Flesh of my Flesh

Eating relatives in non-human forms sets into motion serious thinking about the absence of choice that characterizes the life of an animal

Ratna Raman Delhi 

If only we lived in a simple world where how we lived and what we ate in order to do so did not lie at the centre of a huge debate! Unfortunately, as late entrants in the evolutionary history of the planet, we are caught in the midst of very complex systems and propelled by choices, oft times already made
for us.

My immediate ancestors were vegetarian and lived in present-day Tamil Nadu. This was corroborated by two sets of grandparents who were austere in their espousal of vegetarianism. Everyday life with my grandparents was structured around ritual fasts and moderate feasts. Onions were taboo in my grandmothers’ worldviews as their sulphuric fumes were straight out of hell and a portion of Yudhistir’s curse directed at Kunti and all women had engulfed the hapless onion.

Garlic was a non sequitur and arguments that it kept vampires away and contributed to immunity levels never cut much ice with my grandmothers, who ran refrigerator-less kitchens their entire lives. The quantum leap my parents made in their nuclear family was to introduce onions and garlic in abundance, after being persuaded of their vegetable nature. In fact, even more daringly, eggs and processed cheese made with rennin from the fourth stomach of the cow found their way into our kitchen and perched on refrigerated shelves in those early days.

The sense of shock in England accrued from the lack of ethical treatment to horses and the average equestrian English person refused to be cowed down by data highlighting the low-fat, low-cholesterol, good protein and high fibre quality of horsemeat

My father, the more adventurous of my parents, experimented with chicken and mutton and fish in the safety of restaurants and occasionally nudged us in the same direction. Despite the occasional egg, every variation of fish and fowl was forbidden at home. Gandhi’s account of stealing money and eating mutton on the sly and nightmarishly imagining a goat bleating protests inside his stomach was narrated at regular intervals. It is quite possible, given our sultry, tropical climate, that the meat Gandhi consumed was not of the freshest and might have given him food poisoning.

This conclusion was derived after long years spent unravelling the nature of food but, when I was very young, the protesting goat was very real and returned often to haunt me for many days at a stretch, sometimes at intervals of months.

Although I ate only eggs, the eggs hatched into little chicks inside my stomach and followed me everywhere, rather in the manner of Mary’s lamb, except these were inside my stomach and caused quite a flutter. As a result, I would often pass up on eating eggs, resuming consumption long after the flutter died down.

My anxieties about source foods growing in my stomach were not confined to eggs. Every apple pip or orange seed I swallowed accidentally had the threatening potential of digging roots through my intestines and becoming a large tree. These stomach traumas notwithstanding, at some point I grew up with a slant towards vegetarian food, with a healthy addition of dairy and eggs.

Mutton, chicken and fish existed outside the perimeters of our lives and, of course, we never ate beef. Beef was not part of my father’s adventures and we ate enough of the best products of the cow. Ghee made from the butter extracted from cow’s milk is truly delicious, and far more flavourful than the butter from buffalo or yak milk, and ghee after all is the distilled essence of cow, is it not? It seemed a kind gesture, not to really want to go the whole cow, in this case.

  Chaucer’s Prioress owned pet dogs and fed them choice morsels of flesh. Yet, she was so kind-hearted that the traumatic sight of trapped mice left her weeping

So, while the edges of our faith were frayed enough in terms of practice, not eating cow came from a sort of thankfulness for the abundant stuff the cow provided for us while alive and the recognition that we consumed the hide in the form of bags, purses, belts and shoes. Abstaining from eating beef stemmed mostly from acquired cultural practice, not from injunctions cast in stone. The fetishizing of the cow as a sacred animal is only one part of the story. On the commercial fast track, the hapless cow is a mere assembly line item and human intervention in cow life has always been cruel and manipulative. Hormone-injected cows produce more milk while their young calves have no access to any udder milk. Both remain daily victims of supposedly enlightened dairy farming methods.

Had there been a heroine among cows, such as Poo Lorn among elephants or Black Beauty among horses, more people would have emoted with the endless cruelty that this animal faces throughout life. The mythological cow, the desire-fulfilling Kamadhenu, only contributes to spiralling human greed. Vishwamitra went to war to get Kamadhenu from Vashishta, while the illustrious Kuru Vansh  regularly  captured  their opponent’s kine as part of planned battle strategy. Nandi, the celestial bull, endorses the endless cycle of exploitation of bulls which is lived out by Hira and Moti in Premchand’s narrative.

The eaters of the produce of the cow and the labour of bulls are implicated in the violence and in the enormous cultural detritus deifying the cow. Therefore, those who wish to eat cow cannot forever be made to eat crow by those who do not eat cow.

In recent times, incensed cow-worshippers went on a rampage when a beef-eating festival was organized. Subsequently, another set of protests was organized, demanding rights for eaters of beef. Restricted access to beef (and meat during Navratras and Ram Navami, for example) was dubbed “food fascism”. Beef consumption was appropriated as an important mode of Dalit empowerment.

Beef is far less expensive than either mutton or chicken, yet this cannot allow it to be touted as empowering food at a time when, worldwide, the harmful effects of red meat consumption are being abundantly documented. Indians are seen as genetically prone to hypertension, high cholesterol levels and heart disease. Red meat is seen as the harbinger of many lifestyle diseases by health experts.

