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Friday, October 23, 2015

Feeling Superior: India's dietary brinkmanship

By Swapan Dasgupta

In its October 15 edition, The Telegraph accorded extraordinary prominence to a lecturer of my alma mater, St Stephen’s College in Delhi, who invited a group of friends to an eating joint in Majnu ka Tilla—which, in my university days, was a Tibetan colony that served a potent home-brewed rice beer—for a pork-heavy meal. The lecturer, nominally a Muslim who gave the pork dishes a miss, had a definite objective in mind: to demonstrate that we can and should be accommodative about other people’s food preferences, even when it doesn’t correspond to our own. 

One of the guests, another lecturer at St Stephen’s, is quoted by this paper as having posted a Facebook message that went a step further: “We had among us Hindus, Muslims, Christians and a Sikh! We ate beef, pork, lamb, chicken and vegetables but we did it together and all the while respecting each other’s choices of what to eat and what not to eat! We share concern, anguish and frustration over the fascism that is taking over this beautiful land of ours.” 

Apart from the over-use of the exclamation mark, the Facebook message was revealing. This was no ordinary meal of a group of friends: with the attendant publicity, it was a political protest—somewhat akin to the inter-caste dining that used to be favoured by reformist bodies in the past, but sans a common fare for all. The larger libertarian message was unmistakable: in India, everything goes or, rather, should go. And particularly in the battle against ‘fascism.’ 

Maybe the horrible killing in a Dadri village called for an exceptional protest—what Lenin used to call “bending the stick” in the other direction. On Twitter, a vocal Congress supporter called for a beef-eating protest in front of the Prime Minister’s residence. But it is not surprising that this public grandstanding failed to gather any worthwhile support and was quietly dropped. Nor did the videographed killing of a cow by a pro-Pakistan Islamist leader in the Kashmir Valley—the footage was mischievously distributed through WhatsApp—prompt emulation by her co-religionists. 

Indeed, there was a very mixed message that emanated from the Dadri killing and its aftermath. While there was all-round condemnation of vigilantes who take matters into their own hands and enforce lynch-mob justice, most sensible people felt that diet was too sensitive a subject to be exposed to the whims of either a stubborn religious orthodoxy or insolent libertarians. 

In the course of their private lives, particularly during travels overseas, most middle class Indians have deviated from inherited dietary practices. I know many individuals from shuddh vegetarian households who are not averse to eating meat or fish in restaurants—but rarely permit it to be cooked at home. I know beef eating Hindus and pork eating Muslims. What binds most of these dietary ‘deviants’ aren’t their rebelliousness but an over-weaning desire to keep their experiments with the forbidden as discreet as possible. 

When it comes to food, most Indians have willingly accommodated the sensitivities of others. The joint family structure that set social norms has always deemed that individual preferences should always be subordinated to the prevailing consensus. Few people gratuitously serve pork if there is going to be Muslim guests. Likewise, exceptional care is taken to separate the vegetarian dishes from the meat preparations, in the event that one of the guests is vegetarian. Indian airline companies, apart from separating the vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals, never have either pork or beef on the menu. In the political gatherings of Delhi, the default food—unless expressly stated otherwise—is invariably vegetarian. True, there are exceptions—the Christmas lunches at the clubs of Kolkata come to mind—but in the main, Indians have over the centuries learnt the virtues of taking exceptional care to not needlessly offend others. 

It is certainly true that there is a large element of hypocrisy in India’s dietary brinkmanship. But pretence has always been regarded as preferable to offence. 

The alternative approach has invariably had unhappy consequences. The breaking of caste and religious taboos, for example, was a feature of the Young Bengal rebellion in the early-19th century. Intoxicated by an overdose of western rationalism, young Bengalis—mainly from the upper castes—chose to break down the barriers of what they regarded as superstition and mindless orthodoxy by throwing pieces of beef at unsuspecting Hindus or ‘defiling’ their houses in a similar way. The argument was that the resulting ostracism would force ‘mindless’ Hindus into seeing the light of the true faith. Unfortunately, the young rebels were literally chased out of society by the resulting backlash. 

In his Letters on Hinduism, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was unsparingly scathing about those ‘liberated’ Hindus who tried to impress others with their version of shock and awe. “And what shall I say”, he wrote, “of that weakest of human beings, the half-educated anglicised and brutalised Bengali babu, who congratulates himself on his capacity to dine off a plate of beef as if this act of gluttony constituted in itself unimpeachable evidence of a perfectly cultivated intellect?” 

