Obedience and Disobedience

Birthdays make one introspect – not too deeply; dangerous ground there, but somewhat skittering along the periphery. And in one such introspection, I realise that it has been forty years now since I have been a vegetarian.

Voluntarily. Stubbornly. Mulishly, even.

Of course, at the age of nine, it was not compassion towards the suffering of sentient beings, that prompted me. It was heartbreak!



(Image courtesy: Pixabay)

But then, as always, some background intro becomes necessary.

I was born into a Syrian Christian family of Kerala, South India, in which vegetarianism was quite unheard of. Even Hindu families, traditionally vegetarians in Kerala, religiously speaking, had gravitated towards the other end of the spectrum almost a generation ago. Save for a few who stubbornly clung to tradition.

My mother’s meat dish preparations were famed as something to die for; most Syrian Christian women are excellent cooks. So there I was, happily munching away, blissful in my ignorance!

We were somewhat self sufficient in those days, food-wise. Vegetables were grown in the yard, near the well from which water had to be drawn by hand- a cool and moist spot- Ladies fingers and brinjals, chillies and  gourds of many varieties grew in profusion. Coconuts,  a staple in Kerala cooking, grew on our own coconut palms. No store-bought, branded cooking oil for us in those days. Each summer, a month’s coconut crop would be dried in the hot tropical sun and taken to the oil press, and  behold! Coconut oil- cooking medium, haircare, skincare – all-in-one wonder product!

Multicoloured and shaped local hens, (hardy but lazy), not the White Leghorns and Plymouths who later replaced them, roamed the land, hectored by one cocky (no pun intended) rooster. The hens provided a steady supply of eggs, broods of chickens and meat for special occasions and guests.  A cow – supplier of milk and manure, who also kept the grass from growing too wild- and her calf lived placidly in the stable, always kept scrupulously clean. Keeping the manger stocked, from the nearby haystack, was sometimes my job after school.  In my young mind, that stable was as holy as any church- Christ was born in a manger and I could easily imagine the Christ Child sleeping peacefully in that hay-filled manger of ours.

A pair of dogs- because the house was remote from its neighbours. That about completed our menagerie.

The house sat on the edge of a wide stretch of rice fields. (The current house – a newer one, not the old eccentric house with lavish wooden construction and carvings, which also supported a thriving colony of termites- is still in the exact position it was, but the paddy fields have given way to housing pressures).  Every summer, when the paddy had been harvested and the fields were left fallow, herds of skinny cattle, oxen mostly,  would descend, terribly thin and emancipated, and quite painful to look at. I remember asking my father about them. They are brought from a neighbouring state, he said. Once they have outlived their usefulness, they are sent here to be fattened and slaughtered. I am embarrassed to admit that I never made the connection between these sad creatures and the meat relished so greedily. But then, I had never seen a slaughter-house in those days.

Coming back to the cow (she would have a name of course, a nice traditional Indian name), a calf weans off milk by the time it is around a year old and then naturally, the cow stops producing milk, till the next calf is born. This presents a problem. In order to provide the owner with a year round supply of milk, it is essential that the poor cow has to birth a calf each year, with clockwork regularity. So that was how it was.

If the baby was female, all was well. The little one would be assured of a long and productive life, never mind if it was boring, exactly like that of its mother, either in the same household or in another, for there was always a demand for milch cows. But if the calf was male- not that easy.

There were only very few job openings, so to speak, for a bull; and today those too must have dwindled away to nothing. Even the traditional ones, like pulling a bullock cart and being yoked to a plough for tilling the rice fields were already on the decline with the introduction of motor vehicles and tractors.  The cushiest job of all in the village for a bull was already occupied by his father; who would soon be made redundant by the White Revolution of India, which made artificial insemination of cows, thereby introducing high milk yielding breeds, the norm.

All said and done, a bull calf was born to be led to the abattoir, sooner, rather than later.

