How I Survive as a Bengali Vegetarian


How I Survive as a Bengali Vegetarian

Illustration: Akshita Monga/ Arré

If you don’t have it in you to kill and cook it, then you shouldn’t chew on it. That’s my rule of thumb with regard to food. The rather pleasant sights that meat markets offer with a crimson river snaking along the nearest drain were sufficient to tell me which side of the fence I would be on. I envied the ability of enthusiastic meat-eaters to confidently stride into a shop and select pieces of chicken of their choice from a steel bowl of freshly cut portions. I envied those who could cast longing glances at the multiple carcasses of goats on display, hanging upside down.

I’m Bengali and I was brought up believing that meat and maach are my birthright. I tried real hard to accept my lot, but failed. I had to give up meat when I was 22 years old.

And thus began my journey into ordering all things potato and baby corn at restaurants. As the designated vegetarian in the group, I learnt to roll with the hara bhara kebab jokes and ignore the piteous looks that were reserved for my vegetarian platter. I learnt to cope with being served paneer every time I had a dinner invite. But the toughest part was moving back home to a passionately meat-and-fish-loving Bengali family, where another saga unfolded.

Most urban middle-class Bengali families such as mine are moderately open-minded. We swear by the adage that “the family that drinks together, stays together”. I haven’t hesitated in popping open rum bottles at home. I haven’t hesitated in telling my grandparents that I will be taking a trip with my guy friends and all they asked me was if I trusted them. They didn’t break into a monologue on “Indian sanskar” and “family’s izzat”. My folks are fervently praying that my brother is living in with his girlfriend. Smoking, menstrual cramps, premarital sex, homosexuality are not hush-hush subjects but part of dinner-table conversations.

But what comes under scrutiny, is what’s on your plate. You can make honest confessions about your vices and hope for a friendly ear, but never about your vegetarianism.

On my first day back home, I discovered it was easier to lie to my folks than tell them the truth about why I don’t eat meat anymore.

Tell them it’s part of your penance to obtain a worthy husband and they’ll laugh it off. Tell them the doctor ordered it and they’ll pat your back with undertones of sympathy but they will let you off the hook. Tell them that your boyfriend is a religious vegetarian and they will be heartbroken. They’ll secretly offer prayers to their gods. (Forgive her, for she knows not what she does). Tell them that you had lived in a strictly vegetarian society in Mumbai for the past year and have lost the appetite for much else, they’ll curse Mumbai and its “calture”.

But dare tell them about your eat-only-what-you-can-kill philosophy and it will unleash mayhem. You’ll be bombarded with a volley of unreasonable questions: “Don’t you kill cockroaches and red ants?” “But you can at least have fish, no?” “Do you want to consult another doctor?”

A bit of overreaction is understandable, after all I come from a culture where wedding traditions require the bride and the groom to exchange fish as wedding presents, and the fish is adorned as beautifully as the bride (if not better). Meat and fish are as integral a part of our lives as water, and we’re as incomplete without it as our tea is without Marie biscuits, our indigestion is without Gelusil, our winters are without monkey caps.

So confounded was my family by my life choices that some tried to tempt me by waving fish fries in my face, some hoped to fool me by mixing fish in my food, others tried to convince me that shrimp crackers don’t really count. A rational few tried to counter me by using arguments about the food chain and the expected deficit in protein intake, but sound pieces of logic are about as frequent as honest politicians.

Once at a pharmacy, my father and I were waiting to purchase some medicine for mouth ulcers that I had developed following a bout of viral fever. The over-friendly pharmacist took it upon himself to give me an earful about how “my generation” skips on the greens. He went on to speak about his own daughter who didn’t like fish but preferred chicken because it’s easier to debone. My father, waiting for the perfect point of entry into the sermon, immediately chimed in, “Oh, she doesn’t eat fish or chicken!” The pharmacist sniggered, “Oh you’re lazier than my child, aren’t you?” I nodded along – so long as they went after “my generation”, but spared me.

After the prolonged song and dance of persuasion passes, a resigned acceptance sets in and another situation involving overcompensation arises. Step into a Bengali home as guest, declare yourself a herbivore, and watch them scramble for dinner solutions. You get an assortment of three bowls – paneer, lentils, and a vegetable curry – with your chapati, along with the sunny side of an apology that they couldn’t make anything more.

You know you’ve entered the third and final phase of facing the consequences of your decision, when you forego the notion of passive resistance and universal popularity, and begin to have a little fun. If someone tries to tell me that I’ve grown thinner and weaker since I’ve left meat, I pinch my arm fat in front of them to clear any ill-formed conclusions. If someone is profusely apologising to me for serving me perfectly cooked sabji and dal, I tell them, “Uncle, would you say the same thing if there was chicken on my plate?” They take a second or two to regain composure but catching them off-guard with the blunt force of an honest statement either corrects the pattern or earns you a couple of awkward, amusing memories.

They say it takes a brave man to eat beef in this country, but it takes a truly brave Bong to declare herself vegetarian.

I will survive.
Oh, as long as I know how to love baby corn, I know I’ll stay alive.