No matter what part of India you go to, except maybe, come to think of it, the more contentious parts, the one question you are most likely to be asked is this — veg or non-veg? It may be asked politely, insinuatingly, in warning or in concern. And depending on where you happen to be your response too will generate varied reactions. In Kolkata, from where I’m writing this, the question is part afterthought followed by anxiety.
After you are handed your lunch, suddenly the conference volunteer will ask ‘veg or non-veg, veg or non-veg, veg or non-veg’ in steadily escalating register. When you say non-veg, non-veg, there is an exhalation of relief, a full relaxing of the body that a possible disaster has been averted. This is probably understandable in a place where fish is considered a sea vegetable and vegetarianism is a minor curiosity in a curious minority.
In Mumbai the whole business is complicated by the aggression of vegetarian housing societies and informal vegetarian precincts like the Walkeshwar area, and restaurants rush to emphasise they are pure pure vegetarian. Don’t even allow meat in the back of their bus for fear of contact.
In Delhi, refined types don’t ask; others do so with avidity, discreetly withdrawing if the answer is veg. If the answer is non-veg, then there is fulsome inclusion in the conspiracy of tandoori over-indulgence that is the stereotype with some basis of the big-hearted, force-feeding Punjabis. I have an affection for this expansiveness, mostly because I think the disdain people express for the whole butter chicken culture, is really an anti-migrant prejudice, rooted in the post-Partition influx of refugees who supposedly rendered crude a previously sophisticated culture. Whatever.
The funny thing though, is that an average meal in India is primarily or basically vegetarian, with a little meat added, even if there are some people who must have that meat every day. And yet some — like me, who eat meat maybe twice a week — claim the non-veg position very assertively as if a more emphatic identity underlies these choices.
Earlier, in mixed dietary company, if you were vegetarian a sense of apology hovered, as if you hadn’t managed to shed your provincial, traditional, desi roots for a modern-ness or cosmopolitanism that eats everything, irrespective of how you’d grown up.
Now non-vegetarians modify their position — I’m fishetarian, chicketarian, eggetarian etc, as if to say they’re not really all that bad. The red-meat eaters have begun to hem and haw a little, or speak with some bravado.
The implication is they haven’t been able to shed your heavy-food eating, paunch-loving traditional desi, and ignorant roots to embrace a new global, health-conscious, organic, macrobiotic, non-trans fat, locavore, vaghera lean and mean identity. As if you have an inability to rise above your animal nature to attain a more distilled sophistication, and extra-virgin purity. You may or may not be what you eat. But what you don’teat sure has something to do with who you want to be seenas.
This is quite different from the vegetarian fascism of Bombay building societies. It’s more a neo-vegetarianism via American food fanaticism. The assertive non-veggie is often just revolting against this class Brahminism.
It’s intriguing that this implied self-control often accompanies affluence, whether of trading communities or new cosmopolites and seems a directly proportional relationship to that greatest symbol of excess — money.
Around this time of year though, the veg and non-veg, the meat-eating and sweetmeat-eating, all join to pray for that self-same symbol of excess. Happy Diwali to them all.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.