Eating into our freedom

Sep 09, 2015, 07:35 IST | Ranjona Banerji

Of all the things that had to be fixed in Mumbai, who would have thought that the city’s dietary habits were at the top of any list? But clearly, the government cares. And it has strong opinions on what you should not eat. As all the jokes doing the rounds on social media suggest, this is what the prime minister meant when he said, “I won’t eat and I won’t let others eat.”

Of course, to be fair, the prime minister most likely has nothing to do with this. Since the Jain observance of ‘Paryushan’ is around the corner, some BJP politicians petitioned the government to ban the sale of meat in the city for a few days, as a sign of respect. Jains, as we know, have serious dietary proscriptions which extend not just to animals but as far as root vegetables. Onion prices being what they are, maybe no one can afford to eat them any more but certainly no one seems to have banned garlic, potatoes and carrots. Or even suggested it.

A citizen buys fish at Pali Market, Bandra. There is no restriction on the sale of fish during the four-day ban on meat sales in Mumbai. File pic for representation
A citizen buys fish at Pali Market, Bandra. There is no restriction on the sale of fish during the four-day ban on meat sales in Mumbai. File pic for representation

Also strangely, fish has not been banned. Bengalis may pretend to themselves that fish are vegetables of the sea but no one takes that seriously. Luckily therefore, while Mutton Kolhapuri is verboten under strict government orders, Kolambi Masala is not. Why give them ideas, do I hear you say as you tuck quickly into your Surmai Fry?

Maharashtra has many “dry” days when you cannot drink alcohol for religious or hypocritical reasons but I do not know if the petitioners have also asked for alcohol to be banned. As long as there is no worm in the bottle of whatever you drink, fermented something or factory-made something is pretty vegetarian.

The trick question here is: are Jains responsible or is someone using them to score a few points and build up a vote bank or just build up a bank? After all, the ban on beef or cow meat in Maharashtra was not primarily to please Jains but a much larger group of vegetarian high caste Hindus.

Can another religion demand for instance that vegetables be banned for a few days because they would like to feast only on meat? Or should mutton biryani become compulsory consumption during another religious celebration? Perhaps the government can only tell you what you should not do but will not venture into what you should do.

Religious sentiments are easily hurt in India and we wear them on our chests, shirts, faces and so on. We also play a dangerous, my religion is holier than yours game and that is a planetary problem. Politicians are very quick to exploit our religious practices and foibles and we are quick to encourage them. Therefore, you are offended by my steak done medium rare and I am appalled by your weekly “fasts”. Even though you don’t have to share my steak and I am not inconvenienced by your abstemiousness.

Except... well, like in this instance. There’s no point looking at dictatorships and religiously-intolerant kingdoms and nations and using them as examples to justify such bans. This is still India, democracy and stuff like that. Or did something change while I was having an afternoon snooze?

I have a love-hate relationship with tomatoes. I think I should start a religion of one, Foodie Against Tomato Overuse (FATO) which gives me amazing minority appeasement chances and brownie points. I propose that tomatoes should be banned for sale and use at least three times a week because their overuse seriously offends my taste buds, especially when used to drown Taste, which is the name of my religious deity.

I will allow a maximum of four people to join this religion because otherwise I lose my main bargaining chip.


Meanwhile, have a Bloody Mary on me. And dream of those kebabs for another day. I’ll see you on the other side.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona

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