Bankim babu penned his distaste for the poseurs some 130 years ago, at a time when the terms of upward social mobility were often set with a westward gaze. However, it is remarkable to see the same attitudes replicated in today’s India under the cover of cosmopolitanism and enlightenment. 

Last week, a leading publication devoted to economics and business warned that India’s pitch for foreign investment would suffer grievously if multinational corporations discovered that would not be able to serve to their expat executives. It would have been understandable if the publication had warned of the vitiated atmosphere resulting from anti-beef vigilantism but to suggest that red meat deprivation is an investment hazard seems far-fetched. The lunch room and staff canteens of the corporate group that brings out the publication, for example, has been unwaveringly vegetarian ever since its previous British owners sold out and departed in the late-1940s. This practice has neither affected its market reputation nor jeopardised its business strategies. It has been accepted for what it is: a symbol of one community’s cultural ethos. 

I once asked the manager of the iconic, Michelin star restaurant Waterside Inn, about the eating habits of his corporate clients. He showed me the menu for a dinner hosted by a prominent Marwari businessmen for his European associates: the fare was entirely vegetarian, albeit cooked French style. This Indian businessman too wasn’t squeamish about his socio-cultural moorings.

Whether or not Hindus ate beef in Vedic times is an interesting historical debate. But regardless of the answer, the fact is that beef has been considered a big no-no for as long as we can remember. To not eat beef—or in the case of Jews and Muslims, shun pork—doesn’t automatically rule them out of the cosmopolitanism league. On the contrary, those uber liberals who champion the wearing of T-shirts proclaiming ‘I am a beef eater’ (in French, presumably) betray an inferiority complex. 

The St Stephen’s lecturer was arguing that faith and food shouldn’t go hand in hand. The sub-text of his demonstrative protest was that, maybe, we should be more like either Christians or Communists—whose food preferences are determined by individual tastes alone. But the fact is Indians have their own values and eating beef isn’t a obligatory attribute of Indian-ness. Making a fetish of it offends common decencies. There are more wholesome ways of conducting a protest against a vegetarian Prime Minister who unfailingly observes the Navratra fast, regardless of where he is. However, if you want to show you are different and superior… 

The Telegraph, October 23, 2015


Harish Maru said...

Insulting devout traditional Hindu by throwing beef at temple- is it not murdering him by telling him as person of no respect? Why would he not react violently at this violence?

Sushant Sareen said...

Brilliant as always.

Haris V.P said...

Could have made this a lot shorter if the author has decided to avoid the laborious sweetening up tactics, while fuming all along, which is the case anyway. It is obvious that the "Superio" camp is getting continously hit where it hurts

Anonymous said...

A few points:

1. do not underestimate the power of diet in influencing the choice of a place. While a red meat-free city may not deter everyone from living there and hence may not affect investment decisions, a great many are still persuaded to avoid a city or a region and therefore may chose to not invest, especially if their business model involves dispatching personnel along with investment. Japanese investment in India is not very big even today partly due to the fact that Japanese executives do not enjoy living in India; one of their main complaints is about the quality of food -- the absence of Japanese food.

2. our "cosmopolitan" crowd has totally missed the point on this one: in the west the intellectual and progressives are more likely to be vegetarian and the more Bhaiyya log to be hardcore meat eaters. Isn't it very odd then that our "intellectual and progressive" should be inspired by the western bhaiyya log? perhaps in their hurry to berate everything desi they are oblivious about this?

3. Bankim Chandra's observations was spot on. But wasn't it also British opinion about the same people? Of course, their observations were about the westernized Bengali, but that was the only place in India where one could find a westernized Indian? that observation could be equally applied to our large anglicized, and effete class through out India?

Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay said...

A very very very nuanced analysis Sir. You are always able to catch the pulse of the matter.

I was born and brought up outside India - yet I never ate beef and never felt the need to have it and there was no parental pressure.

But today what is happening here in the name of beef is nothing but a CONSPIRACY to defame and malign India, to discredit Hinduism and to break India.

I am not an expert like majority of readers in this forum, but in my opinion 3 anti-Indian forces have JOINED HANDS to destroy India from inside:
a. SAUDI FUNDAMENTALIST, typified by red gamcha, long beards and Bollywood
b. COMMUNISTS, typified by NDTV, The Hindu and India Today

They are using English Media, JNU-DU and BOLLYWOOD as their mouthpiece to target, demotivate and brainwash so-called English educated youth.

