There is a Kashmiri word that, when spoken aloud, stops local men in their tracks, inspring some to wax nostalgic about great gustatory accomplishments, of exquisite chunks of mutton, and of the great traditions of the valley. Others frown slightly a smile wanly and put a hand to their stomach, recalling days of meat overload and their own digestive limitations. That word is wazwan, and it is the most common type of feast in this region, partaken of whenever there is any notable celebration. This past weekend a friend of Farooq Shah was getting married along the banks of the Jhelum River, and so he invited me to join the feast.
“Have you ever had wazwan?” he asked me en route.
To which I had to reply that I had not.
“Oh, you will love it,” he said, in that singsong slightly British accent of his. “So much meat, and men going at it like lions.”
After a couple wrong turns down windy, dusty, dirt paths enclosed by walls on either side, we found the place. Several men who were milling about at the bottom of a staircase came over and the host said hello to Farooq, Javan – his friend who also came with, and introduced himself to me. Then we were whisked up the stairs and into a large room with no furniture, where fifty or so men were seated in small groups of four or five, chatting amiably. A dozen young boys were wandering about busying themselves, and the three of us slipped off our sandals and found a spot along the far wall. (The women apparently have their own gathering, where food is also served and songs are sung, or so I was told.) I was of course an immediate sensation among the younger set, who huddled close for a better look and became excited when I pulled out my camera and started snapping photos, and even more excited when I pulled out my tooth.
After an hour or so rolls of white cloth were rolled out in two large concentric squares, with the men seating themselves on either side. Then many silver platters piled high with rice were placed on the cloth, spaced about three feet apart.
“David, do you want a plate of your own?”
“Uhhhh, I don’t know,” I responded. “What do you mean?”
“These platters are for four men each…do you want your own, smaller plate?”
“No, no, I don’t think so….Why?”
“Well, because it can get a little,” he tried to think of the right word, or tried to avoid it, maybe. “I just think you might….let’s just get you your own, OK?”
I thought about it and hell if I wasn’t going to go all in.
“No, that’s fine, I’ll be fine.”
Soon after the groupings had been made clear – I was with Faroog and Javan and some twentysomething guy we didn’t know from Adam -- two men began circling the room with large pots, ladling chunks of orange-colored, curried mutton into the center of each rice pile, and immediately the talking stopped. Everyone dove their right hand – the left is considered unclean, as that is the one with which Indians wipe their bum with water after going to the bathroom – into their portion of food, grabbing mutton chunks and ripping meat off the bone to mix with rice and stuff into our mouths. A glass of yogurt was served, and each group was given a dish of onions and chutney for flavor. A minute later another man came by and dropped four smallish meatballs on our platter, and close behind him another server, this one with spinach and cheese in a green sauce, almost immediately followed by another who delivered yet more mutton on the bone. By this time my hand was yellowish gold and covered with chunks of various unidentifiable foodstuffs, my nose was running and I was loading meat and rice into my mouth too quickly to speak, almost too quickly to taste. I looked up to see a feeding frenzy, a room full of men of all shapes and sizes stuffing full hands into their greedy maws – amazingly they rarely if ever dropped a single grain on the ground or got curry on their cheeks, while I had enough grub on the ground in front of me for a small meal and my face looked much like my right hand. The only sounds were of glorious gluttony -- ladles hitting metal, aggressive chewing, and loud sucking as bellies everywhere filled to bursting. Lions, indeed.
“Good, right?” Farooq asked, swallowing.
“Yeah,” I answered, taking a swig of chunky yogurt. “I think so. Why do they serve so fast?”
“That’s wazwan,” he smiled. “But the meat is good, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” and right about then I settled into a groove.
On and on the food came, a sixth round of meat, then a seventh, often before we’d finished the last, or perhaps even the one before, all in about ten minutes. But by this time I’d really gotten into it, swooping down and digging in, shoveling, and swallowing, on the attack until the bitter end. A boy that had taken a fancy to me was staring, waiting for my reaction.
“We’re wild animals,” I told him, eyes wide. He and his brother laughed and smiled back at me. We took a few pictures knee-deep in the feasting and then continued.
And just as I was getting really full, oh lord god, came a giant mutton ball some six inches in diameter. As Javan used his right hand to carve it into four sections, I sat back and caught my breath, eyeing that grayish-blue sphere warily.
“This is the last one,” he said, reading my thoughts. “You’ve done good.”
Later that evening I visited my new friend Agha Ashraf Ali, 84-year-old Oxford and Cambridge grad, PhD in History, former professor at UMass and father of Kashmir’s greatest poet, to whom I posed this question.
“Agha, at wazwan, why do they serve so fast?”
“Because they’re bastards!” he responded immediately. “That’s why.”
This should be taken with a grain of salt, because he adores the word “bastard.”