Towards a better future OUR RESTAURANT REVIEWER AMOL RAJAN OPENS UP ABOUT HIS CONVERSION TO (PART-TIME) VEGETARIANISM
IF ANY of you had the privilege of growing up, as I did, the child of Indian parents in a Western setting, you might have a sharp recollection of the first time you ate meat. Despite the habits of a growing number of modern Indians, Hindus are essentially herbivores, and so for the first 15 years of my life it was all idli, dhosa, rasam, poori, bhaji, palak paneer and the like - admittedly not a bad deal for a grown-up, let alone a spoilt kid, which is why I ended up as fat as I did. But when the moment came for the adolescent Englishman in me to assert his dominance over an Indian inheritance, it was through an act of meat-eating defiance. I remember it like it was yesterday.
My father, brother and I were within sight of a Dallas Chicken at the bottom of Franciscan Road in Tooting, from whose greasy depths the salted odour of fried poultry wafted out and under our nostrils. We were hungry, having done the Saturday-morning grocery run. My brother, being older and the rebellious type - think James Dean in a Nehru suit - had already tasted animal flesh, and boasted of its puberty-inducing properties (I was a late developer). Unwilling to confront, for the umpteenth time, his hormonal eldest, my father ceded to a request for us to quell the pangs in our bellies by heading in. Being vegan, he wouldn't touch the chicken; naturally I would have been happy with just chips.
Imagine my surprise, then, when, unbeknown to me, my brother ordered for the both of us, and I was told that what sat, hot and steaming, in the box before me was a chicken burger. This was a challenge to my nascent manhood; and, not wanting to make myself a candidate for a ribbing from a brother with a belly full of chicken, I indulged.
Three separate aspects of that experience are imprinted on my memory. The first is being horribly aware that my father was staring at me during this virginal experience, a fact confirmed by his question: "How does it taste, Amol?" The second was the answer to that question. Fatty, hot, bread-crumbed chicken with lettuce and mayonnaise for company is one of the finer pleasures yet conjured by our species, and no less appreciated for being delivered to a teenage palate. The third thing, accentuated sharply by the former two, was a sense that what I was doing was somehow naughty, an act of mischief. To the uninitiated, the act of eating another mammal's flesh is in a fundamental sense an act of transgression, the crossing of an invisible moral rubicon that compromises your capacity, if not to be human, then certainly Hindu. I think it was about three weeks later that I decided I was atheist.
For the following 15 years, I happily ate meat of every kind - the rarer, the better. But something of that sense of transgression sat, marinating in guilt, in the recesses of my imagination. I know this because on a visit to India at the turn of this year I decided to become vegetarian, and it was when confronting a greasy bit of chicken, and thinking about the Franciscan Road challenge half a lifetime earlier, that my tentative re-conversion was secured.
Moral conversions are generally sudden and dramatic. Evangelical types are especially prone to boasting of the following phenomena: visitations from angels, conversations with our Maker, near-death experiences, that sort of thing. My conversion was, I'm afraid, a much more tedious affair. I became vegetarian again because of a nagging sense that it was the right thing to do, and, though a few particular events pushed me over the hurdle, it was the culmination of a process that lasted years. There was no conference with the faithful, or celestial seminar; just the slow and steady erosion of moral resistance.
Like all ethical positions, not eating meat is a matter of both theory and reality, principle and practice. And the two chief characteristics of vegetarianism are that it is right and boring. …