It is clear that these enemies of Hindustan are AFRAID of an ASCENDANT HINDU DHARMIC CIVILIZATION spearheaded by the TERRIFIC TRIO - MODI - PARRIKAR - DOVAL!!!

My message is plain and simple: "Those who want to have beef SHOULD GO TO SAUDI OR PAKISTAN OR AMERICA. In India they must RESPECT Indian Hindu-Parsi-Jain-Sikh-Buddhist heritage."

Amit said...

Polite n concise, over ruling ppl who find it lengthy coz truth is an item no: for them! Swapan da, what irritates is sheer insensitivity of the so called AdarshLiberals n Leftist Moral Compass of our society, the dare of throwing BeefParties specially during the Holy month of Shrads n Navratrav is termed as Fundamental right by our Dubious Media Heads. The mistake of equating of Beef to Pork is an attempt to dilute the issue as Muslims DONT pray to Pigs, whereas Hindus consider Cows as Sacred n pray to them. So the issue of Killing of Cows as an open dare to Hindus is getting support from all the wrong people and fuelled n supported by our Notoriously Rabid Media. I hope, over a period of time, the truth n bigotry of handful of Anti-Natioinals will get fully exposed...something like 2002 truth of Sabotaging Modi n Shah by Cong n its pawns like Teesta, MSM n Sanjiv Bhatt!

Abhinav said...

The eloquence and logical construct of the article leaves me speechless. Made me reflect into my own cultural upbringing in between paragraphs. Swapan sir, yours is the voice for sanity amidst this hail of (for lack of better words) excrement.

Sandip Ghose said...

Even in G D Birla's time - he set up the "Century Club" in Century Bhavan (Birla Group HQ in Bombay) which produced the finest Western Style Vegetarian Food - with Chefs trained in Switzerland and France - with white gloves silver service. I was engaged in quite a protracted twitter war with some lady journalists that day when the report came out in that haloed pink paper - which you may have caught.

Unknown said...

Hans VP is right. Swapan's point (in short) is that the will of the majority must prevail and to hell with the rest. It is telling that of all the promises made by the BJP on governance, blackmoney, inclusivity, its only the priority of the RSS that has been fulfilled. The Mumbai government's almost first act in power was to ban beef eating, with draconian punishment.
Swapan dismisses the writers and those who protest against this assault on free choice as pseudo, self publicity yearning intellectuals.
He forgets that he is an "intellectual" himself albeit one who has surrendered his own intellectual impartiality in favour of the current political flavour, shown by the VHP, Bajrang Dal and the RSS.

Anonymous said...

Indians' distorted view and expectations of an intellectual is that he/she be anti-Indian and pro non-Indian. I've been an NRI for over 20 years and I've observed that invariably an intellectual Indian introduces himself as "originally" from India, as though it no longer applies to him.

Yogesh_S said...

I think caring for others is rooted well in Indian society for ages. Like swapan said we prepare veg food separately even if one guest is vegetarian. This pseudo western Indians who somehow want to show off that they are modern and polished simply by copying western dressing and eating are laughed off by many. Caring for others is a critical ingredient for our unity. We should not let these psycho liberals like Sagarika Ghosh to divide society just because they get some money to do that!

Jitendra Desai said...

Well said.In India non Hindus must learn to respect the sentiments of overwhelming majority of Hindus for whom beef eating is a sacrilege.

Anonymous said...

I believe in protecting the secular values of our country. Our secular values differentiate us from nations like Pakistan, Saudi, Israel, etc and this has what makes our nation great. We know the fate of countries where the government dictates religious beliefs.
Beef eating has never been such a big issue in India until recently with the right wing government imposing restrictions on our secular values. Our secular value comes with a simple rule - do as you want, as long as it doesn't bother others. If you are not a beef eater, and as long as you are not being forcibly fed beef, what is the damn issue?
On the other hand, concentrate on issues that attach our secular values. Attack Islamic radicals/fundamentals/terrorists. Not common folk who just enjoy a good beef kebab. Attack those institutions that forcibly convert people by exploiting their economic depravity.

anjansingh said...

The way you put it, helps me clear my mind! You are always a good read.

Anonymous said...

Another pointless argument like your many other you speak on television. Not surprised as you did not care to write about the only interesting argument about eating non veg in Vedic times. It will help clear the misplaced priorities.