That year, forty years ago, a tiny bull calf, cinnamon coloured, with a  brilliant white patch on his forehead and with large, dark, liquid, innocent eyes, was born to our cow. And me, a lonely, nut-brown coloured, bookworm of a little girl, fell in love with his playful innocence!

He and I, what a simple life we had! On holidays we would play most of the day.  On days when I had school, I would fling my satchel to the corner the moment I got home and run out to meet him. He would prance around in joy, kicking up his hind legs high in the air and when hungry, would run to his mother. Tiny soft horns started sprouting on his head and he butted me or whoever was nearby whenever he could, or failing that, tried his new horns out on the nearest tree. And he slowly grew bigger and plumper.

Oh, ours was a doomed love, not that I was unaware of it. Still I hoped that my begging, pleading and cajoling may prevail on my father to keep him. It did not.

One evening, back home from school, I was greeted not by my exuberant friend, but by  the plaintive lowing of the mother cow; I was no stranger to that wail. A cow mourns its lost baby for a few days, not more. Bovine memory is quite short. Unlike that of elephants.

I wept and begged my parents to buy him back from the abattoir-man. Rubbish, said my parents, whoever heard of such outlandish behaviour. There was nothing else to be done, but to  dry the tears and calm down. And decide, equally calmly that from that day on, I will not eat meat, throwing in fish too, for good measure. The family laughed, thinking it was a passing fancy; it was not.

Being in a minority is  always difficult. I was scolded and derided. My mother despaired of me and scolded non-stop. You are a girl, she said. You will be given in marriage into another family in ten years. What would they think? she asked. (In the generation she grew up in, that was the only imaginable future for a girl child.)

Nobody will marry you when you grow up. Who will want a wife who neither eats nor prepares mouthwatering meat dishes? prophesied an assortment of aunts and relatives.   Remember that you are a girl, they warned. Obedience is the first and best quality in a woman- obedience to parents and later to the husband (whatever he may be like!).

A child cares neither for the answers nor for mindless obedience. All I could remember was my little dead friend with the tiny horns peeping up from his head and his total affection.

Probably because  I was the last born and therefore slightly favoured child and could memorise and spew out long English poems (thank you, Lord Tennyson, yours were the easiest) for the benefit of visiting guests, thus making my father justifiably proud,  a sound beating did not come my way!

When the heckling of immediate and extended family became too bad, especially at social occasions like weddings, I would defiantly bring out my trump card- Mahatma Gandhi! There was no counter argument to that!

Mahatma Gandhi was the Father of the Nation. Everyone accepted the fact that if it was not for him, chances were India would still be ruled by the British and would have had to still suffer the “No Entry to Indians and Dogs” indignity. His image is printed on currency notes and hangs in every Government office of India. Invoking his name carried some weight.

And everyone knew that Gandhiji was a vegetarian all his life. In my child’s  mind, I was quite the equal of Gandhiji! That shut the opposition up. The logic was irrefutable!

It was much later that I started to understand the other aspects of vegetarianism, including its spiritual significance.

Compassion to all living beings- not just in not taking their lives, but in their lifespans too. It is estimated that ten billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption each year. And, unlike the farms of yesteryear where animals roamed freely, today most animals are factory farmed: crammed into cages where they can barely move and are fed a diet tainted with pesticides and antibiotics.(Source: www.vegetariantimes.com).

I had absolutely no concept then of greenhouse gases produced by cattle reared for human consumption. Nor was I even remotely aware of the health benefits of a plant based diet.

The tiny lamp of compassion ignited in me on that long ago day- it has survived steadily and continues to throw light on my path. Today, I understand the sentience of all living beings- human, plant or animal. Before cutting Aloe Vera from the plant thriving in my handkerchief sized garden, before picking a sprig of curry leaves from the Sweet Neem tree, I pause, close my eyes and silently ask permission and give gratitude.

That little creature, my childhood playmate who was served up as the delicacy of the day on someone’s dinner table, he was no playmate at all.

