Monday, 30th October 2017

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Oops, I ate a salami

Vegetarianism is about negotiating what’s off the table

  • Published 9.11.19, 10:34 PM
  • Updated 9.11.19, 10:34 PM
  • 3 mins read
“You like salami?” dimpled my host cheerily iStock

Life as a vegetarian must be tough — even after all these years, whenever I hear this line, I bristle. It is not like that is the end of the matter. Should I even politely mention that I follow a diet minus eggs, meat and fish, non-vegetarians will stare as if I belong to a different species. One would think they’d never seen one of my kind before.

I have grown up in a Gujarati Jain family in a Marwari neighbourhood in a shakahari locality in a part of Calcutta where people roll their eyes and raise their eyebrows at the very mention of meat. Family dinners are usually at “only vegetarian” restaurants — where a Jain menu is on offer. Even TV advertisements of eggs or chicken make my mother uncomfortable.

In school, I had a vegetarian friends circle, so lunches were nothing out of the ordinary, though I must say I had a passive curiosity about the food in the neatly-packed lunchboxes of my non-vegetarian classmates. Things changed when I went to college. As I discovered, there was a whole universe of burgers waiting for me. And in that universe, the aloo tikki was not a presence to be reckoned with. It was all about chicken wings!

“C’mon, take just one bite,” my peers would insist, little understanding that the problem was not of volume but of taste. At the other end of the spectrum were the oversensitive ones. “Do you mind if we eat non-vegetarian food in front of you,” they’d ask. All very touching, but the othering annoyed me. I felt like saying — Why would I? Do you mind if I eat vegetarian food in front of you? At times, people would declare half in jest, half in seriousness: a vegetarian life is a waste, you are missing out on the best things in life. Then there would be the curious ones with their “Do you eat just ghaas-phoos all the time?” The inner voice snapped back — “Yes. Like you survive on bacon and ham all the time.”

At dinners and get-togethers I would, and still am, left holding the paneer. Never mind that I have no taste for it. Too blah and bland for my tastebuds. Never mind that it is easy to do a dal makhani and some naan or kulcha and stir fried vegetables. It seems the moment one knows a vegetarian is coming home for dinner, hosts suffer a creative freeze. And inside their brains it is chiming — paneer, paneer, paneer. And post the paneer, comes the potato. Everything potato. I have also been to dinners where the hosts have forgotten to keep aside something vegetarian altogether. Those moments I get something like this coming at me — “Have you never ever tried chicken? Not even once? Arre, babycorn samajh ke khaa lo.”

Apart from the insensitive and the oversensitive meat-eating ilk, there are the emotional blackmailers. They will say things like — “Plants are living too” or “If you care about animals so much, you shouldn’t be eating their food.” Some blame the lack of animal proteins and certain vitamins in our diet for every ailment from the common cold to cardiac arrests. From the sound of it, the solution to life itself is in fish fries and chilli chicken!

As if life offline is not bad enough, my meat-eating friends have started to tag me on vegetarian memes circulating on social media.

During a solo trip to Goa, I was tempted to try some sea food. Or should I attempt an omelette, I wondered. But in the end, I could not bring myself to do either.

And that is how things were till one night. It was a casual dinner at a colleague’s place. There were spirits to choose from and hors d’oeuvres enough. Triangles and circles with dips on the side, olives black and green. In my head the innocent looking things were all vegetarian. I picked up one such and popped it into my mouth. And after the jalapeno and pepper were done exploding in my mouth, I felt IT. It was soft and unfamiliar but nothing I could find fault with. When I had picked up the snack the room had been empty, but as I reached for a second, suddenly, I felt several pairs of eyes boring into me. “You like salami?” dimpled my host cheerily. Before I could say anything, a concerned voice clarified, “You do know that it is chicken, right?” “But chicken is hardly meat,” said another. And the last, “If you want to throw up, it would be that way.”

That night as I used the tongue cleaner with extra force, a single thought popped into my head — so much fuss for THIS? I think I will survive just fine with my dahi kebabs and dhoklas, with an extra helping of chilli, please.

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