Your Dharm is My Drug


Your Dharm is My Drug

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Prominent economist and hipster icon Karl Marx rightly said, “Religion is the opium of the people.” Over time, though, religion has graduated from opium to become another class of drugs altogether… the kind of stuff that makes you hallucinate about little grey men commanding you to kill your neighbours.

How else do you explain this new brand of religion the masses are dropping with aplomb, impervious to its obvious side effects including a sense of faux bravado and delusions of grandeur? Delusions that allow them to think they control people by dictating how they should, think, act, dress and recently, eat. Religion is no longer opium, its user no longer a chillum-smoking hippie. Religion is meth for the masses and its user a crackhead.

My first encounter with an addict was in the sixth grade. I went to an all-boys Catholic school, where I sang in the choir, played football and was beaten just like any other kid who attended SSC schools in Mumbai. An integral part of my school memories is linked to my dabbas, lovingly hand-packed by my mother. The dabbas often consisted of sandwiches or last night’s leftovers, but they always had meat.

The second most-anticipated bell in the school day, aside from the closing bell, meant it was time to eat. I remember a rainy August day, when we couldn’t take our dabbas to the playground during recess and were forced to eat in class. The room erupted in a bouquet of aromas from about 60 or so tiffins – some pleasant, some tolerable, some noxious. On the menu that day were ox-tongue sandwiches and plum cake. One of the kids asked what I was eating, in hopes of snagging a sandwich to save himself from the sev gathia in his tiffin. Being 12, I still hadn’t grasped the difference between an ox and a cow and told him they were cow-tongue sandwiches.

What happened next is etched in my memory, as deeply as my name was etched with a compass tip into that school bench. The kid told our Hindi teacher, Mr Mishra, who happened to be passing by, that I was eating a cow’s tongue in front of him. Mr Mishra, a middle-aged man with a Ph.D. in Hindi – famous for pearls of wisdom such as, “Everyone from the northeast is a criminal” and “Sex before marriage causes AIDS” – lectured me on the real meaning of secularism. According to him, it meant not pissing off people belonging to other religions by eating an animal they deemed sacred (or any non-vegetarian food, for that matter) in front of them and how the country we lived in was called “Hindu-stan” and I shouldn’t forget it.

He simply asked if I’d used the common microwave and I said, “Sure”. “Microwave mein suar,” cried Munir, and emptied his plate into the bin.

I went home and told my mother, who gave me a word of advice: “Eat your dabba alone.” From that day forth, I’d cram my face away from my classmates. I believe this incident is the reason for my inherent dislike and suspicion of vegetarians.

My encounters with people high on religion didn’t end there. My next brush with culinary communalism happened about three years ago, when I was in desperate need of a job to fund an apprenticeship in Bangkok. I immediately took up one at a call centre to save up for the air fare and living expenses.

I would carry lunch every day because it was cheaper than eating at the employee cafeteria. The day after Easter, I went to work with leftover sorpotel and pulao from the meat orgy the day before. I heated my lunch in the common microwave and sat down to eat with a few co-workers. One of them Munir, asked what I was eating and I told him it was sorpotel.

I gotta hand it to Munir for not overreacting. He simply asked if I’d used the common microwave and I said, “Sure”. “Microwave mein suar,” cried Munir, and emptied his plate into the bin. He was joined by quite a few of his fellow addicts and by 16:00 EST (we were in a call centre, my sense of time was warped) I was the reason for a mass panic in the cafeteria where about 400 employees ate every day. Emails were sent to HR and department heads, and a formal complaint was made.

The next day, I saw three microwaves in the cafeteria marked “Veg”, “Non veg”, and “Other”. I quit a month later when I had saved up enough money and made up my mind to commit seppuku before working at a BPO ever again.

My latest encounter, last month, wasn’t with an addict but with a peddler. I was at a church picnic and in proud picnicking tradition, had packed chicken and cheese sandwiches and a premixed quarter of Old Monk for breakfast. I unwrapped the sandwiches and passed them around to my friends. The box of sandwiches somehow made its way to one Father D’Cunha, who was there to watch over his flock. He took a bite of the sandwich, then another, and then proceeded to passive-aggressively explain to me why abstinence during Lent is a thing. And how I, with chicken and Old Monk, was in contravention of what God expected of us. Apparently, Jesus isn’t a fan of chicken and mustard-mayo around this time of the year.

That’s when the penny dropped. I realised that this drug just like any other – it knows no religion and a hell lot of people are hooked to it. Some addicts come disguised as gourmands (how else do you explain a Jain French Onion soup without the onions and vegan meatballs) and some are openly deranged (suggesting banning pork in response to the government’s beef ban).

But make no mistake, everyone is addicted. We’re now living in a time in history when a famine won’t mean the “extreme scarcity of food” but an inability to eat an abundance of food due to legal restrictions.

Of course, all religions have their holy cows. But since we have allowed it, we’ve drawn a wedge through this most communal form of all human interaction; this most primal of all acts divides us. No matter what I eat, I will manage to offend someone. If it isn’t a Hindu, a Muslim, or a Christian person, I will end up pissing off a Jain or a Kabbalist or a Scientologist. Or a vegan. So, I’ve decided to stop bothering – and you should too.

In all of this, I wish religion didn’t have to be this scary drug that makes us crazy. Why does it have to be like crack? Why can’t it be like good old marijuana, mellowing us all out and making us calmer? That way, when the munchies hit, we can all savour the best eats everyone has to offer. And nobody gets lynched.