Born and raised in a Mangalorean Catholic household with two and sometimes three meals a day featuring one or the other of our feathered or cloven-hoofed friends, I knew, thanks to Gandhi, that vegetarians were a sizeable minority, but I must confess I had no idea what a vegan was. Other than a vague impression of a cult wearing filmy robes and muttering incantations over a carrot patch at midnight, I assumed, as most flesh-eaters do, that vegans had no qualms about devouring a Brussels sprout but drew the line at mutton biryani. Then I met Phil Wollen, reformed Citibanker and founder of the "Kindness Trust", which campaigns for the humane treatment of animals who helped fill in the blanks.
Imbued with the crusading zeal of the true vegan, Phil has invested a substantial portion of his time and assets to make the world a better place. He bankrolls the "Sea Shepherd", which, as the name suggests, sails the high seas as a watchdog to ensure that Japanese trawlers adhere to their whaling quotas. "There was a time when Australian citizens simply asked their governments to do good while they are now forced to hold public rallies to demand that politicians stop doing evil. Mahatma Gandhi said that a nation is judged by the way she treats her animals; by that yardstick, Australia is being judged in the harshest of lights," says Phil. "Because of this filthy live animal trade, we are increasingly being known as the 'Anything for a Buck Country'. We can no longer be a nation of factory farmers and quarrymen," he adds.
Life is all about choices and while vegans have a banned list that runs into several pages, they do make better choices for their health, the environment and of course, the animals that would otherwise end up in the pot. What precisely is a vegan, given that there are diverse opinions on this touchy subject? First off, they don't eat meat or seafood, dairy products or honey: their diets preclude the consumption of "anything with a mom or a face." It gets better: vegans won't buy products made of wool, down, leather or silk, which seems a really tough ask unless you're a Nylon Nellie or a Terylene Teddie. A cynic may opine that most wardrobes containing vast quantities of synthetic junk, but vegans, whether they opt for Armani or Ambani, get to feel good about it.
It gets better or worse, depending on your perspective: vegans shun cosmetic manufacturers who do animal testing. This means no shampoo, lipstick or mascara, especially from mealy-mouthed MNC's who carry the anodyne message, "No animals were harmed during the manufacture of this product." Pity Bugs Bunny can't talk, his version of having mascara slathered on his eyelids might be, "Ouch, what's up, Doc?" Vegans double check on websites like Caring Consumer or Leaping Bunny for violators whom they boycott.
Zoos, circuses and rodeos are off-limits for vegans who would rather walk a mile in tight shoes than go on horse, camel or elephant ride. Similarly, the suggestion of a day at the races is likely to get you whipped by your vegan friend; just kidding, vegans are gentle souls totally into ahimsa. Finally, vegans don't buy pets from breeders or pet stores: they have large hearts and would happily adopt an abandoned pet or a stray but would never spend their hard earned money on rare breeds from dealers since they consider this an evil, immoral practice that is nothing but modern slavery. Simply put, being a vegan takes a lot of hard work, dedication and sacrifice: it calls for a lifestyle built around compassion, caring, empathy and tenderness. So the next time you have a vegan friend over to dinner, think of a nice Pad Thai with red peppers, bean sprouts and tofu. No shrimps or fish sauce, duh.