I was reading a book on the life and times of Sai Baba of Shirdi. There  is a section in the book that talks about how he used to cook food himself and serve it to his devotees. The food distributed by him varied from vegetarian food like “Sheera” ( rava kesari)  “Ambil  (simple millet porridge) to  Mutton Biryani. Both vegetarian and non vegetarian  dishes were cooked and distributed side by side . People ate what they were used to!! There was no system of segregation- food and eating together in this case being  what united all his devotees!!!  This was in 18th century  India in a village in Maharashtra. Though a lot of people who were close to Baba were Brahmins never did anyone question about non vegetarian food being cooked and served in the same premises!!  

But today I find a certain degree of intolerance creeping in with regard to food.  I was told that the management of a popular English daily based out of Chennai had recently issued a circular saying that employees could not bring non vegetarian items in their lunch box!! It was a bit shocking to hear  about this because the newspaper holds a very balanced view in terms of issues that it reports and writes about!  

While it may be something new where this newspaper is concerned, it not uncommon among many of the so called “popular” schools in Chennai where the rules do not permit the students to bring any non vegetarian food!!  We do not hear of such instances of “banning food groups” in schools in the rest of the country. I grew up in Calcutta and ate my curd rice quite happily sitting together with groups of friends who brought fish curry and rice or chicken sandwiches. As a vegetarian I did not of course share their food but I had no objections to eating with them  or sharing my lunch with them. The school management though very strict about every other aspect never really interfered with this. People tell me that was because it was a “convent school” ( “Christians are non veg aren’t they?” ) . I don’t think friends in my colony going to schools run by Hindu establishments, Kendriya Vidyalayas etc faced any such restrictions either !! Thankfully my daughter’s school, despite being in Chennai does not have these restrictions! The only instruction that was given to us when she joined school was to pack lunch that “the child is used to eating and is able to eat by himself/ herself” 

What surprises me most about these food restrictions is the manner in which people accept them meekly. Whether it is an office or school management or a landlord who enforces it, no one actually questions it as something that infringes on our rights as a citizen.  People just accept enforced vegetarianism thinking it to be “superior”!!!!

My husband is probably the only person I know who has raised this issue at his work place. He works for a diplomatic mission in Chennai. Though there is no official rule here about food, the Indian employees tried to segregate tables as “vegetarian” and “non vegetarian”!! While in a social function  it might be alright considering it helps in the serving of food by the hosts, in the office dining hall,  he found it smacking of  casteism. He had to bring it to the notice of the Head of the Mission and relate it to him using international parallels like the 1950s segregation in the US for them to understand. Needless to say, hubby  is one of the most unpopular members among the Indian staff  there today!! He undergoes what he humorously terms as “social boycott” during lunch time by a large majority of people from a certain community. His only lunch companions being foreigners or Indian staff who work as drivers and gardeners. But he is not complaining !!!

You might wonder if my “tolerance” to non vegetarian food emerged out of my Calcutta days or post marriage to a Christian. I would say it is neither. I have just been taught to accept it as a food preference by a person or persons or a community. My parents have never tried to inculcate in me a sense of my superiority of being a vegetarian person. They have always told me to accept what people eat as it is their culture.  And I think my parents were progressive because these ideas were dinned into me decades ago before it was “fashionable” to hold such “liberal” views.  

 While I do attempt cooking non vegetarian food, I think I do not do justice to these dishes. So non vegetarian food is often bought from outside. But we eat at the same table   because we believe that a family that eats together stays together.  When we accept   people with their culture we accept them totally. Food, as we know is an essential part of culture!! It is unfortunate that educational institutions are enforcing food restrictions that smacks of cultural chauvinism!  The canteen in an institution or a restaurant are well within their rights to serve a certain type of food. But no institution has the business to tell anyone what they should  bring as packed food to school or to office!!

Food can be used to promote inclusion or  indicate exclusion!! It is the ultimate equalizer!  It is probably the reason why Islam preaches that people should eat together out of a single plate. It is also why Sai Baba cooked and served food to his devotees and ate along with them. Though I have many reservations about the way his philosophy has been taken over and “sanskritized” over the years, one of the few things that still impress me about the Sai temples is the way Prasad is served. Everyone stands in a queue and receives the same plate of food- whether it is a  lady dressed in silk and diamonds or the beggar outside the temple!!

But what leaves me very disturbed is the way we are training our kids to develop ideas about people’s food habits. Is it any surprise that our society continues to remain fragmented despite the efforts of religious and social reformers over the years? 

