When it comes to food, we are most likely to define ourselves not by what we eat, but by what we don’t. This is especially true of Indians, given that our primary food habits have traditionally been governed by religious beliefs.
Veganism, with its morally guided exclusion of all animal products, is therefore structured to appeal to the most essential component of our dietary make-up – guilt.
And yet, veganism has found few takers in India, perhaps because it challenges the very cornerstone of the nation’s gustatory legacy – its obsession with milk and dairy products. This is even though a large segment of Indians, especially in the south, exhibit varying levels of lactose intolerance.
Not surprisingly, ask any practicing vegan what the hardest part in adopting a dairy-free diet was, and the answer is giving up sweets, most of which are invariably milk-based. As vegan Meghna Raj puts it, “No matter how many healthy alternatives one might think up, dessert is a dessert is a dessert.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg lettuce. Pure veganism alsoexpounds sustainable living and zero cruelty to animals. Silk, leather, wax, honey and anything that has ever passed through or come from an animal, transform from anonymous products into disturbing reminders of death and exploitation.
Imagine looking at a fabulous pair of leather boots only to have graphic images of cows being sent to slaughter flash before your eyes. Veganism can, in short, be quite a depressing existence, especially if you have a healthy imagination. Meghna prefers taking a more optimistic view, “It’s made me more aware of the food chain. The first few months do involve a lot of time being spent weighing options and making revolutionary changes to your lifestyle, but after that it becomes second nature.”
Indian cuisine is allegedly quite conducive to veganism, as long as one excludes milk, curd, paneer and ghee. However, the cost of buying vegan substitutes like nuts, soya milk and a steady supply of B12 supplements (plant life is devoid of B12) can become burdensome in an atmosphere of rising food prices.
Meghna adds, “If you’re happy with dal and chawal, your taste buds are not going to take a big hit. But if you like your cheeses and meats, or are a complete foodie, the process might be a lot more difficult.”
Yoga teacher Diana Mahimwala, like most vegans in India, has adopted a less severe form of veganism that restricts itself to diet. After attending a vegan meeting, she came home and talked about it to her husband, who was more than happy to get on board. However, if you are single, female and vegan, don’t expect to meet too many eligible vegan men. Meghna quips, “Most vegan Indian men are 50+. But I’m not too adamant on having a vegan for a partner. Sometimes, differences can be nice.”
Vegans themselves have limited hopes of veganism catching on in India. “There are few who take it up intellectually. Most are over 30 or are the elderly with health problems. Among some of us, the more we find out, the more we adopt it as a complete lifestyle, which makes us more sensitive to the world around us,” explains Meghna.
Vegans are generally quite a cheerful lot, although research has shown that the lack of dairy and poor eating habits among vegans can make them more susceptible to irritability, even depression. And the cynics aren’t helping either.
In May last year, Lierre Keith’s controversial book The Vegetarian Myth was launched as a powerful invective against vegetarians and vegans alike. Keith, who attributes her rather extreme health problems to a lack of meat during her years as a vegetarian, seems to take an all too personal pleasure in condemning those who rely purely on plant products. She blames agriculture for destroying entire ecosystems, ravaging most of the American prairie, and even causing the disappearance of top soil, a looming environmental threat. And if that wasn’t enough, she adds “slavery, imperialism, militarism, class divisions, chronic hunger, and disease” to the list of historical outcomes of our overdependence on mass cultivation.
Veganism is often purported to be as good for the soul as it is for the body. If that is the case, this new controversy is something vegans will find hard to swallow.