Sunday, September 02, 2012

Dilemmas of an environmentalist vegetarian

"Why did you become a vegetarian ?"

This is a question I dread replying to, but I get asked every other time. There are two reasons I don't like this question - firstly, I don't like lecturing people on my personal habits, and  secondly, I don't completely know the answer myself.

I hardly ate any meat for the first 16 years of my life as I  grew up in a culturally vegetarian family in South India, though our family was not religious at all. Then  I went to the university, realized I didn't have any objections to eating meat, and decided to give it a try. In the beginning, it was awfully hard; a regular meat eater cannot imagine the horror of a first timer tugging into flesh. But I slowly got used to it and rejoiced in the expansion of the menu when I ate outside.

In India, there is a long history of vegetarianism and it is quite easy to find vegetarian food wherever you go. There is indeed a prejudice against meat eaters,  various communities getting placed in the caste hierarchy according to the supposed purity of their vegetarian habits. Growing up in a liberal and atheistic household, I definitely hated the squeamish habits of vegetarians and their supposed smugness and superiority. It is only as I grew older, and specifically after I came abroad, that I found other reasons to be vegetarian.

Simply put, the world eats far too much meat these days. It is not possible to sustain these habits of a highly concentrated and urbanized population, without wrecking havoc on the environment and treating animals with monstrous cruelty. That is exactly what industrial meat production does, and people buying meat on supermarket shelves are oblivious to it. For the most part of human history, people living in agricultural settlements didn't eat more than one portion of meat per week.

Eating meat has the most severe impact on the environment : both on carbon footprint and on the often-overlooked water footprint. Producing 1 kg of beef requires 15400 liters of fresh water, in terms of animal feed production etc. When meat  is produced on industrial scales to cater to the daily hunger of consumers, this impact percolates globally onto the most sensitive ecosystems of the planet. Rainforest gets chopped up for animal rearing, and for soy-farming to produce animal feed. I find this unconscionable as a human being, as species-extinction rates rocket up and ecological niches shrink alarmingly small for even the surviving animal species. I know my personal eating habits can hardly change the course of human and planetary history, but I decided to be a vegetarian as a way to remind myself (daily) of this problem, as I forego meat on my dinner plate. For this same reason, I have been eating less and less meat for the last 2 years, but three months ago, I decided to call it quits and call myself an environmentalist vegetarian.

But I don't want to pontificate, or proselytize, or piss off anyone.

Everybody needs to live their lives according to their own dreams and desires. But I think it is not wrong to ask anyone to be more conscious of themselves, and of their choices, and of their impact on others. Being conscious at an intellectual level is the unique gift of human existence. To quote my favorite vegetarian - Albert Einstein "..A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving..." I think it is not just men, but we should be equally thankful towards the various animals and plants that share this planet with us, and on whom we depend for our everyday lives. I do think meat tastes delicious. If and when I eat meat, I would at least like to relish that moment, to honor the animal that I am eating. I welcome everyone to think this way, to not eat meat as a machine but as a human, and most importantly, to not waste the meat on their plates. I don't think one needs to be a complete vegetarian to share my sentiments.

Being a vegetarian is then simply a symbolic gesture for me - an aid to remind myself of the alarming state of our environment. In this situation, being a vegetarian is not as straightforward as it is for people who are in it for other reasons - ethics, religion, animal rights etc.. I will share with you some of my dilemmas, please comment to share your thoughts on them.

Dilemma #1 :  What to do when meat is placed accidentally on my plate ?

A couple of months ago, I was in Cannes (France) for a small holiday. It is very hard to find vegetarian fare in France, but I found a place recommended on TripAdvisor - Cocoon restaurant. My dilemma stems from my experience there. I asked the lady who was the patron of the restaurant if one could find vegetarian dishes. Indeed, she said, and listed a few from the menu. There was also an item "vegetarian lasagne" that was not on the menu, but was the speciality of the day. This was fresh for me to see, who was used to hearing the only vegetarian item on a restaurant's menu being a salad or a goat-cheese. I decided to go with the "vegetarian" lasagne, but it turned out to contain some chicken.  The lady apologized profusely - this was not a regular item on the menu, and she didn't know that it contained chicken that day - and offered to serve me a completely new dish. I said okay, but after a few minutes, realized that probably the plate served to me would be thrown away. I hurried to the lady and asked that I would rather eat that plate, and would not like to see the food wasted. But she convinced me that the food would not be wasted and somebody would eat it, and served me the other dish.

But this incident gave me my first dilemma with my vegetarianism, and obviously, I don't know for sure to this day if the first plate was simply dumped into a bin.

Dilemma #2: Can I eat meat while flying a plane ?

Taking a long distance flight is probably the easiest means within the reach of a normal individual to wreck the maximum havoc onto the environment in the course of a day. On that day, one would be partially culpable of not only the fuel consumption on the flight, but also of the associated bells and whistles of keeping the airline industry up and running. If, like me, one was flying to the USA on United Airlines in economy class, one would also be up against low quality food and entertainment on the flight. The vegetarian option on the menu that day was "pasta in tomato sauce", which was the same on my return flight. I wasn't sure if I really had to eat it, or just eat the grilled chicken which was the other item on the menu, and which definitely looked a bit more appetizing. I bit my lips and swallowed the pasta. But I am not sure if it was really required when I was generally having a field day against the environment - guzzling lots of gas and swooshing up the skies.

