“An Animal Lover and a Meat Eater?”: The Pain of Being Punjabi and Vegetarian


“An Animal Lover and a Meat Eater?”: The Pain of Being Punjabi and Vegetarian

Illustration: Shruti Yatam


“Not eating meat is a decision, eating meat is an instinct.” – Denis Leary

You probably don’t know who Denis Leary is. It’s okay, I don’t either. But that’s not the point. The point is: What the man has said resonates with me, and how.

I have a deep, abiding love of all things meat. Meat in all forms, shapes and sizes. Red meat, ribs, seafood, medium rare steaks, bacon crisps, juicy tenderloins, seasoned bone marrow, steak tartare… I could go on. I love them all. Twenty-five years of being brought up in a hardcore Punjabi family has devised my taste buds to perpetually frolic toward nourishment from animals.

Being vegetarian has never been an option in my household. We take pride in gorging on my grandmother’s famous masala chicken, or my father’s secret recipe for mutton. And if no one feels like cooking, then there’s always the famous butter chicken from Bhatia’s next door, washed down with some good Punjabi rum-shum and tikka-shikka.

So, how does someone like me end up as a rookie vegetarian? Where did it all go wrong?

About a year ago, a very dear friend of mine announced that he was turning vegetarian. Like any self-loving, self-believing, and virtuous non-vegetarian, I was aghast to hear that my friend had crossed over to the dark side. I tried to talk him out of it. I offered to take him to a support group, and held an aromatic bacon sandwich under his nose. But alas, he would not be moved, and I spent the next few months sharing his sauteed spinach and eggplant quinoa bowls whenever we went out together.

While I was getting an introduction to how the other half eats, my friend decided to try a new tactic on me. You see, I’ve always been a vocal advocate of saving the environment, and providing stray animals with forever homes. I’m constantly fostering pets, volunteering at environmental NGOs, and donating my few spare rupees to animal rights charities. I wear only biodegradable, organic cotton clothes, do a monthly plastic recycling check at my house, and whenever I see someone litter, I take a leaf from Virushka’s book and shame them loudly on social media.

Being vegetarian has never been an option in my household.

Which is why, when my newly veg friend asked how I could square off my beliefs with eating meat, I didn’t have an answer that went beyond my greedy taste buds. Turns out, I had never questioned the culture in which I was brought up. I refused to acknowledge that my lifestyle was getting in the way of me standing up for what I truly believe in. If my mantra of leading life is kindness, how have I always been doing the exact opposite of that?

By now, enough studies that have shown us ill effects of eating animals. Raising livestock needs massive amounts of water, grain, and farmland. Being a “woke” millennial who is one generation away from the Earth imploding, I do consider it my responsibility to live a more accountable life than the ones before us. And no matter how delicious are, we can’t deny that animals are treated in the most inhumane manner before they are chopped up and served to us. Chickens are stacked in crates with no space to breathe or move. They are injected with hormones — just like the cows who are forced to give us milk year-round. Reading PETA reports on the treatment of these animals has always sent shudders down my spine.

Now, I’m not here to preach the veggie gospel, especially in these polarised times when even the food on your plate is political. I could tell you how my life has changed, how I have tons of energy and feel closer to God. But the truth is, it’s only been a few months since I’ve converted.

I knew that taking this step would be hard, but I didn’t know it would be this tough! And of course, in my attempt to stay away from meat and going through self- inflicted panic attacks every now and then – it’s my body’s reflex, you’ll probably get them too – I do find myself bumping into vegetarians converts. If I thought I’d be sighing in relief, I was so wrong; most of them just make me want to pull my hair out with nonchalant suggestions like, ‘‘Well it’s easy. One day, you just quit. And that’s that.”

How? How. Did. They. Do. It? Where do they even get the discipline from? I never thought myself to be a weak human being but every time my stomach growls, all I can think of are succulent, tender chicken hot wings drizzled with sesame seeds. I pull out my phone and my fingers automatically pull up the Zomato app and there I see the golden words: “Use Code Tasty for 50% off.”

I mean, I really applaud the way they’ve gone looking for ways to make baingan sound fancy, but it’s still baingan, you dipwit. Get outta here.

Then I remember, why I quit. So I spend hours scouting for vegetarian food without compromising on the taste. And what do I find? “Layered Persian Aubergine Bake with Crumbled Feta & Olive Oil.” I mean, I really applaud the way they’ve gone looking for ways to make baingan sound fancy, but it’s still baingan, you dipwit. Get outta here.

I know this has an air of an intense story about recovery from addiction, but trust me, when your body and taste buds are so used to a particular palate, it becomes very difficult to walk away from your habits.

What’s been worse though, is the judgment. From my parents. My butter chicken- and mutton kebab-eating parents. The first time I shared the news with my father, he laughed like I’d told him a joke. But over time, his worst fears came true. It might have been less egregious for my family, if I’d eloped and gotten married, but giving up meat? No! How would they ever face people again? Shame!

My father tried all manner of bribes to reverse this “stupid idea that I have because I’m young and well, stupid”. And I must admit, I was tempted. But did I give in? You’re damn right I did! And then I felt supremely guilty afterwards.

Have I been completely meat-free since the last few months? No. I did occasionally have a butter chicken all by myself. Sometimes, because I was out with meat-eating friends, sometimes because I succumbed to habit. But have I set foot on the path toward a meat-free life? Yes. Not by going cold turkey, not by denying myself this very occasional pleasure. I’m taking the change as it comes, without trying to jolt my body into a collapsible shock.

I am not certain my vegetarian friends will approve. But they have already managed to pull me over to the “dark side”. It might just end up brighter over here.