“Are you vegetarian? Do you eat egg? How about chicken? Err... something more... or less?” We often ask one another such questions when trying to get acquainted or dining together for the very first time.
Being vegetarian or non-vegetarian is something we first inherit, before choosing to stray partly or entirely, from our familial paths. We all know of vegetarian friends who’ve experimented with non-veg food and continue eating it... at least outside home. We also know of non-vegetarian friends who’ve turned veg by choice. Their reason for switching from one to another is usually the influence of others. This could mean health, religion, companionship, availability, environment etc.
“What kind of Brahman are you if you consume non-veg?” I was asked almost mockingly by a chaste vegetarian gentleman. “One with ancestry from Kashmir Sir”, I replied, “like many such with origins from Bengal, Maharashtra, Orissa and various other parts of the country where people eat meat and fish”. The shock on his face made me realise that this elderly gentleman had lived most of his life believing that vegetarianism was purely something religious and not geographic.
People’s diets seem clearly oriented by the place where their communities originally settled, the bounty that nearby nature offered access to, the influences of dominant or neighbouring communities over their own and the places to which they next migrated. These days, a vegetarian studying in the US may alter his birth habit to suit the environment or a hard-core meat-lover discovering his spiritual side may become vegetarian by choice on certain days of the week... or year.
Many years ago, people said that scientific studies proved beyond a doubt that vegetarian food was healthier. I was distressed that my nutrition related studies at hotel management school provided no answers. That was the phase when I asked everyone I met, even remotely connected with food, for an answer – “If vegetarianism is scientifically proven as healthier, shouldn’t all non-vegetarians amongst us be turning vegetarian?”
After asking around, I discovered that biologically, the human body (from evidence such as our teeth and digestive system) is built to be omnivorous. Any deviations from this were probably based on geographical availability, cultural norms or even allergies to certain foods. Further, people who live long and healthy lives are not necessarily either vegetarian or non-vegetarian. This satisfied me, and I began to turn my attention towards understanding mutual sensitivities between my herbivore and carnivore fellow beings.
Around three or four decades ago, pure vegetarians were hesitant to even eat in utensils or from kitchens in which non-veg food had been prepared. To respect their sentiments, restaurants in the country either chose to be entirely pure vegetarian or then often had separate sections for cooking and even dining for their vegetarian guests. I was recently quite keen to have the company of some of my vegetarian friends on a trip we were planning, anxious about how they would respond to my non-vegetarian inclinations. I was relieved that they were not just tolerant, but exceedingly cordial about it. Needless to say, we had a wonderful time.
As we know, some vegetarians eat eggs, while vegans don’t eat any animal products including milk. Some non-vegetarians eat only fish, while others eat only poultry or white meat; still others eat the works, which in some parts of India include animals that even hard-core non-vegetarians may feel queasy about.
So it’s all about varying degrees of acceptability and habits through upbringing and exposure. As long as we respect one another’s beliefs, are tolerant of each others preferences and don’t impose our own on others, I guess we’ll continue eating happily in each other’s good company.