Monday, March 10, 2008

Bond of the Extreme Vegetarians

This article appeared today in The Times of India. It can be found here, but since I'm not sure how long the link will be good, I'm posting it here in full. I thought it was pretty fascinating to read about veganism from a completely different cultural perspective. Plus, the article lists some amazing facts. The vegan Hummer vs. carnivorous bike quote really struck me. Anyhow, enjoy...

Bond of the Extreme Vegetarians
10 Mar 2008, 0141 hrs IST,Sharmila Ganesan,TNN

The girl was perplexed when she heard the interviewer ask, "Are you a virgin?" She managed a meek, "Yes." When she later told her friends about this, they doubled up with laughter. They were sure she had misheard the routine question that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) asks aspiring members —"Are you a vegan?" The question had left some of them equally perplexed once, even though they had heard it right. Most of them thought 'vegan' was just a fancy word for 'vegetarian'. But now the eight PETA volunteers who are sipping hot chocolate made from soya milk in a Juhu café know what 'vegans' means. Because they are.

They are around a coffee table, sharing a chocolate muffin and laughing at the tendency of dairy companies to advertise happy red cows grazing on peaceful green meadows. "Where are these meadows, I would love to see them," says Pooja Joshi. These boys and girls have seen a very different image in real life—depressed cattle with tired udders, despondent fields, and men injecting beasts with oxytocin so that they produce milk faster. Moved by the realities of Indian cattle, Joshi and her friends decided to adopt a way of life called veganism, an extreme form of vegetarianism. They gave up milk and milk products, and everything else whose production involved torture of animals.

Avoiding milk was the easy bit because, "none of us really liked it anyway," says Jalaj Kalra, the most spirited one in the gang. By nature, according to them, nobody likes milk but since society has reinforced it is healthy, people have become habituated. Thirty-two-year-old Dharmesh, a Krishna devotee, feels his favourite god could afford to have milk and butter with a clear conscience because, "in his time, cows were not killed or injected." Noted child paediatrician Dr Spock has in fact apologised in his latest book for advising pregnant women to have milk, says Jayasimha.

Some like Natasha Paul and Pooja Joshi gave up meat to turn vegetarian some years ago, so veganism was only a step further, a steep step but still only a step. Vegetarianism came to them on an impulse. Veganism needed initiation. Twenty-five-year-old Natasha, who decided to go vegetarian one fine afternoon, says it took time to get used to substitutes like soya milk. "I would have only flavored soya milk initially," she says. When they crave cheese or paneer, they have tofu (soya curd). They take coffee and tea black, and scrape off the mayonnaise from their burgers. "It's easy. Just like I used to remove peas from my plate, I now take off things butter, paneer and ghee," says Jalaj.

These vegans try not to preach. "We don't throw blood on people who drink milk," says Natasha, laughing. But they do indulge in subtle efforts to convert the world around them. An inquisitive friend who asks about their habit or a restaurant that hands them a feedback slip are good opportunities. Jayasimha, a soft-spoken 25-year-old, says the introduction of the vegan shake at Café Coffee Day has a history. Every time they visited the place, Jayasimha and others would make it a point to mention in the suggestion slip that accompanied the bill that vegan beverages would be a good idea. After six months of written propaganda, they got a call asking what vegan meant.

In Bangalore, which has a sizeable vegan population, Jayasimha remembers almost convincing one restaurant to change its entire menu to vegan dishes, but unfortunately, the place had to close down. Jayasimha says he does not have a problem sharing a table with a non-vegetarian, but makes it a point after dinner to politely hand the meat-eaters a DVD. It has a deceptive Alicia Silverstone picture on the cover but actually documents animal cruelty.

Veganism is expressed not only through diet. Leather items, silk and woolen clothes and cosmetics are also boycotted. They have convinced Shoppers' Stop to introduce non-leather cat shoes. Also, they have declared Bandra's Linking Road as the unofficial vegan paradise because of the proliferation of shops that sell leather-free footwear. Many shops that claim to sell leather products actually don't. The vegans, obviously, don't mind rexine at all. The subterfuge of companies that sell 'pure ghee' is another beloved practice of the vegans because they really don't mind vanaspati being palmed off as ghee.

It is natural that the vegans are ribbed by their friends. They regularly meet people who have chicken in front of them with loud relish, and those who ask derisively, "So how many animals have you saved today?" Such things are, "target practice," Natasha says, drawing an imaginary bull's eye on her forehead. As a Catholic, she lives with "a family of killers". But they support her veganism. At social functions, she expertly avoids milk by saying I am "lactose intolerant" and even fakes stomach aches to appear convincing. The world around them is increasingly trying to accommodate them. "The dosawala in my locality does not use ghee or butter in my dosa," says Jalaj Kalra, smiling.

Jayasimha says he has never dated a non-vegetarian. "It's not about sharing the table, but sharing your life," he says, adding with a wink, "And anyway, it's proven that vegetarians make better lovers." In US, a make-out vegetarian tour was recently organised, they set up make-out beds where vegetarian couples went at it to drive home the point. "We can't try that here, though it would be fun," says Jalaj Kalra, eyes lighting up.

A popular survey says vegans are very scared to get into relationships with non-vegans, but most members confess it's not really a priority. Pooja Joshi has struck a silent pact with her non-vegetarian husband.

"He eats non-veg food outside (the home). And even that has reduced now," she says. There is an environmental angle too.

Natasha quotes a study that has proven that a vegan driving a Hummer leaves behind a smaller carbon footprint than a non-vegetarian riding a bicycle. There are many other positives too. As one of the vegans says, "It's good for hangover."


Adam Pope said...

Which study is Natasha quoting?

Marni said...

I wish I knew. Upon googling, all entries seem to quote this article:

Perhaps Captain Paul Watson could answer that question. If you find out, I'd love to know.