He was a teacher who shaped the life of that ignorant, headstrong, brown skinned little girl, so long ago.


Random Ramblings……….

I have always been mortally afraid of spiders. The sight of a big one, generally saucer sized, never fails to give me palpitations. My eyes dilate, I have difficulty finding my normal speaking voice, my body trembles. In fact it was quite late in life, that I found out that this is a “condition”, which has a name as well as definition and that Hollywood even has a movie named after it!

But in my childhood, growing up in an old house, hailing from a long line of tough, strong and sharp-tongued women, it was nothing but a weakness worthy of contempt.

Our house was at least a venerable seventy-five years old when my father purchased it (circa mid-1960s) and the place was rumoured to be haunted, which was probably the reason my father, an unsentimental Catholic who did not believe in God, let alone ghosts, could buy it for a song. (Nevertheless, he did take the precaution of getting the house “blessed” by the parish priest, who sprinkled holy water all around, while murmuring prayers.) As the story goes, the house had belonged to a local Nair family, whose pretty daughter committed the unforgivable crime of falling in love with a man of a different (read lower) caste. (In the Kerala of those days, this ranked quite high in the scale of stuff-that-is-taboo!) Her family took the corrective step of murdering the young man and staging it as a suicide on the huge and shady jackfruit tree on the upper slope of the property. The heartbroken girl, quite predictably for those times, committed suicide by hanging herself on the same tree. The spirits of the star-crossed lovers haunted the house and property, making life hell for the family who were then forced to sell and move away. Personally, my feeling is that it must have been their guilty consciences, rather than ghosts, since none of us were ever favoured with a visit. Either the holy water did what it was supposed to do or the determined ghosts too went away with the poor Nair family to haunt them afresh!

This house was built in what must have been the current fashion of the early 20th century. Tile roofed, cool in the hottest of summers and a verandah running all along the perimeter. A lot of wood had gone into the building, the beams of the ceiling beautifully carved with flowers, not an identical pair among them! There were two giant doors, constructed from some long ago felled jackfruit tree, somewhat like the doors of fortresses, noisily swinging on their wooden hinges, and with equally huge wooden bolts, the likes of which I have yet to see in any other place. A basement and an attic (accessed by a rickety ladder), both dumping grounds of unwanted and less used things, like the huge bell metal Urulis (taken out only during weddings feast preparations) and which could easily accommodate a decent sized child,  and scary in their different ways. As a bonus, they also served as the breeding grounds of my nemesis- the spider. Located between the two, there was the “Ara” or granary, at the heart of the house, totally constructed out of wood and as I know from experience, pitch black and airless inside, once the single thick wooden door was closed. Our granary stored no grain, but pungent pepper instead, sun dried and tied up in gunny-bags, waiting to be sold and taken to the Cochin port for export. It also was the storage space for another antiquity, the huge thick walled and green-hued glass bottle, which would be filled with coconut oil once a year, extracted after sun-drying the summer coconut crop and stored.

The Urulis played an active role in frightening little children, since their doppelgängers in Hell were supposed to the vessels in which the bubbling hot oil would be waiting for disobedient little children, to be nicely fried by the devils and served up! To this day, I cannot look at the cute and bright miniature Uruli, filled with water and pretty flowers, mandatory accessory in magazine photographs of immaculate drawing rooms,, without remembering those giant vessels in that cobwebby basement (both long gone) and their purported alternative uses!


Anyway, coming back to the topic, I am a closet Buddhist.

The Government questionnaires which demand “Religion?” causes me a lot of angst just as the question “Gender?” might cause a Transgender! I am definitely not a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Jew because I was not born one and has not converted to any of them. I was born a Kerala Syrian Christian, with ancestry purportedly going all the way back to AD 56, which was when St. Thomas (perhaps accompanied by a team of men in search of adventure, since it seems unlikely that he sailed all alone all the way!) landed on the Kerala coast, but it is wishfulness at its best to imagine that this religion will look upon me with favour, since it has been decades since I have conformed to any outward observation of it. (In other words, the Pearly Gates are forever closed off to my poor soul!)

