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.