One friend looks at me, his eyes round and imploring, “But it’s my birthday!” Another concedes: “Fine, I’ll try half. But I’m going to feel really dirty if I like it and it’ll be your fault”. Welcome to the world of vegetarian shaming…and I’m not even a vegetarian.
If you grew up non-vegetarian in India, chances are you’ve faced some amount of scorn at the hands of at least one vegetarian classmate, colleague, or sanctimonious relative who decided to turn against everything your family holds dear (read: meat) in their quest for a better lifestyle. Today, however, things have changed. While you’ll still see countless restaurants boasting ‘Pure Veg’ signs, you’re more likely to see shamefaced or defensive vegetarians confessing to their dietary preferences than meat eaters who are ashamed of their carnivorous ways. Loud and proud seems to be the non-vegetarian motto and they (okay, fine, we) are not afraid to voice our disdain for our comrades on the greener end of the spectrum — and without much thought to how they feel about it, I should add.
So we investigate. What is it like to be relentlessly mocked for your food choices? Putting out that question on Twitter prompts a flood of replies– mostly from aggrieved vegetarians. Answers range from “I was just teased about it an hour ago LMAO” to the slightly more defensive “When they say ‘Plants are also livings things’, I say, ‘A tree grows back, a goat’s head doesn’t’, and walk away. Good enough?” (Nihit Bhave aka@misterbistar). And in between the complaints, the cries of “They’re always trying to get me to eat meat!” and the more serious “Every once in a while there’ll be an asshole who asks, ‘Is this a religious thing for you?’ like that’s something to be ashamed of.” (Sonali aka@KolhapuriChapal), is the inevitable gibe from a staunch non-vegetarian: “ghasphus khanewala”.
Which brings us to the why – what is it about vegetarians that make us feel the need to constantly crack jokes (“If you love animals so much, why do you eat their food?”) at their expense? Nirmitee Mehta (@pageafternext) believes it’s the equivalent of cracking a dumb blonde joke — people just can’t help themselves. On a more serious note, she believes there could be some amount of resentment that’s built up due to certain factions of vegetarians who treat non-vegetarians like entities to be segregated and shunned (vegetarian-only building societies, we’re looking at you). But does that make it okay to take it out on your vegetarian friend? I’m beginning to think definitely not.
Sure, I’ll admit to being one of those insufferable non-vegetarians with a superiority complex about the food I eat, but in a country like India, where there is such a staggering amount of vegetarian dishes within each regional cuisine, what is there to feel superior about really? You know that quote about Ginger Rodgers doing everything Fred Astaire did backward and in heels? The same applies for vegetarian communities — they’ve managed to create delicious dishes without the help of meat (heck! The Jains have done it without onions and garlic too!) — and it doesn’t stop at traditional Indian dishes either. With more and more restaurants and chefs finally turning to India’s treasure trove of local produce, we’re seeing a renaissance of beautifully prepared, modern vegetarian dishes that go so far beyond pasta pink sauce and gobi Manchurian. Sure, non-vegetarians have the option to try both dishes, but who’s to say which is better than the other? Surely it’s all a matter of taste? And then, even if a non-vegetarian enjoys a vegetarian meal, it always comes as a surprise. Nirmitee, whose family owns a number of vegetarian restaurants says,“We routinely receive remarks saying,‘I don’t eat veggie but I like the food at your place – it doesn’t make me miss meat!’”
And of course, even if we’re happy to let our vegetarian friends eat what they want, there’s always that tendency to dismiss them when it comes to opinions on food. In fact, even Nirmitee, who’s grown up with the restaurant business in her blood (and happens to be someone who knows and loves good food), makes her seem like an unreliable source when it comes to food recommendations: “The mocking takes the form of remarks like ‘What do you know about food? You’re a vegetarian’ to ‘You’re missing out on so much in life’”.How does this make her feel? “It doesn’t really bother me because I know why I’m a vegetarian(eating something that once breathed, moved, had actual thoughts makes me uncomfortable). It just gets so annoying when that becomes an hour-long ‘let’s make fun of the vegetarian’ joke session. You do your thing, I’ll do mine.”which, at the end of it all, is pretty great advice.
So while it might take me some time to finally get rid of my compulsive urge to make jokes about vegetarians, I’m definitely coming around to the plight of the much-maligned “ghasphus eater”. Oh, and my friend? He loved those vegetarian dumplings. Sorry, man.