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Opinion | How to smell like a pure vegetarian

Young descendents of Jagannadha Rao have acquired a smell-free, history-free framework of vegetarianism in India

The Indian hostel mess has historically been a site for food politics. Photo: Raj K. Raj/Hindustan Times
The Indian hostel mess has historically been a site for food politics. Photo: Raj K. Raj/Hindustan Times

Does it often strike you that strict vegetarians seem strict about many things other than vegetables? (This quite apart from my perennial complaint that vegetarians don’t seem to be very fond of too many vegetables.)

You must have read, like I did, about the posters in a hostel mess at IIT Madras, marking separate entrances and wash-basins for vegetarians and non-vegetarians. For a lot of folks who read the news, it was clear that this was one more instance of caste discrimination. Because certainly it wasn’t the chicken 65-eating student’s sensibility that was being protected here. It was the beans poriyal eater who so badly needed the good fences of good neighbours.

Embarrassed by all the bad press, the arrangement has been since scrapped but as you can imagine the sensibility that produced these decisions remain baffled by the bad press. One of the IIT students’ office-bearers used the classical term “pure vegetarian" in the same breath as, “the segregation is purely on the basis of their food choice. There is no discrimination based on their choice of food either."

On social media, where this scandal played out, I was interested to see that some young people didn’t use the lexicon of Hindutva or caste to defend the attempted segregation in IIT but instead deployed their ethical choices of vegetarianism and veganism. But somehow in this American-inflected, nut-milk flavoured passionate defence, there is no explanation for why they should be repulsed by other people using the same washbasins. They apparently felt like Lady Macbeth—here’s the smell of the blood still and that all the perfumes of Arabia would not sweeten this little handwash. They have gone round the world and arrived at the same sense of disgust that their upper-caste ancestors wielded. It is disgust with a nicer Instagram filter.

Those born with the right to disgust find it easy to see caste nowhere or to see caste as something that lives out there in Rural India, that faraway country. Recently, I read a letter written in 1943 by a student from the Indian Institute of Science (reproduced in a superb special issue of IISc’s Connect magazine). Jagannadha Rao went on hunger strike to protest the director’s decision to create a common dining hall for the students. He then wrote to the director that he felt “weak enough to pen this letter physically but I find myself strong enough morally to undertake this ordeal." How strong? So strong that he saw a situation in which 200 students eating in a single hall (as opposed to nine different ones) as “curtailment of (their) liberties" and a “slow crushing of (their) independence". The word caste features nowhere in this very modern missive despite the fact that Iyers and Iyengars apparently refused to eat in the same hall. Even back when the institution had only 20 students, nine messes were built. The first director of IISc is quoted as saying, “Then a Muslim student turned up, and as no mess would take him in, I had to make a one-man mess for him." It didn’t strike Jagannadha Rao that the separate messes existed to keep out people and to curtail liberties someone might think of taking.

When I was 24, I had been vegetarian for about 5 years. Around then my younger brother and I went to a family event in Kerala. My brother brought credit to the family by steadily eating from one end of the table to the other—chicken, beef, pork, fish and prawns. I applied myself to the egg curries and to the deep-fried elephant yam, beetroot, beans, spinach and god, so much good stuff. My aunt watched me without comment but at the third giant meal she had cooked, she asked, “Moley, veppu pallu aano?" That was the only explanation she could think of—that I was wearing dentures and didn’t want to endanger them. It wasn’t Lent, because why else would I be avoiding meat and fish. I could only look sheepish.

Years later I was no longer a vegetarian. Marrying into a largely vegetarian Marwari/Jain clan introduced me to a vast repertoire of delicious snacks and dishes that were called sabzi but was actually fried dough (paapad ki sabzi, mangori ki sabzi, gulab jamun ki sabzi). The same household often told me when we were eating out “Beta, order what you like". My ordering what I liked also meant the tactful sharing of meat and fish and prawns with older members of the family who couldn’t be seen flagrantly ordering the meaty stuff in front of even older members of the family.

Marriage also introduced me to many new sub-genres of vegetarians. Those who were vegetarians on Tuesdays. Vegetarians who were only vegetarian in their own homes. Those who were vegetarians but cooked meat. Vegetarians who only ate chicken. Vegetarians who just wanted the chicken gravy. Vegetarians who could not eat mushrooms. Vegetarians who loved soya chicken. Vegetarians who went to an Indonesian conference and found hilarious (and kindly) the hosts’ attempt to make them feel at home with vast buffets of soya beef and soya pork and soya chicken. Vegetarians who urged me to try Jain chicken, that is chicken cooked without onions or garlic. Vegetarians whose mothers gave them The Look when they came home from their liberal cousins’ home and said, “Ho gayi pyaaz ki party?" The idea of louche sinfulness involving onion pakoras made me fall down laughing.

But I can laugh and be tolerant of vegetarians because I have been lucky. Lucky that what I grew up eating has not kept me out of education or work or matrimony (It has kept me out of some housing). A couple of weeks ago, my nine-year-old nephew who likes to eat curd rice three times a day if allowed to do so, asked me what the big deal about meat was. As in, why did his classmates keep secret from their families that they ate his chicken sandwiches. I was stumped. What could I tell him that wouldn’t get him beaten up if he repeated it? Because disgust is neither his nor my birthright, we can only hope that our lifestyle choices don’t annoy other people. Perhaps if I had to go to IIT, my memories would have included shame and not just nervousness under the gaze of other people’s vegetarian grandparents.

Which brings us to social media’s spiritual young descendents of Jagannadha Rao who have acquired a smell-free, history-free framework of vegetarianism in India. Learning social sciences from Twitter can only get you as far as the handwash.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

She tweets at @chasingiamb

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