Last year I turned vegetarian. It wasn’t an overnight decision – such decisions never are. I had been toying with the idea of giving up meat ever since a goat I had begun to befriend died an unnatural death on Bakr-Eid the previous year. I can still picture this goat with its shiny black coat, tied to a tree at Pali Hill and gazing insouciantly at passers by…
Pali Hill is the best place for a constitutional for those who live in these parts of Mumbai. It was during a walk that I spotted this caprine beauty with its bewildered eyes. Naturally, we made eye contact, the goat and I – and just like that, an unspoken bond between two mammals was formed.
Over the next few days, I looked forward to seeing my new friend during my constitutional, even stopping by to offer it blades of grass at times. Little did I realise then that Eid was around the corner and a lesson for me about the transience of a goat’s life along with it.
You can only imagine my anguish when upon enquiring about its whereabouts a day after Eid, I learnt from the watchman of the building near the goat’s tree that it had turned into biryani. “Woh toh kal biryani ban gaya,” he informed me wryly.
It is one thing to devour mutton curry with rice without thinking about the life form that it was, but quite another to know the animal personally and then eat it. That day on, whenever I saw mutton, I thought of my goat friend and this served well in quelling any desire to consume it.
The First Step: Giving Up Mutton
Along with goats and sheep I also gave up eating other mammals. I embraced GB Shaw’s philosophy –“Animals are my friends… and I don’t eat my friends,” except that I was sticking with mammals and not the entire animal kingdom.
“But why must you only give up mammals, give up chicken too if you are turning vegetarian,” my smug vegetarian mother suggested. I wasn’t prepared to take such a big step and I let her know that, generally speaking, mammals had a good life and could do better than ending up as food on someone’s plate. It wasn’t the same for birds – they led a miserably claustrophobic existence, I reasoned – and by consuming them one was only doing them a favour and putting them out of their misery.
‘This is hypocrisy,” my mother said.
I thought about it and decided that if I could live without galauti kebabs and roghan josh I could live without chicken as well.
And so it is that I turned pescatarian. My joys were short lived though. The shellfish figured out that I was forty. Using this crucial information to their advantage, these crustaceans began to give me allergies. Yes, it’s true, you can lie about your age all you want but shellfish have a way of finding these things out.
Still, I prefer shell fish allergies at forty to rheumatoid arthritis at forty – the latter being something two of my closest friends are afflicted with since they turned forty.
“But fish also have life!” the keeper of my conscience, my mother, asked me when she found out that I was a pescatarian now.
“Because fish die when you bring them out of water, you don’t have to kill them,” I explained. “Besides Bengalis eat fish, even the Bengali brahmins,” I said trying to fortify my stance as a compassionate fish-eating vegetarian.
“This is just hypocrisy. Now you are resorting to BJP’s logic,” my mother said.
Hypocrite or not, fish I cannot give up because there is only so much that one can deprive oneself of. It is hard enough without meat and shellfish!
The Woes of Being a Vegetarian When Travelling
My friends believe that I am just being fashionable by turning vegetarian. “I bet you go home and eat a rack of lamb hiding inside your fridge,” my friend Soni told me over lunch today.
If only it were this simple. The goat’s eyes would haunt me for the rest of my life if I were to eat meat again.
Living in India as a vegetarian though isn’t much trouble.
It is only when I travel to Europe or to the Far East that I begin to feel the weight of my sacrifice. This gets compounded by the fact that my friends and family are mostly non-vegetarian and help themselves not only to the pork, prawns and the chicken on the table but also to my limited portion of tofu and pak choi. This upsets me no end. As if it isn’t bad enough that I have to watch them eat the food I used to love but I also have to give up large portions of the conciliatory food options that fall in my quota.
It probably explains why I have begun to feel deprived and irritable during vacations. The husband thinks I’m depressed about being on the wrong side of forty.
He will never understand how a born-again vegetarian feels.
No one who has eaten all the meats and most of the tofu on the table, leaving their vegetarian family to starve, ever will.
(Shunali Khullar Shroff is a freelance writer, blogger and author of the bestselling book ‘Battle Hymn of a Bewildered Mother’, published by Hay House in 2015.)