What is the religion of your food?
Discussing food stories, the Forbidden Fruit Effect and the transformation to being a meat-eater, in a land that is making it extremely difficult to become one.
When I was eight years old I was obsessed with fruit jellies. The ones that came in little conical plastic cups. Flavors of litchi and strawberry and orange. My grandfather would bring an entire packet containing about twenty of those when he came back from the office in the evening. As soon as I would finish them off (which didn’t take too long, to be honest ) he’d bring home another one.
One night I woke with a start at about 3 in the morning. I went to the loo and puked what was a stream of jelly flavoured vomit.
My grandfather stopped bringing them the next day. I still can’t eat jelly or gelato or any other extremely gelatinous substance for the life of me.
Years later, I questioned the unflinching digestive capabilities of little me. For someone who’d grown up eating chappatis slathered with ghee and ginormous amounts of red chili powder on top of it (true story), something like a packet of jellies should’ve been a piece of cake (or any other dessert. I could stomach them all).
It is only then that I found out that mass-produced fruit jellies are made of pectin- a soluble protein made of fiber walls of fruits, that in its natural state cannot be digested by the body. It is added to food substances like Jelly and Jam in an altered form known as MCP (Modified Citrus Pectin), which then allows it to be digestible.
Moreover, Jellies have one of the highest sugar concentration in any food substances, which is about 65% while the rest is flavoured MCP.
So I’m assuming that by feeding about 20 of those to an 8-year-old me and increasing the dosage on a daily basis, my Grandfather had devised a grand scheme to murder me.
At the age of 14, I was sent to a boarding school in Dehradun, for all intents and purposes of both to have an independent lifestyle and to save me from my Grandfather’s treacherous murdering tendencies.
Dehradun has a wide array of boarding school options to choose from. The prices range from low to high based, not on the facilities they tend to offer, but on the influence, fame, and achievements of their alumni. There’s the one where the son of the politician came from who then went on to become a politician; one where the son of the cricketer came from who went on to become a commentator; and the one where the son of an actor came from who then went on to become a drug addict. The city was like a catalog for the future you were supposed to have.
My father chose the one where nobody famous came from. He believed that the reason for it was two-fold - first that a less reputable school would nurture a more morally righteous child and second because it was hella cheaper.
Also, to the delight of my Hindu conservative parents, the school was strictly vegetarian.
It was here for the first time that I was introduced to so many different cultures in a single space. There were students from all parts of the country- Delhi, UP, Punjab, the North East. There were students from Nepal and Thailand.
My father thought the exposition to so many cultures would develop a sense of community in me. That it would give me a global outlook and maybe teach me a foreign language or two.
Thanks to his vision, to this day, I can now cuss in seven different languages. And probably the only global outlook that I may have ingrained is that teenage boys in boarding schools may be divided by language or skin color, but are united by their immense love for cuss words.
The school’s wholesome vegetarian Indian meals, three times a day, were particularly harsh on the Thai kids. Their stomachs had a hard time digesting the Garam Masala flavored curries: The Rajma cooked in thick-red tomato gravy, the sprouts fried with spiced onions and the lentils with a ‘jeera powder’ tadka in them. Their post-meal toilet sessions were a horrific massacre. The only relief they’d get was on days Chinese food was served in dinner, but that was one meal in the entire week.
Naturally, illegal peddling of outside food began in the Hostel. The day schoolers who were city locals, a few shady guards, the barber - with the right connections and a little extra money, you could sneak in stuff that was illegal - Fried Noodle packets, Cans of Tuna, Chocolates, Cold Drinks, sometimes even cigarettes and alcohol.
One such packaged tuck item was ‘Wai-Wai’, deep-fried noodles with seasoning, that you can have straight from the packets. They cost 10 bucks a pack, but the schoolers or guards could arrange a bunch of these for as much as 15 apiece.
As a deeply conditioned vegetarian, I couldn’t even swallow the first bite I ever had of chicken ‘Wai-Wai’. It wasn’t even particularly non-vegetarian, to be honest. It was a 10 bucks ‘chicken-flavored’ ramen with no real chunks of meat inside it.
I didn’t have it under peer pressure. At times I’ve realized there is no such thing as peer pressure driving an individual to try out different things. It’s mostly a sense of curiosity. A bite of chicken Ramen is a minute in the shoes of a person who’d been a connoisseur of non-vegetarian food for a really long time.
You imagine red buttered Seekhs of chicken and pork meat being roasted and fanned atop burning coal as you passed down the streets. How your mother would cover her face with the dupatta of her Sari. The disgust on her face as she saw people munching meat off a leg piece. “Tcchhh..Tcchh..tchhh”
A single bite of chicken Wai-Wai and I saw myself in the same position as the people that munched on those Seekh Kababs. The noodles were salty and savory, and now looking back, it tasted more of onion-flavored oil than buttered chicken meat.
But then it wasn’t really about the taste, was it?
No, it was particularly about embodying someone else. Someone you’d always passed by on the streets standing next to a roadside vendor or someone you saw sitting halfway across the restaurant. It was your best friend who had told you how “you’ll never go back to vegetarian food”.
And most importantly, it was a deep sense of rebellion against a toxic, authoritarian culture.
A single bite of Chicken flavoured Ramen. “Tcchhh..Tcchhh..Tcchhh”, I imagined my mother going.
