One of the things I love about living in India is the fact that being a vegetarian is not an anomaly here. Everywhere you go in this great nation of ours, it is possible to find a variety of vegetarian dishes prepared with a dizzying array of spices and sauces that tease and melt in the mouth. At restaurants, you are not stared at when you say your entire party…of nine, is vegetarian. But what really settles it for me is the simple phrase asked by our airline attendants, “Are you veg or non-veg?”
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against non-vegetarians. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion they enjoy their meats much more than we enjoy our vegetables. It is just that I am tired of all the minority and “cause-oriented” associations that Western countries have given vegetarians. In Europe or in the States, if you are a vegetarian, you are either a rabid, anti-fur protester who probably doesn’t pay taxes, smokes pot and lives in a new-age hippie commune, or are some sort of spiritual guru. In the West, vegetarians have been reduced to ‘isms’.
Consider: there are at least six different types of vegetarians. The most interesting to me are the Freegans who believe that any food that passes through the free-market system is tainted. Freeganism argues that capitalism exploits everything. Freegans, therefore, avoid buying anything. Instead, they forage for wild plants and mushrooms; live off dumpsters and generally tread very lightly on the earth. Freegans are generally vegetarians unless they find some leftover meat in the dumpster. Flexitarians, on the other hand, are vegetarians not because of religion or belief, but simply by preference. They can and will eat meat when they feel like it. Pescetarians are vegetarians who eat fish. Pollotarians eat fowl. Vegans don’t eat dairy. Fruitarians eat fruit. And raw foodarians eat only raw fruits, vegetables and nuts where the beneficial enzymes haven’t been killed by cooking.
The precision of these definitions is proof that being a vegetarian in most Western countries is to be the other. In India, on the other hand, vegetarians have the honour of being the norm. Consider the question: Are you veg or non-veg? The word “non-veg” reeks of otherness. The irony is that many words that are prefaced by the word non- are pacifist in nature (as in non-proliferation of nuclear arms; non-violence; non-invasive procedures; non-toxic chemicals; non-profit organizations; non-aligned movement), while non-vegetarian is a much more, shall we say, active way of eating and living. In Hindu scriptures, the kshatriyas or warriors were enjoined to eat “non-veg” food to make them more rajasic or energetic. The movers and shakers, in other words, ate non-veg foods.
Vegetarianism is as old as Hinduism. In fact, Indian vegetarians make up 70% of the world’s vegetarians simply because of our sheer numbers. In India, only 30% of our citizens eat meat on a regular basis, mostly because those who eat non-veg cannot afford it on a regular basis. Strict vegetarians or pure vegetarians make up about a quarter of our population.
The word vegetarian was coined in 1847 by the first Vegetarian Society in Kent, England. Before that, vegetarians were called Pythagoreans after the philosopher, Pythagoras, who was an avowed vegetarian. Other sects who didn’t eat meat were, of course, the Mahayana Buddhists, who deplored killing of any kind, and the Rastafarians and Seventh-Day Adventist Christians, who are vegetarian because of nutritional and ethical reasons. When I was a graduate student in Memphis, Tennessee, my ‘host family’ who took care of me were Seventh-Day Adventists. They took me to church on Saturdays (instead of Sundays) as prescribed by their sect and after the service was a wonderful all-vegetarian repast. Seventh-Day Adventists were such fastidious believers in the greatness of grains that they introduced the common breakfast cereal into the all-American diet. John Harvey Kellogg was a Seventh-Day Adventist and his Kellogg company is still one of the largest producers of dry breakfast cereals.
While I was revelling in the commonality of being a vegetarian in India, I came across one distinction that gave me pause. It was the phrase, “Pure Vegetarian Hotel”, seen on billboards all across India. It means, I believe, that no meat or fish is cooked in the kitchen, an important distinction to people like my grandmother who sniffed and stirred the dishes in restaurants everywhere to see if there were any specks of meat (that is, if she deigned to eat out at all). To people like my grandmother, the mere thought of using the same ladle to stir a meat and a vegetarian sauce would stop hunger pangs, however ardent they might be. Naturally, pure vegetarian hotels were a boon for them.
As for me, I am vegetarian, but not a pure vegetarian. In other words, I have no problems eating in restaurants that serve both veg and non-veg food.
Write to Shoba Narayan at firstname.lastname@example.org