I had been looking forward excitedly to my planned three weeks in India, and it had all the makings of a heady trip. I was going to be spending quality time with near and dear ones after an inexplicably long period of almost six years, and to be seeing a brother get married. I had also heard much, especially from other U.S.-based Indian friends who had visited more recently, about the rapid changes that had been accompanying the “liberalization” of the Indian economy. That’s right, I had been bracing myself for a surge of emotions as well as an attack on the senses by old—and new—sights, sounds, and smells. At the same time, I was also preparing myself for what was sure to be a challenging experience: you see, I was returning to India as a vegan!
Granted, I was a lacto-vegetarian all through my growing years, and Indian culture and cuisine were substantially vegetarian-friendly. Yet, I expected that I would have to deal with a still lower degree of awareness about the very idea of veganism. I didn’t have to think beyond my own family’s outlook to imagine that there would be difficulties in comprehending my vegan ethic. Bear in mind that vegetarianism had never been an alien concept to any of us. After all, my father had been born into a large, brahminical family—one in which meat-eating remains anathema to many. Yet, omnivores—my father included!—outnumbered vegetarians in my immediate family. The family kitchen may have been mostly vegetarian, thanks to my kindred mother. Yet, as the lone vegetarian among three children, I was often teased and admonished because of my “fussy” and “obstinate” ways.
Thinking back to the summer when I was preparing to leave for graduate school in the U.S.: I was told that I would surely be humbled by the beef-eating culture that was America. I can also recall a joke to the effect, “Just watch—it is his kind that undergoes the most complete transformation. He will soon want nothing but hamburgers!” Little did they imagine that I would surely undergo a transformation, but only further along the same direction; that, far from taking to eating meat, I would only come to feel more deeply about the exploitation of animals. I turned vegan within six months of being entirely on my own, in a Web-enabled Iowa.
Over the past five summers, I got to read and listen to repeated pleas and arguments that attempted to get me off the vegan wagon: “You NEED to consume dairy”; “Even Gandhi used to drink milk”; “You will realize your folly only when you reach our age and your bones fail you.” Unfortunately for me, all of these were no longer going to be from a phone line halfway across the globe, or no more jarring than beeping incoming e-mail. I was also conscious that I tended to be defensive, as against combative, when it came to explaining my vegan ways. I felt that I would at least have to be well-prepared. Is it any wonder then that I decided to go armed with literature that I freshly downloaded from PETA.org and a few other animal rights groups’ Web sites?
My concerns about venturing into culinary and sartorial battlefields were, however, momentarily forgotten when I set foot again in India. It felt wonderful to soak in all the love and affection, to connect again with boyhood friends, and to take trips down memory lane. And, yes, I did also see from close range the numerous described changes—the sprouting of many a McDonald’s and Pizza Hut; a burgeoning and cash-rich middle class being wooed into spending on designer clothes, Yanni concerts, and vacation packages; hordes of new Hyundais, Mitsubishis, and Fords clogging already congested and chaotic roads; and ballooned prices – from real estate to commodities – that made me wonder how most people managed to make ends meet.
Not surprisingly, my unusual vegan preferences followed me everywhere, figuring as a conversation topic in all of my social interactions. Interestingly, when I would explain to people in the U.S. that I was a vegan (or “strict vegetarian”), many would reason that it was because I was from India – “Aren’t most people vegetarian in India?” When I was in India, on the other hand, and letting acquaintances know about my lifestyle choices, there were some who opined bluntly, “He has been in America for too long!” (America, as in “where people make a lot of noise about human rights and animal rights.”) I let them know that I was a high-school student in India when I learned of the animal bones connection and swore off gelatin-containing jelly (and even sugar for a while, until a queried Chemistry teacher dismissed the bone char connection as “not really so”).
This brush with “knowledge association” and the accompanying stereotyping gave me pause for more thought. Now, I often find myself earnestly dismissing stereotypes, not just negative but also positive ones. It didn’t seem sound to me that multifaceted human beings could be wholly slotted on the basis of—as often seen—just one attribute. But while I was in Madras and seated at a restaurant, it struck me that deep down, there was now one trait that I would willingly accept as defining me: vegan. (Of course, true to nature, I will want to dismiss that all vegans are alike, or that veganism is all there is to a vegan.) For, seated there, I didn’t feel like a returning Indian at ease in the city where he grew up. I felt simply like a wary vegan explaining, “I don’t consume [this, this, this, and this]”! That scene could just as well have had me play a graduate student in Ann Arbor or a tongue-tied tourist in Tel Aviv. The sameness in the scenarios stood out in my mind.
I came to encounter other similarities too: mishaps in my efforts to consume only vegan food. Still, I probably got by more easily than I do here in the American Midwest, simply because there were a lot more vegetarian and vegan-friendly food establishments around. However, this abundance was counterbalanced somewhat by the sparser availability of definitive information. Many a time I found myself unsure about the actual ingredients in a number of foodstuffs, which I inevitably gave the skip.
I had no such problems when invited to the homes of relatives and friends. I am not sure whether they all understood, but they catered to my dietary preferences graciously. I also enjoyed being by my to-be-wed brother’s side when he went over the wedding arrangements with the hotel staff: “500 plates, including one vee-gan, as in …”! Of course, it pained me to be party to the purchase of silk and woolen clothing and to see all the unthinking, ostentatious display of silk at the wedding. But I refrained from expressing my disapproval except when asked for my opinion on a prospective purchase or a worn outfit. I just derived comfort from contributing to at least some measure of awareness, as when my brother’s fiancée supervised his careful selection of a silk-free necktie gift for me.
As for my stay at my parents’ place: I wasn’t surprised that they had this urge to indulge me during my “short” stay, and I felt thankful for having a loving family. (True, there were occasions when I was reminded of that wise saying, “Happiness is having a loving, caring family in another city”!) I was also glad for the fact that there were many vegan or easily-veganizable recipes from which to choose. Ours was, moreover, a multicultural home with influences from several different cuisines.
Nevertheless, some comment or the other about the supposed pitfalls of veganism would crop up unfailingly. After yet another verbal duel, I decided finally to unpack and pull out my pro-vegan literature. I would have been disappointed if they did not produce any effect, but I had not expected what was to come. As I condensed a certain long piece of literature into a commentary to my mother, I noticed my father going over a PETA pamphlet keenly. Admittedly, he was affected by what he saw and read, and he abstained from meat for at least the rest of my stay.
I have not managed to silence my family’s concerns about my vegan ways, but I have noted that the focus has since shifted to how “punishing” my lifestyle was. I realize that I had been conveying a sense of self-sacrifice (“I would rather waste away than have an animal be harmed for my sake”) that didn’t go down well. I realize now that I would do better to show that it is easy to be a vegan. Cut me some slack, will you! It was, after all, only the first time that I was visiting family since turning vegan.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
June 30, 2000
Originally published as part of a collection of essays at VegSource.com. Edited for clarity.
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