a garlanded picture of Durga up on the wall. He raised his hands to the three neatly stacked folds of skin on his forehead.
Then he said, “Hello, Gurdeep. Three hundred grams of my regular pack of meat please.”
Gurdeep nodded and said to Ravinder, “Three hundred grams mutton. Put in extra liver, bone piece. Nali.”
Glad to already have the mutton lined up, Ravinder told Rajkumar to hand him a liver from the blue tub, and he placed this large slab of red beside him on the floor. Mr Sharma was watching through the panel of fibre glass that separated them, and he took note of the liver and goat tail juxtaposed beside Ravinder’s big toe. It was a nice toe. He observed its pink nail not at all overgrown, a glint of white filmed across its curvature. Mr Sharma had just remarked to himself that the toe could perfectly outline the letter U, when Ravinder raised his cleaver again. Except that this time he felt the onset of a sneeze, and as his nostrils twitched, and black fluttered into his vision, his grip on the broad knife loosened, and it appeared that it would fall. The U of his toe tilted on its axis slightly, stricken with tension, as if italicized.
Mr. Sharma blinked as the knife came slicing down on the carcass’ spine. There was no sneeze and Ravinder safely chopped his way down the goat, which began to open itself like a book. One half was preserved for later, the other was put splat across the table-trunk. He cleaved off the leg, removed the muscles and rack stuck to the spliced spine, and then chopped the spine into meaty squares too. All the while Ravinder worked with a certain audacity—as the goat progressively disappeared, he discarded its extra bones and sinew in the manner of a sculptor blowing out grain and dust from a freshly chiselled elbow on a statue. Ravinder worked as if he was not in the business of diminishing anything; but in the process of creation, of bringing something into existence.
Beside him Rajkumar gazed out the window at a thin gulley, a strip of dark created by squeezing two buildings together. He recalled his childhood in that gulley: the gang wars he fought, the secret cigarettes smoked behind dusty water tanks, the pieces of cement chucked at pigeons perched high up by ventilators and windows. Back then he had run wild in these streets, racing by on second-hand motorcycles to come to the aid of friends in a fight—he was gangly and short but never held back his elbows or knuckles. Then these streets had gentrified—the old tyre shop turned into Amazing Burgers; Godavari Sweet Shop, run by Big Bellied Hari, turned into an Apollo Pharmacy, and all his friends disappeared he knew not where. But Navala Meat Shop remained. His father approached Gurdeep and got him this job. That was several years ago, and now he too was no longer what he used to be. Reformed, he had realised that there was more to life than beating up boys from sector thirty-six. But unlike him, Navala Meat Shop was both yesterday and today, it had not changed much. Instead, it proved that to steadily continue was its nature. So Rajkumar was often pensive here, fondled by some odd mixture of resonance and difference in the air.
“You can do the liver today,” Ravinder said. Rajkumar accepted the organ with dignity and carved pieces from it not like some amateur but in the style of Ravinder himself. Planting his foot firm on the floor, he took a knife and gripped its handle by the toes. The result was the blade emerging from his toes like the retractable claw of a leopard. Bending down he moved the liver straight through the fixed knife and removed a long strand of fat. Carving two pieces of liver, he handed the little cubes back to Ravinder.
The man examined them closely but shared no remarks. Sealing up the meat in polythene which went into a paper bag, he handed the package to Gurdeep and Mr Sharma hiccupped a conclusive, “Hari Om!” Mr Sharma paid with a five hundred rupee note and waddled away with his mutton.
Time passed and many customers arrived, idly observing Ravinder or asking Rajkumar for kebabs. Sometimes the customers made chatter with Gurdeep but he did not quite engage. He was the watchful overseer after all, not some idle cashier who sat around to gossip. Once more he checked his phone. Apprentice number two, Parth, was late. He gave him a phone call but the boy did not answer. He grunted. But it was no problem. All was going smoothly.
Outside, as two black kites were stirring the blue sky, one of them let loose its rippling call and dove down, falling, falling, a black spot tumbling, before it steadied itself and passed over Parth nervously making his way towards Navala Meat Shop. As he walked along the street, every Maruti Swift or Pulsar made him jump out of his thoughts. An hour ago, he had been buried in blankets, trying to sleep the world away. But his mother had dragged him out. They lived in a single room—there was not much money, and while she ate two boiled eggs for breakfast, he would only eat buttered bread. “I got you the bloody job,” she said, “now you have to work!” But he had fed too many chickens in his village, playfully wrestled with the horns of too many goats. Never did he eat even a sliver of meat, not even a sip of bone broth. Usually, as he walked this path, a peace-loving vegetarian, every step was a contradiction. But today would be the day of a climax, the day he ended his participation at Navala Meat Shop. He had resigned the moment he stepped out the door, and now he was going to declare it at work.
As he approached the market, a current of wind accompanied him, sending the gulmohar leaves up in a twirl; kicking up small clouds of dust. Walking through them he saw Rajkumar emerge from the market. Before they met, Rajkumar quietly shook his head in disapproval.
“Things are busy today. Where were you?”
“Just got held up at home.”
Rajkumar looked to the left. Then he said, “I have to pick up some material from Chaudhary. There is no one at the shop to help. Go in quick.”
“What? But when will you return?”
“An hour. Probably less.”
