"Waiter, There’s Chicken in My Soup"

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“Eeeeeeeeeeeekkkkk!!!”

Alarmed Lady: “Waiter, there’s chicken in my soup!!! Eeeeeeeeeeekkkkk!!!”

(The room goes silent. Enter stage left, the hotel manager , puffing and panting….)

Manager: “Please stop shrieking, madam. This is a reputed hotel. What you are saying is quite impossible.”

A.L.: “But look at this… (she points at her soup bowl) What do you have to say about that???? By God, I think I already had half the bowl. Eeeeeeeeeeekkkkk!!”

M: “Please calm yourself madam. If you would care to notice, the object you are pointing to is MUCH too small to be a chicken.”

A.L.: “It is?”

M: “Undoubtedly. And if you care to look it up somewhere, you may find that chicken do NOT have tails like that.”

A.L.: “They don’t?”

M: “No.”

(A.L. takes a closer look at her bowl.)

A.L.: “Rat. It’s a RAT!!! Thank God!!!”

Unfortunately, that’s not a sneak peek at a revival episode of the Twilight Zone. The Asian Flu epidemic has had its effect in several ways. What was once universally revered as the gourmet treat to start the party, at least among the non-vegetarian half of this world, is no longer ‘finger licking good’ for the common masses.

H5N1 avian influenza alarmingly spread across the globe claiming over 100 deaths in Asia, Europe , and Africa. But the fact is that it has only just begun. So far, the flu is passed from birds to birds, or from birds to humans. The spread of the disease is not exponential. But the global fear is that there is a possibility of mutation. If the strain mutates into something that can be passed from humans to humans, we are looking at an epidemic similar to the 1918 Spanish flu. An escalated pandemic can result in over 300 million deaths worldwide. And the chances of such a mutation are alarmingly high.

So it is hardly surprising that when the flu hit India, panic hit the streets. Poultry was shunned like the plague… literally, and my attempts at feeding chicken to my friends was looked upon as attempted murder.

The flu is dangerous. It is spreading. It has no viable cure yet. No arguments about any of these. But I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t over-reacting a little bit. Of the 6,600 samples examined since February 18, only four had tested positive, and experts still contend that the outbreak is local. Hundreds of thousands of birds have been culled to control the spread. In Bangalore, we do need to be careful. We need to pray that the vaccines are prepared soon and that the spread can be contained long enough. And we need to hope that the strain mutation is delayed long enough. But that’s about all we can do.

If the disease does spread with full force here, none of the paltry measures like avoiding eating/cooking chicken can be effective. The mere existence of these birds nearby can be potentially hazardous. But chances are that it will take some time before the ugly head rears itself here.

Sales of chicken has gone down, and the price had also gone down. So far, economics and common sense prevailed. What common sense did NOT bring to light was the fact that scarcity of the product has brought about what I like to call “The Chicken Mafia”. No, selling chickens is not illegal. And I am not talking about shady people trafficking in chicken. What I am talking about is the phenomenon of Chicken Vendors acting like extras in a bad Indian remake of “The Godfather”.

It’s gotten a lot better now, but rewind back to last month, and we get a confusing, though funny scenario. On the fourteenth of March, I decided to have a small party. Just a small group of four or five very close friends. I decided to make it as lavish as possible, and on the previous day, set out on the noble quest of buying chicken. On an admittedly mistaken estimate, I set out to buy 3.5 kilos of the bird in question. The plan was that even if it turned out to be too much, we can have it for the next day, which we did.

Chicken was not available. Big surprise. I walked into the inner regions of Jayanagar looking for the coveted stuff. Due to some freak coincidence, most poultry shops were closed that day due to some occasion, I forget what. I walked around for nearly one and a half hours until I finally found a fresh chicken outlet in BTM. (Do note that I am NOT making this up. This is what REALLY happened.)

Puffing and panting, I said I’ll need some three and a quarter to three and a half kilos of the stuff. The guy weighed in three quarter of a kilo and started packing.

“No. No. I said three AND a half kilos.”

“Three AND a half kilos??”, he repeated, eyes wide…

“Yeah”

“Of chicken?”

“Ummm…. Yeah. Is there a problem?”

“Three and a half kilos of chicken?”

I nodded my head.

“Right now?”

I nodded my head again. Slower, this time.

So with eyes wide open, this entrepreneurial chap left no ambiguity to the requirement. Chicken. 3.5 kilos. Now. Well, it was probably a higher than average requirement, but enough to widen eyes? It wasn’t like an industrial requirement or anything. I had already begun to wonder that perhaps ‘chicken’ was code word for something like drugs or gold biscuits or whatever would make sense out of the above exchange.

A big burly man, with a French beard and a deadpan look, who was quietly sitting in the background through the entire nonsensical exchange transcribed above. He waved Mr. Wide-Eyes aside, and faced me. He looked at me for two seconds without any expression on his face. I was feeling like some gangster who had squealed to the cops, and now brought in front of the don. By this time, I was seriously considering converting the intended party into an all-vegetarian one. And then, he spoke. Slowly. And with a deep voice at that. Now I wouldn’t say that he sounded like Marlon Brando, but he did sound eerily like some bad Indian actor with a throat infection trying to imitate Mr. Brando.

Big Burly Guy: ” So, you want 3.5 kilos of chicken…”

Me: “Err…. If it is available. Otherwise, it’s ok. I wouldn’t want to trouble you.”

BBG: ” Dressed?”

Me: “Eh?”

BBG: “Do you want it dressed and cleaned too?”

Me: “Yes, please.”

Then he held out his right hand, in which Mr. Wide-Eyes placed a butcher’s knife. I swear to you that at the time, I didn’t see the humor in any of this. He walked on slowly to the chicken’s cages, and took out a few live ones. Now, I couldn’t bear the shrieks and screams of the poultry on death row, so I decided to just leave the scene for a while and have some juice or something. God knows how much I needed it. I had taken barely three steps to the shop next door, when I heard a shout “Daaay”… I turned around to see the big guy, who had managed to raise his left eyebrow by that time.

Me: ” I’m not going anywhere. See? I’m just having this watermelon juice from over here. You can see me. I’m right here.”

He resumed his chop work. After I drained my second glass of watermelon juice in record time, I went to the shop and found the chicken all cut and put in the weighing scale. The BBG pointed at the digital meter that read 3.54 kilos. I paid my dues, took the package, and decided to sprint away from the scene before the BBG asks me to kiss his ring or something like that.

It was plain weird, 3.5 kilos isn’t THAT big a deal, now, is it? Looking back, the ordeal was funny too in a way. But weirdness outweighs any other attribute I can associate with it.

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