I See Your Broccoli and Raise You a Brinjal


I See Your Broccoli and Raise You a Brinjal

Iget my dietary habits from Elizabeth Taylor, Hollywood legend, wife to countless husbands, and as vegetarian as Colonel Sanders. Her 1987 diet book, Elizabeth Takes Off, had such gems like the tuna + grapefruit + tomato paste + mayonnaise salad.

Yet, Liz lived a happy life. More importantly, she lived an interesting life, full of adorable vices. And she looked pretty swell until she died at a respectable 79 of congenital heart disease, which, if you must know, had more to do with genetic mutation than peanut-butter steaks or fried chicken.

When a fellow of my disposition, with Hollywood divas for dietary heroes, embarks on a quest to be vegetarian, you can be sure the consequences will merit a Buzzfeed post. Actually, if there’s any wisdom that comes with age, it is to ensure that you do Buzzfeed-worthy stuff. #YOLO, people. Kiss thy neighbour and eat dog food, hopefully, in that order.

Anyway, June 5 last year marked the beginning of my 45-day abstinence from non-vegetarian food. If you must know, it was ahead of my first pilgrimage to the Sabarimala Temple, more in support of the pious than piety itself. You see I have Malayali roommates – and that lot can be convincing. I was greased into an alliance.

An eerie calm sets in on the morning of my Odyssey, presaging a storm. Almost prophetic about these kinds of things, a silent fart makes way, as if in warning. For as long as I can remember, my breakfast has comprised of toast and eggs. The first of my dilemmas is: What do I substitute for my protein kick? In the past, eminent alternatives have included leftover chicken and cold sausages. As I rummage through the cold storage (what a refrigerator is called when it doesn’t house vegetables), I see butter, jam, and a dodgy-looking mayonnaise. The last is out anyway, not on account of its dodginess, but because the label has just informed me that mayo also contains egg yolk.

Here’s some unsolicited advice fellas: Join the slow food movement, if you want to avoid abominations like heated jam and toast. As panic sets in, I jam the bread and put it on the tava. Now, I know what failure tastes like.

But I can’t give up so soon. I am certain lunch will be able to repair my traumatised palate. In the days before the cleanse, I was a Neanderthal around lunchtime, eating whatever was within reach. On particularly hungry afternoons, I have cast disturbing looks at my colleague, Santonu. Mostly though, I just walk down to the nearest udipi for my daily fix of sambar-rice or dal-roti. Since breakfast has been such a disastrous culinary exercise, dal-roti feels like manna from heaven.

My post-lunch shenanigans include pretending to work while secretly imagining a hammock on the sunny beaches of the Bahamas or Maldives. That takes care of a couple of hours, but the afterglow of lunch is beginning to fade. I try to walk it off, and then, in the throes of a serious withdrawal, I rely on a lifeline and phone a friend. Ok, several friends. I make inconsequential chatter with people who are not entirely pleasantly surprised. But it works. Time passes – slowly, but surely.

As days turn into weeks, and weeks into many lifetimes, I strive to appreciate the little things: a passing breeze, the lone flower on the side of the road, and extra bandwidth.

Evening appears. Biscuits are called for with my cuppa, but I have to read the damned labels again. Who or what is glutens? I check myself before I wreck myself, a counter-impulse that will eventually be my undoing.

As I head home, I’m preoccupied with anxious thoughts. What shape or form will my supper take? The craving for meat passed around lunch, but all this thinking has begun to weigh me down. At home, the cook, bless her, has made the most delightful fried potato. But in the days to come, fried potato will be replaced by pulses and legumes. Night, once an ode to nalli nihari with extra meat and bone marrow and a warm khameeri roti, will shrivel into masoor daal and bhindi.

If the first day was untoward, days two to five accelerate steadily toward doom: label-checking, culinary improvisation, steely stares, redundant calls, and much more. I am able to find a hack for breakfast, though – cereal and jam, which I had despised back in school. Now, in these ungodly hours, I make my peace with a childhood demon.

As weekend approaches, my frustration becomes palpable. I can’t call myself a biryani connoisseur anymore. One Sunday, I give in and order the vegetarian version and immediately regret it. The rice is limp and unsavoury and for some reason, reminds me of the sombre faces who sell aphrodisiacs on late-night teleshopping networks.

Over the next few days though, things become better. I complain less and stop waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. I cram up strange facts about fruits and vegetables. Did you know, for instance, that not all oranges are orange? Bananas, I learn, are an endangered species. This makes me great fun at dinner parties, where, not only am I left with a bowlful of stale gobi Manchurian but also with neon-coloured mocktails with salacious names like Juicy Lucy or Ball-less Barry. It’s profound, how much you actually observe and not merely see when you’re trying not to escape reality. And then it hits me: I am in the grip of a classic Stockholm syndrome.

As days turn into weeks, and weeks into many lifetimes, I strive to appreciate the little things: a passing breeze, the lone flower on the side of the road, and extra bandwidth. Along the way, I realise I can dance to Taylor Swift and that energy bars are actually shit-coloured chalk. I make glorious mistakes with better results than warm jam, like a dosa in the shape of a world map (with redrawn borders). The point at which this whole thing turns is the day I discover chhole; blessed chhole, which make everything bearable.

Looking back, I want to say I’m better for my days of abstinence, but I can’t decide. I guess, if you try really hard, nothing is insurmountable. Not even being sober and vegetarian for 45 days. You will live to tell the tale, of that I have no doubt, but hopefully, it’ll also be interesting.

Liz is quoted to have said: “The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.” It was true of me. I gave up my love for meat and wine, formidable vices for Sabarimala, and traded them for an infuriating propensity to stay in touch. For which, as God is my witness, I duly apologise.