V. RAJARAMAN says it it tough being avegetarian abroad.
To be a vegetarian in India is to be as inconspicuous as one in a million throng religious mela. But on the TWA flight from London to Chicago, I was the only vegetarian among the three hundred and odd passengers. To my chagrin, the passenger list didn’t show me as a vegetarian – a communication lapse on the part of my travel agent, and as a consequence I was served Chicken soup to begin my dinner.
“ Excuse me, miss,” I said to the air- hostess,” I am a strict vegetarian, not even eggs.” “ Sorry,” she said and removed the bowl of soup swiftly, perhaps fearing my olfactory reactions. She was back in a few minutes with a tray of plums, peaches and apples. “ Excuse me, miss,” I said again, “ I love fruits but I am not a fruitarian.” Apparently, she didn’t seem to know, what a strict vegetarian would take other than fruits. Not to embarrass her any further I made myself clear, “ Can you bring me some vegetable or tomato soup? Even some plain rice and yoghurt would do.” She looked at me for a while, a typical air- hostess smile beaming on her face, and asked, “ Would you like onion- soup?” Now my embarrassment was at its peak. Returning a smile for a smile and plucking some courage I said, “ Normally, I wouldn’t mind at all, but today is a Saturday and as an orthodox Hindu I desist from onions on Saturdays.” The air- hostess did seem to be at her wits’ end but kept her cool. Soon however, I was through a “ shudh” vegetarian meal. A middle- aged Irish gentleman sitting beside me had already finished his dinner and was now engaged in the deft use of a toothpick.
He looked at me now and then but unable to contain his curiosity any longer he turned to me and said politely, “ I see that you are a vegetarian. Are you a Shavian – I mean a follower of George Bernard Shaw?” Had I said ‘ es’ he would have been pleased, for he was Irish and Shaw was Irish too. “ Well,” I said, “ I have been a vegetarian by tradition, in fact by birth into an orthodox Brahmin family.” A few days later, I discovered my importance as a vegetarian. This was in the U. S. A where I visited an International food festival. A large week- end crowd had gathered to taste the finest delicacies of food from China to Peru. As a strict vegetarian, I had to content myself with corn and iced- tea, but only initially.
For soon I noticed round the corner a banner beaming, “ Promote Vegetarianism” and beckoning people into a shamiana of modest dimensions. I walked in with eager steps and was happy to find myself in the midst of many American Vegetarian enthusiasts.
A huge poster displayed the names of eminent vegetarians among whom were Shaw, Tolstoy and Gandhi. A young American observing my patient reading of almost every chart on vegetarianism, asked, “ Are you Indian?” Before I could answer he exclaimed, “ Oh, India is the cradle of vegetarianism.” I said, “ Now it is the graveyard of vegetarianism.” He looked dismayed but I continued, “ Now- a- days,” I said, “ a lot of youth are going in for non- vegetarian food – even Jain boys and girls, though the central teaching of Jainism is non- killing. Kentucky Fried Chicken is the in- thing now.” “ What a pity,” said the young American twice and added, “ Do you know that we have about four million vegetarians in our country and a strong anti- meat lobby?” In the meanwhile a small crowd of curious onlookers joined us, noticing our animating conversation.
Being the only Indian in the crowd, I was identified as one from the land of Mahavira and Gandhi.
One of them who learnt in the process that I was an exchange- faculty teacher in Wisconsin suggested that I should talk about the virtues of vegetarianism to my American students. The suggestion did interest me, but on a second thought, I felt that I should begin with the Indian youth back in my country.