On Junior Masterchef, even children turn out incredible dishes. The finest collection of meats, condiments, food materials, speaking opulence and wealth, are showcased. Here is an artificially induced world of plenty, completely insulated from the real world of the starving

Could we view these empirical studies objectively when most responses to food remain coloured by the fractures and fissions of community and caste?

Arguably, with many food taboos on the decline and with food being very visible, the public sphere is flooded with a surfeit of display, availability and consumption that is part of the well-heeled urban dweller’s everyday experience. The physicality and audio-visual perception of food has now replaced a whole lot of older cultural traditions and associations.

Food shows on innumerable channels showcase the exotic and the offbeat in food preferences. On Junior Masterchef, even children turn out incredible dishes. Food episodes reveal a globalization of food that is astounding. The finest collection of meats, condiments and food materials, speaking opulence and wealth, are showcased. Here is an artificially induced world of plenty, completely insulated from the real world of the hungry and the starving. In its place are insulated show kids with little intrinsic understanding of food beyond the robust illiteracy of carbs, proteins, fats and sugars.

Most of them said that they had never seen such enormous pantries before. During one episode, a live hen wanders into the kitchen. This triggers off a little girl’s anxiety about catching the hen, killing it and then cooking it. Matt Preston assures everyone of the long happy life of that particular chicken. The food show narrative is not meant to push any further since, generically, eaters of other living beings always innoculate themselves by short-circuiting thought processes.

Between the dead and the living animal lies the wall and thus all links and connections are erased. Convictions of this kind propel an international event, celebrated by America every year on Thanksgiving Day. A presidential pardon grants one turkey life while all its other living peers are slaughtered without exception. Closer home we slaughter goats on Bakri Id. Fox hunts are part of royal traditions and in the Occident, the Orient and the New World, all manner of beast and bird is hunted for sport. Nag Panchami’s auspiciousness compels us to feed milk to snakes, oft times forcibly and results in countless dead snakes. Then, of course, there are brutal animal sports that we periodically stage such as bullfights and cockfights.

 Had there been a heroine among cows, such as Poo Lorn among elephants or Black Beauty among horses, more people would have emoted with the endless cruelty that this animal faces throughout life. The mythological cow, the desire-fulfilling Kamadhenu, only contributes to spiralling human greed

My favourite example of the double standard practised by meat-eaters dates back to the 14th-century Prioress in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Usually from aristocratic families, prioresses joined nunneries as young women in the absence of marriage-enabling dowries. Religious life choices of piety, poverty and austerity did not really factor in pets which were forbidden by law.

Chaucer’s Prioress, however, owned pet dogs and fed them choice morsels of flesh. Yet, she was so kind-hearted that the traumatic sight of trapped mice left her weeping. Tender emotion for a select few in one species, denied in entirety to other species, continues to inform the way humans the world over respond to other living beings.

Pythagoras, who espoused both vegetarianism and the notion of rebirth, makes the most insightful case for vegetarianism. After all, meat-eating humans ingesting the flesh of a beloved ancestor inhabiting another life form, inadvertently evoke associations with cannibalism. Eating relatives in non-human forms certainly puts evolution on the fast track, but also sets into motion serious thinking about the absence of choice that characterizes the life of an animal.

Fasting and non-consumption of animal flesh has occupied ritualistic practice in different religions the world over. Such practice possibly enabled the growth of self-restraint, austerity and compassion in agrarian societies where the fatted calf continues to be butchered on occasions such as the return of the prodigal son.

It is only in more recent, modern times that civic society has discovered the rights of animals in a minor way. When we closed our ears to doctrinal influence and shut our eyes to the cruelties sanctioned against animals, groups such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA-1824) came into being. Inspired SPCAs were set up all over the First World in the 19th century, extending to the US and New Zealand. Yet, given the skewed nature of politics, well into the 20th century, extant rules allowed you to put down both mad dogs and mad elephants (1) although the situations call for very disparate remedies. The SPCA and now PETA have been largely unable to ensure ethical treatment for all living creatures.

The recent horsing around with beef products in the international markets is yet another instance of how food preferences continue to be strange and the engagement of a select minority. Beef-eaters in the UK, horse-worshippers of a kind, were outraged at finding well-loved equines inside food packaging. The sense of shock in England accrued from the lack of ethical treatment to horses and the average equestrian English person refused to be cowed down by data highlighting the low-fat, low-cholesterol, good protein and high fibre quality of horsemeat. Big names in packaged beef withdrew their products from the English market but did brisk business in Spain and other parts of Europe where their products continued to move off the shelves at a gallop. Meat of horse and donkey are apparently delicacies in distant China.

Food preferences often tend to be arbitrary and are firmly located in the realm of associative connections. Food preferences also follow an illogical trajectory. The latest buzz doing the rounds these days is the apparent food-worthiness of insects, which are epicurean delicacies in many cultures.

Maybe now is a good time to shift from the octane-driven food squabbles of  abundance  and the crammed convenience-food lanes to engage with the urgent food requirements of  the very many who sometimes have little access to their daily single morsel. Maybe it is time to reduce carbon footprints and turn into locovores.

Last month, solutions to malnutrition in Asia and Africa rooted themselves firmly around the quick-growing and yielding drumstick tree (Moringa oleifera). Its leaves and long, tapered stick-like fruit are powerhouses of high protein, on a par with the proteins of eggs and milk. Perhaps more discoveries along these lines would allow for less blood-letting.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2013