Complicated food status

“Veg or non-veg?” was a simple question just a few years ago. One ate vegetarian food or enjoyed meat. Some ate both, but by default, became non-vegetarians. Eating non-veg food was a binary variable, either 0 or 1. Even if you ate it once a week, it still made you non-vegetarian.

Vegetarians did not bother what their other halves ate – chicken, mutton, fish or anything else. Almost like there is no meaning in asking vegetarians whether they ate beans, carrot or ash gourd. Each enjoyed their food and if you didn’t want to eat what they did, you simply moved away. If the sight of meat repulsed you, just got up and sat in the next table. Vegetarian children were taught not to screw up faces or make disgusting sounds when encountered with non-veg dishes or a mention of them. To each his own, they were told.

I have been a strict vegetarian for the past 48 years but had many friends who ate only non-veg and perhaps, one dish of a vegetable. I have seen non-veg food, meat being cooked, fish being cleaned and remnants of a non-veg meal.

Initially, it was a great effort to eat alongside a non-vegetarian but slowly I learnt to ignore it. I couldn’t, however, ignore invitations to parties and gatherings just because non-veg food was being served. But, the concept of same ladles and spoons being used for both types of dishes rankled in my mind, and so I learnt to eat only salads and curd. I learnt to smile when a strong smell of kebabs being cooked assailed my nostrils by looking at my host’s friendly smile.

I leant to appreciate when my non-veg friends from different faiths invited veg people for dinner and non-veg people for lunch so that everyone was comfortable. I also liked it when, in weddings, people had separate dining halls for veg and non veg people. I loved it when non-vegetarians visited my house and appreciatively enjoyed a meal of lentils and boiled vegetables. I have welcomed people of different faiths and food preferences into my family and learned to tolerate their culinary tastes.

I can never forget the day when I stepped into an eating joint started by my student, who fondly handed me a bowl of what I thought was twisted vermicelli. It looked yummy with vegetables and capsicums. “This is shrimp stir-fry” he said with pride and I almost choked.

I could not bring myself to even look at it but I didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm by declaring by vegetarian status. “I will eat in leisure and enjoy every morsel. You go ahead and take care of others,” I told him and rushed out.

I spotted a little girl in tattered clothes, peeping in with hungry eyes. “Here, this is for you, but eat fast!” I said. She literally snatched the bowl from my hand and gobbled it in a jiffy. Her bright eyes and angelic smile made my evening. “The food was amazing, especially the shrimp dish!” I said as I waved goodbye to my host, grateful that I had made two people happy by not revealing my veg status.

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