Once the fear subsides, you make peace with who you’ve become. A meat-eater. You’re now dirty and impure. There’s a Mother Hen who just saw the neck of her baby chopped off right in front of her eyes, and you’re the one responsible for it. You killed all those goats and ripped their innards out. You put that pig on a stick and set it on top of the campfire.
It was you. All you. Nobody forced those animals in your mouth. There were a lot of other options available- there were carrots and peas and farm cheese and bread and — my god all of these will taste wonderful in a chicken tikka masala!
There was broccoli. You could’ve easily chosen broccoli- a healthier, fiber-rich, organic, vegetable food source that involved no killing or brutality (well except to the farmers who produce it and then sell it off to bare minimum profits to supermarket giants who then sell the same product to the upper elite classes for double the price)
Living in India, there’s an equivalent amount of vegetarian options available to people, if not more. So an entire lifetime of being a pure, dedicated and pious vegetarian isn’t a far-fetched notion.
And if you choose to live as a non-vegetarian, you choose to do it for ‘your pleasure’.
It becomes important to realize why we start doing the things we do. So much of imposition on vegetarianism in India gives something so widely consumed by more than 90% of the rest of the world’s population, the stature of a Forbidden Fruit.
It becomes an object of desire and guilt, as opposed to simply being a food item.
And since we’ve historically proved ourselves as a nation full of people who’re extremely gullible and prone to desires (British invasion, duh!), I think it’s important we start calling out this bullshit of vegetarianism which we wear like armour.
There’s no doubt we’re the largest vegan country in the entire world. And like that one friend in the group that recently went vegan, we’ve made sure everybody else knows about it.
In official reports, we’ve claimed that 38% of the country is purely vegetarian.
However, in a recent survey conducted by a US Based anthropologist and an Indian economist, the actual numbers are significantly less, stating that only less than 20% of the population does not consume meat of any kind.
In fact, the survey claims most of the official numbers refuse to state their non-vegetarianism for fear of ostracization or something even worse that is recently widespread across the country.
In 2017, the Modi-led Hinduistic BJP government had imposed a beef-ban in 20 of the 28 states in the country. The reason was simple and straightforward authoritarian. They were a pro-Hindu party. Cows are sacred to Hindus. Therefore, no other community should be allowed to consume beef or be involved in the trade of cattle leather and products of any kind.
A Hindu government imposing a jingoistic law is understood. What is not understood, is what followed. Since 2015, according to The Quint, 99 people have been murdered and several others assaulted in mob lynchings across the country. A majority of these people were Muslims and Dalits and were assaulted by extremist groups like Bajarang Dal, claiming them to have been involved in cow slaughter and consuming beef in states where the practice has been banned.
These groups call themselves cow vigilantes or ‘Gau Rakshaks’. There are social-media viral videos of these groups proudly assaulting minority cowherds on roadsides, with police officers witnessing the assault and taking a backseat. Modi in a statement had urged commoners to not take the law into their own hands, but no strict action is taken in states like Gujarat and UP, where such cases are reported on an almost weekly basis.
In a country where almost 80% of the population eats some meat or the other, banning one form of meat sends out a hypocritical message divisive of religion and caste. There’s no intent here of being humanitarian or an animal lover. There are no environmental hazard protection agendas or health benefits associated with this.
Such laws only give rise to more barbaric moral policing of minority groups and aim at hurting the livelihood of people involved in the trade of beef and cattle goods.
Recently, on Twitter, a customer filed a complaint against the Food-delivery partner app ‘Zomato’, for not issuing a refund on his food order. He had asked for a change in the Delivery Executive, reasoning that he did not want a Muslim Employee to deliver his food, as he was a Hindu and it was the holy month of Shrawan that was going on.
The food delivery app had denied the request and responded with a reply Tweet that said: ‘Food does not have areligion. It is a religion’.
It could very well be assumed that no society aims at protecting or uplifting its citizens by imposing a meat ban. It only protects something it fears will be lost forever- Something that gives bigots like these the audacity to laud their religious divide on a Social Media platform, knowing that a large section of the population (as could be seen in the comments section) would be in approval of their xenophobia.
In the 21st century, these people fear the loss of years and years of tradition, loyalty, and sovereignty to a social structure that has been passed on from one generation to the other.
And this is something clearly ingrained in all of us, as a country and a people, when in 2019 the Modi government reinstated its hold for the second time in a never seen before winning margin.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and snatch those fruit jelly candies from the hands of every eight-year-old out there. I’ll be smashing them on the ground and lauding my personal achievement on Twitter. Looking forward to solidarity from other jelly-haters (or as we call ourselves- Jellaters. Just so we could say ‘Jellaters-Alligators!’ when we depart.)
When I moved Assam two years back, a few colleagues introduced me to ‘Til Wala pork’, a cherished local cuisine. Its pork meat fried in sesame seeds and spices, consumed with a chappati or rice. During lunchtime in the office, when I sat on the table along with a few other ‘pork-eaters’ and had some of that delicious sesame fried pig meat, another colleague chose to sit on a table separate from ours.
He was having what looked like a thick, spicy fish curry with rice. I could sense him staring at me from the other table as I took a bite of the pork meat. It was an eerily familiar look, something I’d seen before, walking down those crowded, smoky streets.
“Tcchhh..Tcchhh..Tcchhh”, as he licked fish curry off his fingers.