Buddhism, with its emphasis on meditation and non-violence, attracts me. When I start living in my head, spinning glorious tales and alternately, worrying about the future, or re-enacting past dramas, casting myself in a much better light, Buddhism reminds me gently, to live in the present moment.

It also teaches me that all things shall pass. And that all life is sacred!

So far so good! But I live in another ancient house now; and ancient houses have all sorts of hiding places for primitive life forms. Most door and window frames are termite infested; I even had the ignominy of the back door frame falling on my head one day [luckily light, having been almost totally eaten away by termites leaving the painted shell intact], because I had postponed the painful job of catching hold of the carpenters and extracting work out of them, a tad too late. I have made peace with the legions of noisy lizards, darting every which way, and who have worked out among themselves as to who lives where.

But yesterday evening, faced with a big, wicked-looking, black, hairy, eight legged friend and with two shocked children cowering behind the door, my Buddhist principles, unfortunately, deserted me! The phobia faded into the background, still there, but pushed back by the even stronger instinct for safety.

Later, picking up the crumbled body of the spider, (wrong place, wrong time-RIP), I could not help but wonder, what right did I have to take its life? It never harmed me or mine. Yes, the potential for causing harm was present in it, but is it not there in all of us?

As I write this, the world is still coming to terms with the news and visuals of the Malaysian flight MH 17, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which was shot down over Ukraine, killing all on board. While my heart goes out to the unfortunate passengers and their families, I cannot help but feel sympathy for those unknown faceless men, responsible for this tragedy, whose fatal error in judgement caused it. It will not be easy to carry this burden in one’s heart, of having been an unwitting Angel of Death!

On Coffee Blossoms…

The aroma of coffee is a much advertised one. A lovely hot cup of coffee wakes one up, energizes; one faces the day all set to make a success of it. Café Coffee Day outlets in India are tastefully decorated and offer an idyllic setting to catch up with friends or a loved one. I guess it would be the same in any other country too, with variations in the names and themes of the chain.

But I am not marketing coffee;  just sharing a memory.  I was lucky in that I grew up in a small village in Kerala. I was also lucky in that in my childhood, in the season when the few coffee bushes we cultivated were in bloom, I would wake up to the sweet scent of coffee blossoms. It would permeate my dreams- the gentle, happy and innocent childhood ones – and would slowly wake me up with its sheer sweetness. And I would run out to witness this yearly wonder.

Coffee blossoms are small and white; they bloom in the early mornings and are really not much to look at. They form in clusters on the branches of the plant. But how does one describe their perfume? Sweeter than roses or jasmines- poignant, reminiscent of long gone times.

For obvious reasons, no one picked the blooms, which later transformed into clusters of green berries and later ripened into cherry red ones. They would then be picked, dried and sold.

The coffee bushes are no more-   I am no longer the eager child who jumped out of bed and ran to them. But somewhere in a corner of my heart, the now-non-existent village, bushes and the child remain!

The weather of Kerala is highly suitable for growing spices. There was a rich trade as early as 3000 B.C in spices, which were famed in the Western world. My parents grew coconut, pepper, coffee, cinnamon, nutmeg and cocoa in our land. Our lives, my entire education, were paid for by these exotic spices, which found their way to foreign lands from the Cochin port.

The Cinnamon tree, which brought forth the most wonderful pink young leaves in spring, sacrificed the most. The spice cinnamon  is not the berry, but the bark. The tree would be shorn annually and the twigs would be dried in the sun and then the bark removed carefully.

Today the demands of urbanization have transformed my village beyond recognition. Like many Indian villages, mine too continues to live only in cherished memories. Important as progress and development is, despite the strides made in the quality of living, sometimes the nostalgia for things gone by, falls over me like an old, worn and soft blanket.