Vegetarianism is not a choice

I am a vegetarian. You ask me how? I was born into a Hindu, Indian, Gujarati, pure vegetarian family. So, I guess, I was a vegetarian by birth, by the family I was born into, by my religion, caste, not nationality though.

For the longest time, nobody asked me why I was a vegetarian. In fact, I didn’t ask the question to myself. Why did I choose to be a vegetarian? Was it because I loved eating my greens? Or was it because I detested the thought of eating slaughtered animals? I never gave it a thought.

That was, until I had my first taste of a chicken burger. Just one bite. You know, I was born with a nationality, caste, religion, and family honor attached to my name. But I was also born with a voracious curiosity for unknown foods. I couldn’t understand the taste with the one tiny bite I had. But I did feel guilty on breaking my unsaid-but-understood family vow to never touch meat.

This is not my meal.

For most part of my life, I have had many, many non-vegetarian friends, in spite of growing up in Gujarat, which is perhaps the only state in India with the least consumption of non-vegetarian food (times are a-changing). I have dated only hardcore carnivores. Yes, in spite of spending 25 years of my life in Gujarat. Yet, I have been a not-so-pure-vegetarian for 28 years now.

But what counts as vegetarian? I do eat eggs. I left Gujarat in 2015 and made my way down south, where finding a “pure” vegetarian restaurant/cafe was as difficult as trying to find your regular connectivity/network in the mountainous region of Leh-Ladakh. When I was traveling across Europe, there were a few cities, where fish was considered as vegetarian food. I came across cultures where mushrooms are considered a non-vegetarian item. And I love mushrooms! Does that mean I have been a non-vegetarian for many years now? Whoa!

Soon after I moved to a new city, I had a bite of grilled fish. I was amazed at the taste of the soft, succulent, once-a-living-being in my mouth! I stopped again. I felt guilty about breaking my sacred vow! The same night, I got drunk and headed over to my friend’s place, and she served my friend and me a plateful of fish and rice. I don’t remember how much I ate, but I remember telling her that it was delicious. And I don’t tolerate average or bad food.

Vegetarianism has always been seen as something that is born out of religion, or morality, or some sentimental aspect. I have known people who turned vegetarian after they saw a chicken being butchered. I have watched a lot of food shows, where I have seen quails and pigs being cut into different pieces and cooked to extract maximum flavor from each cut. I recently watched an Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown episode where a group of men hunted, shaved, and cut a huge wild boar into a hundred different pieces, which made their way into different pots and pans soon. Even the boar’s blood was collected in a bottle and added to a ‘stew’. The entire episode was quite gory, but I continued to watch it without flinching.

Most people I met in the new city presumed I was a vegetarian by caste and religion without asking me any questions. Well, I came from Gujarat, obviously I HAD TO BE a vegetarian who threw up at the sight or smell of non-veg dishes. I realized that my new friends failed to look at vegetarianism as a choice; like a diet that they followed — some were on keto, some on low-carbs, and some were carnivores-turned-vegan due to health issues. Most of my non-vegetarian friends dismissed the ‘untouchable’ vegetarian menu, as they craved flesh foods day and night. I felt sad to see their ingrained perceptions and lack of curiosity.

Vegetarians are looked down upon, and compared to anarchists. What we fail to see is that for all of humanity, all our daily meals are unknowingly controlled by customs, conventions, or race habits. The local produce, weather conditions, natural resources, and the questions of inventiveness are conveniently ignored. People have stopped paying attention to their surrounding nature, they have stopped playing by their instincts, and have given in to customs.

But why can’t vegetarianism be a choice? Those very few people who have asked me why I am a vegetarian, I have said— by choice. No matter what background I come from, my family has always encouraged me to make my own choices (although they’d hate to see me eat meat, they won’t stop me). I am a vegetarian by choice and may or may not try other foods depending on my level of curiosity. I would continue to do so for the rest of my life.

So what does this decision make me? A free person? Or a rebel?