When the wolf howled at the door, Rukhiya O.K. picked up a cleaver and went to work. Rukhiya, 57, is Kerala's sole female butcher. The 5ft 2in dynamo opened the Ok Beef Stall at Chundale market in Wayanad district in 1989. “I have been in this profession for 25 years,” she said. “I am not ashamed of being a butcher. Who says it is meant only for men?”
Does she not feel sad about slaughtering animals? Rukhiya took a leisurely drag of her cigarette, and answered, her voice wheezy: “I don't kill them myself. There are others who do that for me. But I don't give too much importance to animals. We need meat. Most people in Kerala cannot survive without meat. There is a constant demand and I just meet it.”
A chain smoker, she picked up the habit from her late father when she was 14. “Smoking has worsened her wheezing,” says Biju G., a local shopkeeper. “She even used to drink with men, but it seems she has stopped boozing.” Rukhiya's childhood memories are grim and she does not dwell upon them. Besides the butcher' shop, she runs a real estate business, assisted by her doting nephew Moidheen.
Rukhiya has earned quite a bit from her work. She said she made more than Rs 1.5 lakh a month in the 1990s. She used to bring truckloads of cattle from Karnataka and sell them in Wayanad. With the money earned, she married off her sisters and brought a four-acre coffee estate and a spacious house for her ailing mother. Now her nephews look after the estate. Rukhiya also has a small shop near her home where she sells all kinds of household goods.
“My aunt has sacrificed a lot for us,” said O. Kunhiappa, another nephew. “After her father's death, our family was in a miserable condition. She did everything she could to make sure we were not despised. She is like God to us. I remember my mother pleading with her to get married. But she would not listen. She likes to lead a man's life.”
People largely have accepted her unusual choice of profession. M.P. Veerandra Kumar, former MP who belongs to Wayanad, said: “There are some misconceptions in our society, like certain jobs cannot be done by women. Rukhiya has proved it wrong. See her, and you realise women can do just about anything men can.”
Rukhiya's two brothers have drifted away from her family. “Our brothers don't help us,” she said. “They are busy. Or they claim to be. That is what happens when you marry.” Was that why she did not marry? “It could be,” she said. “Moreover, marriage is such a waste of time. I cannot imagine myself doing just the household work. I consider some men good-looking. But I will never fall for them.” She could make the fiercest feminist proud.
But there is something worrying her—uterine cancer, diagnosed five years ago. Chemotherapy has taken its toll, she has lost weight and is not able to walk as fast as before. “There could be other complications. I was told she, until recently, used to smoke 25 cigarettes a day. It will be better if she stops it completely or else it could be fatal,” said Ganesh Madangopal, a doctor at Kozhikode Medical College. Rukhiya's response is characteristically brusque: “I will not smoke from now on. My loved ones need not worry about me. I will be fine.”
Rukhiya was keeping a weather eye on the Asia Cup match between India and Pakistan when THE WEEK called on her home in March, 2012. Outside, rain clouds had blacked out the fading twilight, plunging the town into premature night. “That Shoaib Akhtar should be thrashed for talking nonsense about Sachin Tendulkar,” she said. “Is that idiot playing?” To the people of Chundale, she is the Rukhiyaka who dragged a man off a bus and thrashed him for misbehaving with women.