Dilemma #3: Should I eat Bratkartoffeln

Bratkartoffeln are yummy potato fries served in a German Biergarten. I love them totally. They come in two varieties : simple potatoes, or potatoes with little bits of speck (bacon) in them - which are obviously tastier. What if the place only had the second variety ? Often, as I pondered on this dilemma, I decided to go with eating the bratkartoffeln with speck. This dish contains such a small amount of meat that it hardly has any environmental impact, but also I guess the amount of hassle needed for a small restaurant or biergarten to maintain two versions of bratkartoffeln for its consumers  - more dishes, oil, cleaning liquid - would have more environmental impact.

Dilemma #4: What if I am invited by someone and there are only meat-based dishes to eat ?

This dilemma is pretty similar to the previous one. I decided that in such a situation, I would just eat the meat, to not only reduce the hassle, but also to not unnecessarily hurt anyone who would be sad that I am not partaking their food.

Dilemma #5: Should I speak or should I shut up ? 

This is probably the biggest dilemma. What to do if somebody questions me on my vegetarianism ? I do think it will be nice if more people share my beliefs and eat less meat, may be even become vegetarians themselves. It is even necessary for our environment, and for all the animal and plant species whose survival is in  precarious conditions, that such a mind shift occurs in the global human population. But at the same time, I definitely not like to see myself as "purer" or "better" than others, just because of my eating habits.  I am a radical liberal, and I believe passionately that we need to accept people for what they are - irrespective of their personal beliefs and lifestyle choices. Food is one of the most personal elements of  anybody's lifestyle, and I don't want to lecture anyone about it. Certainly, I don't want to go ballistic a la PETA. I would like to be seen as a quiet and nice guy who keeps to himself. So what should I do ?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dystopian Nostalgia : A review of "Between the Assassinations" by Aravind Adiga

I have recently begun reading the novel "Between the assassinations" by Aravind Adiga. I am now more than half-way through the novel. Reading this book has been an interesting experience for me - simultaneously producing a mellow longing for the India of my childhood years and a deeply unpleasant feeling about the troubles that benighted that era. In the book, Adiga creates a portrait during the 1980s of a middle-sized town along the southern coastal belt of India. He locates his imaginary town "Kittur" along the south-western Tulu coast near Mangalore. Even though I grew up on the other horizontal end of India, in the Godavari delta on the south-eastern coast, many of Adiga's narrative portraits apply equally well to this region.

The assassinations in the book's title refer to those of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. I was less than ten years old during the timeline of this book, so I had a very vivid but childlike perspective on the happenings around me. When I grew older, I immediately left home for my education. I spent the past half of my life either living abroad or focussed on engineering and technologies; thus I hardly had any eye over the lives of real people in India. India today is quite different from the stories that Adiga narrates, but many of the portraits that he draws of people and places still remain. Furthermore, my own experiences of India remain etched in that distant memory. So reading this book has been like reliving my childhood years through an adult's eye. As one can imagine, this is hardly pleasant.

Adiga reminds me of another Indian writer in English who built a distinctive portrait of south Indian life during the early 1900s - the inimitable R.K.Narayan. Narayan, of course, has imagined the charming town of Malgudi and the fascinating inner lives of its denizens. I do think Adiga's Kittur falls quite short of the narrative gifts of the earlier master, but he shows quite a promise.

So what is unpleasant about Adiga's stories ? As a child, I hardly had the time to ponder about the personal lives of many of the people I encountered daily : the Hamali who carried two large back-breaking sacks of rice husk from the rice-flake factory (on the grounds of which we played cricket) to a distant brick kiln, the Brahmin widow who spent all her time chanting the lord's names, the pot-bellied teacher in the school who despised his pupils but at the same time tried to coax the best out of some of them, the begging children of the agricultural laborers who arrived on each harvesting season to work on the paddy fields, the little kid who cleared the tables in the breakfast hotel as hungry customers demanded their daily Dosas, the grocery stall owner who sold his wares in rapid-fire manner to his customers standing in long queues.. These are people who existed for me only in the fleeting moments that I passed them by. Their personal lives had no import nor relevance to my world. The characters of Adiga mirror many of these same people, and this forced me to examine their personal lives in gritty detail, as each one of them carried through a daily struggle to survive and to secure their own place in the society. As an adult, I can now see these battles for survival and the insecurities that come with them, with more sympathetic eyes and with clearer parallels to my own life.

Any writer of substance should have a keen eye for smells, as it is these smells that add colours and depth to an otherwise distant portait. Adiga is definitely a master in capturing those smells - pleasant, pungent, piquant and putrid, all of them. I am not a happier man for reading his stories, but definitely a wiser man. And may be, that's how I should judge him as a writer and this is why I am recommending him to my friends, especially to those who are living abroad and forgot a part of themselves in an India of the past.