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