Those who have had the good fortune of travelling to China as part of any Indian delegation will readily testify to the generous and lavish hospitality on offer. Their Gmail may be erratic and connecting to either Facebook or Twitter may well turn out to be a matter of chance, but there is one thing you can always be sure of: the food in the banquets is certain to be mouth-wateringly memorable, at least for all those inclined to be experimental.
The problem is that most Indians have, what are quaintly referred to as, “dietary restriction”. It is more than a simple matter of determining who is a vegetarian and who is carnivorous. Vegetarians are divided into many categories: those who are shuddh vegetarians; those who are extra shuddh in that they shun root vegetables such as onions, garlic and mushrooms; those who don’t eat meat but “take egg”.
Among the carnivorous are those who eat only chicken; those who eat chicken and lamb; those who are partial to pork but shun beef; and those who insist on halal meat alone. And these don’t include the growing numbers who eat most meats but are vegetarians on Tuesdays or Saturdays or those, like the Prime Minister, who don’t eat anything during Navratri.
In India we have learnt to be accommodative to all dietary angularities. But imagine the plight of an average, regimented Chinese apparatchik in a provincial city. How is he going to draw up a half-decent menu that somehow accommodates each and every taste? I get a feeling that China must have now made voluminous entries in their protocol and hospitality handbook. At least three of the banquets had vegetarian fare with an option chicken dish. A cheeky Indian colleague asked whether they do Gobi Manchurian — a question that was greeted with inscrutable incomprehension.
The difficulties faced by our Chinese hosts are nothing compared to the frustrations of a Cambridge don who organised a seminar involving Indian and Pakistani participants some five years ago. The grand finale of the seminar was a high-table dinner amid the grand interior of the pre-Reformation college. Disaster struck the night before the dinner when a group of Pakistani participants made it clear that they could not attend any dinner where alcohol was being served and where the meat wasn’t halal. A religious incident was averted when the halal request was acceded and the dissolute Indians retired to a nearby “control room” for pre-dinner liquid refreshments.
“Accommodation” being the buzzword of the new multiculturalism that has gripped large parts of the Western world, vegetarianism is not a problem that confronts today’s Indian travellers to metropolitan cities. At one time, vegetarianism was a fringe European fad confined to spiritualists and a clutch of utopian socialists. In his Road to Wigan Pier, an iconic tract describing the underside of the gloomy Thirties, George Orwell expressed his exasperation with “all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.”
Orwell probably had earnest Labour Party activists such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb and the lofty aristocratic Sir Stafford Cripps in mind — Hitler was also a vegetarian but we shall let that pass. His analogy could also be extended to the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has represented the Socialist Republic of Islington since the Nineties. But the association of vegetarianism with “progressive” politics was, by and large, a phenomenon confined — till the Sixties generation initiated an alternative, lifestyle trend — to the shores of Britain.
In India, on the other hand, outsiders and modernists often made a correlation between vegetarianism and anti-modern aesthetics. The novelist Paul Scott, who wrote one of the most incisive accounts of the twilight years of the British Raj, described the prevailing prejudice: “Hindu meant Hindu Mahasabha, Hindu nationalism, Hindu narrowness. It meant rich banias with little education, landowners who spoke worse English than the younger sub-divisional officer his eager but halting Hindi. It meant sitting without shoes and with your feet curled up on the chair, eating only horrible vegetarian dishes and drinking disgusting fruit juice.”
Such a perception persisted till after Independence. Walter Crocker, an Australian high commissioner to India who professed a great deal of sympathy for Jawaharlal Nehru. felt that there were two distinct sections of the Congress. The first was “Nehru and the upper-class Indian nationalists of English education.” But they were swamped by the non-Nehruvians who “were provincial mediocrities, untravelled, ill-educated, narrow-minded; not a few were lazy; some were cow worshippers and devotees of ayurvedic medicine and astrology; some were dishonest.” Crocker didn’t add vegetarianism to the long list of political liabilities but he may as well have added meat eating to his perception of enlightenment in India.
The Young Bengal movement that some historians view as the personification of the 19th century Bengal Renaissance went to the extent of challenging Hindu dominance with beef. As part of their rebellion, they threw pieces of the “forbidden meat” at innocent passers-by or into the houses of those they equated with the forces of darkness. The rebellion petered out and the dietary iconoclasts were chased out of Bengal by vengeful Hindus. But in a strange way, this tradition of puerile conduct has persisted. I am, for example, struck by the pointless bravado of many of today’s ever-growing tribe of food critics. Invariably — and not without a measure of pre-meditation — they are inclined to go into raptures over juicy steaks and beef kebabs, as if taunting those who have shunned culinary adventurism.
In his letters on Hinduism penned in the late-19th century, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee — himself no vegetarian — fulminated against “that weakest of human beings, the half-educated anglicised and brutalised Bengali babu, who congratulates himself on his capacity to dine off a plate of beef as if this act of gluttony constituted in itself unimpeachable evidence of a perfectly cultivated intellect.” Some 150 years later, his indictment of blind fashion still holds.
The writer is a senior journalist