We knew an Islamic holiday was nearing because Gabrielle (my fellow fellow and flat mate) had a day off work. After a 15 hour overnight bus journey from a weekend trip in Pondicherry, we were welcomed by a dozen goats and sheep tethered in the parking lot of our apartment building. I blinked groggily and briefly wondered whether the livestock had always been there and I had somehow just failed to notice. As we walked past, Gabrielle speculated whether the animals would be used for milk. I had a feeling another fate awaited them.
That evening, Gabrielle arrived at the flat and declared, “well, you were right.” She had just been talking, or rather playing another round of charades, with the watchman and his wife (we speak no Urdu and they speak no English, which makes for animated “conversations”). They had graciously invited her to a sacrificial ceremony at dawn. After a round of persistent invitations and equally persistent refusals, Gabrielle exempted herself from the event when she mimed tears running down her face in reaction to motions of slaughter and celebration. I did some research and learned that the holiday being celebrated is called Bakri Id, the Festival of Sacrifice. Bakri Id is celebrated in honor of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son in compliance with God’s command. The story goes that as Abraham is about to kill Ishmael, God tells him to spare his son and sacrifice a lamb instead. Today, many Muslims in India celebrate the event in part by sacrificing a sheep or goat as an offering and giving the meat to their family, friends, and the poor.
While I am not crazy about the idea of sacrificing animals, I awoke curious the next morning. I could sense the neighborhood buzzing and I wanted to witness the celebrations. For the first time since moving into our flat about a week earlier, I ventured out to explore the neighborhood. The sun was out, and I walked around for nearly two hours acclimating myself and taking in the scenes. A constant stream of duos of men dressed in white zoomed past on two-wheelers, occasionally accompanied by well-dressed children, on their way to what I imagined to be their loved ones’ homes to celebrate. From a distance, I saw mounds of brown on sidewalks that turned into animal pelts, as I got closer. These piles became more frequent and soon I watched my step more closely to avoid trampling them. People built fires on the roadside, and goat heads sat grilling. As I walked, I would occasionally see streams of bloods running through the streets. Perhaps the most graphic scenes were those of hanging, skinned animals being butchered.
Back at the flat, the doorbell rang several times throughout the day. Groups stood at the door offering small parcels of meat. We stood hemming and hawing, contemplating how to show our gratitude without accepting the meat (I am a vegetarian and Gabrielle was not keen on eating animals she had seen the previous night). Not coming up with any great solutions, we hesitantly accepted the packages of meat and thanked our neighbors. Just as we struggled to respond appropriately, I suspect that our neighbors were a bit thrown off as well, judging by many puzzled faces. We had only been in the building for about a week and as far as I know, are the only foreigners. In one instance, a teenage boy rang our doorbell and upon seeing us, quickly made an excuse and ran the other way. Another time, we were greeted by several small children with gaping mouths that wordlessly shoved a package our way and hurried off.
Although I don’t eat meat and we had some slightly uncomfortable moments, Bakri Id provided a great opportunity to meet some of our new neighbors and their offerings definitely helped make me feel more at home.