Are Vegetarians Second Class Citizens?
The smell of meat fills the office shuttle.
I turn around in my seat, twice. The first time to check if it is really meat he is eating, and the second time after I muster up courage to say “Sir, is that meat? The smell is overwhelming”. This time, I did not want to let it go. Last month my co-workers steak was killing me, and I had suffered in silence sitting opposite him, holding my breath.
The man in the bus complies, but only for a few minutes. He resumes huddling over his to-go box, tearing the chicken, re-filling the bus with the stench. My opinion does not matter to him.
I am a vegetarian by birth. I don’t eat meat, fish or eggs. I don’t touch meat and I am strict about it. Easy enough in India, incredibly hard outside.
It is a warm Sunday morning, when I groggily enter south beach cafe to wake myself up with its vast breakfast menu. I quickly gather from the menu that my only choice is the club sandwich, ordered specially vegetarian. I am hungry so I chirp my special order and look eagerly at the waitress. The waitress raises an eyebrow. She hesitates, then declares the sandwich cannot be made vegetarian, because they are too busy on weekends.
I am speechless. This is ridiculous. I’m not asking them to do a chicken dance; I just want a sandwich without meat. My lady is firm in her resolve. No special vegetarian orders will be honoured. Anger bubbles inside me, and I hide my face by looking down at the menu card. What is wrong with these people? Why am I given step-child treatment? The impatient waitress flashes a plastic smile, and her eyes convey, “make up your mind quickly or just get out”.
I order a cafe’ latte. I am intolerant to milk, but this cafe’ leaves me with no choice. Suddenly, I get a phone call! I grab my purse and storm out of the cafe, glancing back to mouth an unfelt “thanks” to the waitress. I think I’ll just eat at home.
I was lucky I got to go home. My worst experiences have been away from home, while flying, where there is no escape. Once, on a 15 hour flight to Sydney, an airline (that rhymes with ‘Ignited’), offered me a choice between ‘Chicken Something 1 and Chicken Something 2’.
“Where is my Vegetarian meal?”, I asked. I had specifically opted for a vegetarian meal in my flight details. The stewardess was indifferent and arrogant. I got neither an apology nor food from her. I survived the 15 hour flight on the generosity of my co-passengers who gave me their fruit bowls and some bread. It drove me furious. I sent a flaming email to the customer service. How would anyone be so insensitive and arrogant to think everyone eats meat? Why am I treated like a second class citizen because I am vegetarian? I got no answer.
I’ve been meat-abused many times before: Meat carelessly served as Vegetarian; Waiters turn hostile; Hosts feel hurt; “Change your gloves” is taken as an insult and no, a ‘cheese burger’ actually has meat in it! I trust no one. I always check my meals like a squirrel, digging around to see signs of unfamiliar texture, before I eat it. It is an ordeal to eat out with co-workers. I’ve been dragged to sea food restaurants for elaborate team dinners, job interviews in steak houses, all justified by “you’ll find something vegetarian”.
The attitude towards vegetarians varies. It is sometimes that of pity, like “She eats only vegetables”, or mockery “You’ll never know how heavenly bacon tastes”, or the idea of vegetarian is incomprehensible “Why can’t she pick the chicken out of the salad and eat the salad?”. Occasionally an understanding person, will put forward a “I hope this doesn’t bother you”. The gentler ones are curious about I’ve lived without meat and protein. Well, good morning, there is a life without meat! I have my wholesome Indian meal of daal, roti and a variety of lip smacking subji’s, and I miss nothing.
Fake meat is a concept, opened for the community of meat-giveuppers. It works for them, but is a concept I cannot digest. I wouldn’t eat anything called ‘vegan sausage’ just like teetotallers don’t drink ‘root beer’. What’s the logic, you would ask me? Well, none, other than the rhetorical question of “Why would I want to eat anything that tastes like meat?”. “How yuck”, I would say, shuddering.
Then, there are the pseudo vegetarians. They call themselves the ovo-lacto-fisho-eggo vegetarians, who “almost never usually eat meat”, except chicken or fish if they were stranded on an island. They are often stranded on an island. I learnt one day, that it is better to stick to your principles 100% of the time than 99%. Which is why I wonder the psychic of an almost-vegetarian. Perhaps, there is no right or wrong. As a ‘Brahmin’, I am supposed to be vegetarian, but in ancient india, the Brahmins themselves ate meat while they lived in the forests. So I shouldn’t judge. I have taught myself that choices of diet are like religion. Don’t discuss, don’t convert.
But yet, I am proud. Perhaps the discipline of maintaining a certain lifestyle, makes a person feel strongly about it. Abstaining from say, eggs, doesn’t require much willpower, but the rule itself makes me feel in control of myself. The frugality of certain foods has defined me as a person. I am proud to say “I am a vegetarian, no eggs”.