Friday, May 27, 2005

Setting Free the Ants...

Thanks for this anonymous comment (scroll down); and Hurree, thanks for your excellent post too. It’s strange, but writing about why I have chosen to be vegetarian feels even more personal than if I were to write about my religious preferences. Yet it’s something that I feel is important to share, because it’s the same thing that makes me do my tiny little bit for animal welfare too.

You see, I wasn’t always a committed vegetarian. Of course my upbringing, in a Tam-Brahm family, was vegetarian, as may be expected. But we studied at mixed schools where there was much passing around and sharing of lunchboxes. The taste of meat was a little like the taste of raw tamarind that we picked up from the ground and peeled to suck at the fruit inside: not wholly pleasant, but strange and vaguely forbidden, and therefore exciting. On the few occasions when we went out from school to Casa Piccola’s or Indiana’s, it was generally the chicken cheeseburger that I ordered. Why? For the usual reasons why any Tam teenager would do so: partly rebellion, partly peer pressure, partly plain curiosity.

At the same time, I was never comfortably non-vegetarian. At our Mussoorie Academy, I shunned the sea of yellow and orange that was the non-veg food and opted for the bland sambhar instead. But it really started, for me, after I went to work in the district. Some of the staff had become used to assuming that the way to make officers happy was with some pet-puja. Plump young chickens were brought round, glossy young goats with trusting eyes were led to the garden. It was always a feast when anyone came to the tehsil on an inspection.

I gave up meat: I almost gave up lunch itself. The sight of feathers on the ground, the sound of the bleating goats, was enough to turn my stomach. It had been easy to laugh over the anthologised account of Gandhi’s meat-eating: but now, I didn’t want an animal inside me asking to be let out. It had been easier in those cafes, when the slaughter happened elsewhere and the meat came to me on a plate, sandwiched between two pieces of bread; but now, seeing the animals just moments before their death, I didn’t want to hear that whimper in my dreams, or see those anguished eyes in my mind.

I know what Hurree means when she writes about the friend who followed chicken trucks and didn’t want to be part of the slaughterhouse cycle any more. I’ve moved along, too, I hope, on my personal journey. What was it that changed things for me? Getting our first dog, definitely: with an animal in the house, I realised how much of an identity animals have. I didn’t think I could really play with my dog in the evenings and then go off and make chicken vindaloo for friends. Do animals think? Do they feel pain? Do they feel? I’ve cared for enough animals and birds to realise that these questions don’t matter. They aren’t even the right questions. Of course they think, and feel, and feel pain: who are we to assume otherwise? But not necessarily in the ways that we do, or even in ways that we might recognise. I have taken enough cats and kittens in a wicker basket, all the way to Pune, listening to them whimpering every now and then: I know that they feel afraid, and want their freedom, and their life. And then I think to myself: those chicken trucks, those squawking chickens, those feathers…

At Jeev Raksha, I’ve seen the vet and his assistants remove maggots from the nostrils and flanks of a bungalow dog; bandage the multiple fractures of a dog who had been chased off the fifth floor of a building; build a mechanical walker for a dog whose hind legs were paralysed. I’ve seen them leave food for the rats, and for the crows too. It’s humbling to see them work as they do.

I ask myself: can I really upbraid a tonga-walla for whipping his pony outrageously, or prevent young boys from tying firecrackers to a puppy’s tail, if I’m on my way somewhere to eat an animal that someone else has killed and cooked for me? For me, there are degrees of violence in all these acts. I haven’t found my way out of this thicket of questions, but I’m trying.

I do agree with what you’re saying: nothing’s really black and white, it’s all about different shades of grey. But (and there’s always a but, isn’t there?) it’s also a matter of perspective. Those shades of grey aren’t one uniform shade. There are lighter and darker shades, and it’s a whole continuum from black to white. For example, I do not eat meat; my partner gave it up of his own accord, without persuasion from me, five years into our marriage. It would have been an act of violence for me to force him to give up meat without his being personally convinced of the reasons for doing so.

To sum up: being vegetarian is, for me, a way of not losing sight of that little black ant. Of practising what I’m talking about. Of throwing that single starfish back into the sea. We know so well that it’s only one little starfish, while thousands lie stranded on the shore; but for that one starfish it’s life, and who am I to take it away? I know that there are harder, more complex questions, such as medical testing: and I have no answers to those questions yet. But one way in which I have resolved this is the following: while I may not be able to give up the use of medicines that might save the life of someone dear to me, I can give up meat without a pang. So I have.

I don’t have a problem with other people eating meat. I mean, I do have a problem, but you know what I mean: it’s for each person to find her or his own comfort matrix. This matrix can include any or all of the following, and so much more: protecting tigers and elephants; giving up silk and leather; caring for a wounded stray animal; giving up meat altogether; giving to animal welfare organisations; teaching your child not to go to a circus where animals are made to perform. I like to think that every little bit counts. That every little bit is a tiny black ant that we’re setting free.

And so, to add to Hurree's welcome: welcome.


Blogger Qais said...

So if after sometime you start feeling that trees, plants also feel pain and it gets into your conscience( am I hurting this tree?), will you also advocate to eat only fruits fallen from trees?

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