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  1. Very topical. There is a person I know (and you know too) who is practicing a form of vegetarianism where they will not eat in what they call 'multi cuisine restaurants or 'mixed kitchens'. If we want to eat out with this person, we are severely restricted in our options. The person carries it so far as to not eat on trains due to said 'mixed kitchens' and carries cooked food from home. They will not eat at social functions held in multi cuisine eateries. And the worst part is, this behaviour is feted as a virtue!! As a host, if someone did that to me, I would be severely offended. I think this behaviour is casteist and elitist and should be condemned.

  2. I am writing this from a hotel near the University in Calgary. Just moments before I logged onto this article, I went to the breakfast room to get a hot cup of coffee before settling into my computer. I was overwhelmed with the aromas of fried bacon and pork sausage in the dining area. When I looked up, I noticed that the room was near filled with Moslem guests, not seeming to be offended by the food in the room. It made me wonder about Canada and how well everyone appears to co-mingle and live together.

    Personally, I've had some disagreements and falling out with friends over food issues. In the 70's, I became vegetarian for health reasons. I remained vegetarian until 2002, when a health issue forced me to return to eating the flesh of fresh water white fish and lamb. Some of my friends now post scare-tactic type of animal cruelty related messages on my facebook wall. Others stopped talking to me.

    In my home, I host beautiful dinner parties. I keep everything vegan, except for a very specific portion of meat or fish, which can be separated from all vegan side dishes and deserts. Guests still complain or refuse to attend if there might be salmon or lamb on the table.

    The best I can think about it is Caucasian privilege. Yes, I'm a caucasian U.S. American woman. But I am filled with amazement and amusement that comes from other women around me who are snobs and snoopes about what people eat. In my peer group, food and food beliefs are not the great equalizer, but an enormous divider.

  3. i wonder what will i do if my office put that notice, it seems i only eat non veg ..

    the problem is that in todays world everyone has something to say on everything especially if that is to do with someone else ..

    it doesnot bother me who eats what and how .. everyone has their own choice .. I eat anything and everything :)


  4. @ Kameshwari the issue in India regarding veg/ non veg food is a little more complex. I guess I should have explained that more clearly in the blog. Veg food was usually eaten by the highest of castes and considered "pure" while non veg "impure" in comparison. Here the purity issue went beyond food - it was a caste issue that manifested itself in the form of food. Among non veg food there is flesh that is considered most "polluting" - that of a pig or cow usually eaten by the lowest of castes or the "untouchables". So when we talk about culture chauvinism here we mean that people traditionally used to eating a certain type of food were forced to eat something which was considered a "purer" form of food!!! But I am surprised that people in Canada equate flesh eaters with animal cruelty!

    @ Deepa I can understand your feelings. What is being expressed is not a food preference but a form of exclusion!
    @ Bikram I wish people were more like you!!

  5. “What is your food is another man’s poison.” If we can accept this simple difference in each of us well what is the difficulty if the person sitting next to you is having cold pork meat or potatoes?
    I guess I agree with your husband’s righteous incense. I would have done the same too.
    Coincidentally, I had lunch today at a very close friend’s home. He is married to an Iyengar Brahmin lady and she as well as their two girls is veg. But while we were having lunch she served us (me and her husband) dark spicy fish curry sent by his mother who lives a few blocks away.
    The attitude at your husband’s office is hideous and smacks of prejudice and shameful casteism.
    Intolerance, that is the scourge the epidemic today , not Ebola and not HIV.

  6. Sigh yes Meera that's the scene here - in Madras/Chennai. And as you well know, totally absent in Calcutta where the 'highest, lowest and all in between' eat nonveg, where food is intrinsic to the culture.

  7. The school I work in does not have an official rule stating that non-vegetarian isn't allowed but it is expected of teachers to carry only veg meals - the canteen is pure veg, sometimes also having only Jain food....and if teachers have non-veg in their lunch-boxes, they are expected to not sit with the vegetarians....
    Being from Kolkata myself, I find this rather strange - I am a non-vegetarian but in my school-days, just like you, I had vegetarian friends who sat next to me while we ate our tiffins....Even children, these days, I find are becoming intolerant towards food preferences at a very young age.....A boy in class V complained to the teacher that a boy from 1st standard brought chicken in his lunch-box and he touched him without washing his hands - hence he is polluted and dirty!!! I was amazed to see such attitudes from such a small boy....we need to promote a culture where food is acceptable and preferences aren't hierarchic....

  8. @ Leela and Divya I wonder if tolerance is a uniquely Kolkata thing? But I don't think so. I think a lot of places in India must be tolerant. At least it used to be when we were growing up. Today's kids are very narrow minded. I wonder how this happened.....

  9. @ Anil, yes indeed one man's food is another's poison. But food is still food and living together means accommodating that!! But we Indians like to make an issue of everything it appears...!!


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