He took off with dedicated stride so he could return sooner. Meanwhile Parth resumed his mission but even in these final fifteen metres he managed to meander. And even then, he paid no attention to his surroundings. All detail was lost, and the world was just an accumulation of undefined colours: a swathe of white, grey cement ground, in the corner of his eye a green mass. All was tainted by the inattentive black of a man lost in his own thoughts as he drifted ahead.
Would Gurdeep lose his cool? Could the shop run if there were no helpers at all?
Suddenly Gurdeep materialised in front of him.
“Where have you been?”
“Sorry, Sir. Got held up at home. But I have come to say—”
“Listen. I gave you this job because your mother asked, okay? Don’t make me break a promise. I know you’re finding it difficult to stomach the work but we have to keep everything running smooth. Understand? I don’t want any drama here.”
Parth wiped his forehead with his sleeve.
“Come in and give that guy a can of tuna.”
It was a simple enough task. The customer looked at Parth slouching past him and Parth made sure not to see Ravinder at work. Quietly he pulled a can of tuna from a shelf. Ravinder’s cleaver sounded itself behind him.
“This is for two hundred rupees, Sir. We have another option in our storeroom outside. It has less salt. If you want I can go—”
“This will do.”
Parth continued to stand rooted to the spot. As Gurdeep gave the customer his receipt, he did a double take when he saw Parth standing about. He raised his voice now, “Don’t just stand there, boy. Help Ravinder!”
Turning slowly the boy confronted the blue tub now filled with skinned and headless chickens. The goat liver was still on the floor, cut up and oozing. Tendrils, tendrils everywhere, and the smell of split meat too. Ravinder, whose hands had turned russet, gestured for him to climb the platform. He obliged in the timid fashion of a subjugated animal. “Just take this one,” Ravinder said picking up a chicken. “Cut the breast piece like I showed you. Then clean it.” Parth raised his hand to begin speaking but Ravinder placed the chicken in his hand. As the butcher resumed his work, Parth put the chicken on the floor, wiped his hands on an apron, and began planning his escape. Pointlessly he sharpened a cleaver and knife for several minutes. With his face towards the window, he decided to close his eyes and reduce the world to sound. Added to the shing of his knives and the merciless thwack of Ravinder’s cleaver, was the tut-tut-tut of a Royal Enfield passing by. Dogs barking. The seemingly languageless talk of Gurdeep with some customers. And then the rustle of leaves just above the window.
Eyes opened, he observed the chicken and wheezed. It seemed wet in slime. He had to leave. With rapid breath his eyes wandered around. He had to leave. Then he saw the withered goat tail by Ravinder’s foot, and somehow it sucked in all his attention. Tragic affection began seeping out of his mind where he felt a slow and warm sensation. What kind of life could this goat have lived? He looked out the window and imagined a new scene outside Navala Meat Shop. A green field he envisioned, dewy pastures in a valley of snow-capped mountains. There a herd of goats, bleating and babbling, formed a moving corridor, their tails merrily wagging ahead of a shepherd who sounded grunts and yaps at them, and carried, peeking from his satchel, a little hornless kid with furry forehead, gaping about at the world and its wonderful sights. Parth imagined the shepherd drinking milk frothing straight from the udder into a steel glass. And a goat mid trot, stopping to graze and chew as he happened to will. Down came Ravinder’s cleaver and chopped off a leg. He had to leave.
Parth put down the knives and prepared himself. But Ravinder had been watching him and the untouched chicken. He made a managerial decision quickly.
“If you go out and feed Champa now, Rajkumar might be back by the time you’re done.” He pushed a bowl of scraps towards the boy. “In ten minutes go and feed her this. Take your time, get some fresh air. I’ll handle things till then. Rajkumar will help when he returns.”
Parth said nothing. Ravinder shrugged.
“Things will be smoother this way. Don’t think on it. Just get that man what he wants from the fridge. Then head out.”
Mumbling his thanks, the boy retrieved a packet of chicken nuggets and handed it over. A few minutes later he took the bowl and went out, past a grumbling Gurdeep, to sit beside Champa the dog. She rose again, whining as she slapped his shin with her tail. Parth scratched her ears before placing the bowl on the ground. Quietly, as he gazed at the cars and bikes passing by, he surrendered to the day. Perhaps he would quit next week after making a more thorough plan. Perhaps he should first find a job elsewhere. Maybe he will just get used to this work. He scoffed while fiddling with a single gulmohar leaf on the ground.
Some distance from him, a purple sunbird was flitting from one hedge to another. Even further away a black kite joined three others perched on the railing of a post office next to a small garbage dump. Girls with purple schoolbags skipped out of their school. And in a roadside tea stall the water in a pot of tea bubbled and boiled before being poured into paper cups. The sound of horns and engines danced on the main road. Strangers bought medicine in a pharmacy. A Metro train could be seen passing through the gap between two buildings. And high above, the sun lit a cluster of clouds as if they were a lampshade. But a gigantic yellow beam came through none the less and fell upon the city. For the moment, nothing was prevented by disturbance. There was only the slow carrying on of all that was happening.
Sidharth Singh is a writer and student of English literature. His short stories have previously been published by JaggeryLit, The Bombay Literary Magazine, and The Bangalore Review. More work is forthcoming with Himal Mag later this year.