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It’s offensive to pass judgements on people’s food choices

I have never met Sudha Murthy.

I did one of the first TV interviews with her husband Narayan Murthy long before he became an internationally respected business innovator and I have interviewed him several times after that but we do not have a social relationship, so I have never met Mrs. Murthy.


However, I do have close friends who have been with Infosys from the very start who know her well and say that she is one of the most remarkable people they know.

   I offer all this by way of background. In recent months, Sudha Murthy has become a favourite target on social media. She is routinely lampooned on Twitter and her name frequently trends because people treat her as sport, as someone to make fun of.
   It is the latest of these so-called ‘humorous’ assaults on her that concerns us in this column. Sudha Murthy said, in a video clip that has gone viral, that she is a ‘pure vegetarian’ and that, when she travels, she prefers to go to vegetarian restaurants because otherwise she fears that the spoons with which she is served might previously have been used to serve meat.
   This has been enough to make Sudha Murthy trend again on Twitter. Does she go to restaurants where they don’t wash dishes and cutlery? What is ‘pure’ vegetarian anyway? Why is she making such a fetish of her vegetarianism? And so on.
   I am not a vegetarian. And as I have often written before, while there is an environmentally valid justification for veganism, the case for vegetarianism is far more complicated.
   It is all very well to say, as many vegetarians do, that they are too ethical to take a life only for their eating pleasure. But that depends on how you define life. As we all know, plants are living things and there is evidence to suggest that they feel pain.
   Are we saying that there is a class system when it comes to life? That fish and animals are A class life. But that plants are B class life and therefore it’s okay to cause pain to them and to extinguish their lives?
   Vegetarians must also know that the cultivation of all crops necessarily involves the killing of millions of insects, worms and other living beings. You may dismiss them as ‘pests’ but you cannot deny that they were sacrificed in the quest for your food.
   And besides, if we never ended or killed any kind of life (including plants), then we would simply starve and the human race would wither away.
   So, there may well be a strong, ethical we-should-preserve-all-life kind of justification for vegetarianism.
   But I haven’t heard it yet.
   Then, there is the religious dimension. It has become part of today’s political rhetoric to portray Hindus as vegetarians and Indians of every other religion as non-vegetarians. This seems to give Hindu politicians the right to persecute non-Hindu meat sellers and to demand that meat shops (especially those run by non-Hindus) be shut-down for days on end in case “Hindu sentiments are hurt” during religious festivals.
   There are many reasons for objecting to this sort of politically expedient vegetarianism. But there is also a factual error in the very premise of this argument.  Hindus are not vegetarians by definition. Even if you leave aside that old controversy about whether Vedic people ate beef, ancient texts (and mythological works) leave us in no doubt that our ancestors were not vegetarian. Nor, contrary to what we think, were Buddhists. Only Jains preached vegetarianism and the influence of their teaching can still be felt in Gujarat where Jains have always had a strong influence on society (Disclosure: I am a Gujarati Jain.)
"I find self-righteous and judgemental vegetarians obnoxious. I respect their right to eat plants. But they have no business passing judgement on my chicken tikka."
   In the rest of India, vegetarianism has been a caste-based affair. Banias are usually vegetarians no matter which part of India they live in. There is a view to the effect that all Brahmins also have to be vegetarians but this is much less absolute than we may think. Bengali Brahmins eat all kinds of non-vegetarian food. So do Kashmiri Brahmins. Even elsewhere, there are non-vegetarian Brahmins. Some Saraswat Brahmins eat fish.
   Even now, the majority of Indians are non-vegetarian. The political distinction between so-called vegetarian Hindus and non-vegetarian Christians and Muslims collapses when you look at the facts.
   Perhaps because this manufactured belief in Hindu vegetarianism is sought to be imposed on us, there is now a backlash. People who are proud of being vegetarian have become figures of fun and are parodied on social media. Mrs Murthy may be a victim of this trend.
   There is a (now increasingly open) sub-text to all of this. The Murthys are brahmins. So, when Sudha talks about ‘pure’ vegetarians, the term is seized on to suggest that she is bragging about Brahmin superiority. Many of the so-called ‘funny’ attacks on her words emerge out of the feeling that she is flaunting some Brahminical superior status.
   As I said, I do not know Sudha Murthy, but it does seem to me that caste or more specifically Brahmin ‘superiority’ did not even cross her mind when she made those remarks. She was mainly describing her own food habits.
   And despite being a seekh kabab-loving Gujarati Jain, I know what she probably meant. This is exactly how many members of my family talk. And no, they are not flaunting bania superiority or latching on to the political vegetarianism of the moment.
   What some non-vegetarians find hard to understand is that the overwhelming majority of vegetarians do not eschew meat because they have thought long and hard about the ethical basis of vegetarianism. They do it because this is how they were brought up.
   If they were born into religious families, they were told that meat is forbidden and do not question it just as many Muslims do not question why they need to still avoid pork even though modern pork is not as unsafe as pork may have been when the Koran was written.
   But there is another, more personal reason. My wife (who is a Punjabi Saraswat Brahmin but not from one of those Saraswat families where non- vegetarian food is allowed) was vegetarian till she was 25. She is a devout temple-going Hindu but does not now regard vegetarianism as being integral to her faith.
   But because of her vegetarian upbringing, she still has problems with many kinds of meat. She will happily eat a pork sausage or a kung pao chicken, but she will simply not eat lamb. This has nothing to do with ethics or religion. She just does not like the smell. So, it is with seafood. She will eat a prawn cocktail but will draw the line at mackerel.
   Again, the reason is personal. She hates the smell of some kinds of fish. At a supermarket abroad, she will choose the pre-packaged meat with me but will avoid the butchery counter where they chop up hunks of meat. She will not even cross the aisle if there is a fresh fish display nearby.
   Her vegetarian upbringing makes it difficult for her to cope with the sights and smells of some non-vegetarian foods and their preparation. Many of my non-vegetarian relatives — most of whom live in the West — are the same. Because they were brought up as vegetarians, there are things about meat that stir up some primal uneasiness in them.
   For vegetarians, this is more acute. I have been in restaurants in the West where Indian vegetarian friends will send back empty plates saying “they smell of non-veg”. At first, I used to find this strange. But I now see what their objections are. Yes, despite all of the sneering on Twitter (“does she go to restaurants where they don’t wash the crockery and cutlery”) vegetarians can sometimes be turned off by meat and fish smells that linger on plates and spoons. And don’t kid yourself: they can linger.
   In any case, I find it offensive to pass judgements on people’s food choices. I find self-righteous and judgemental vegetarians obnoxious. I respect their right to eat plants. But they have no business passing judgement on my chicken tikka. And when people use terms like ‘beef-eater’ as abuse, it just shows the primitive levels of their mentality.
   It works the other way too. If Mrs. Murthy does not want to eat (or even smell) meat, it is her right and her prerogative. When we laugh at her, we are no better than those who sneer at non-vegetarians. Food is a personal matter. And that is how it should remain.


  • aneel 02 Aug 2023

    Vir,I think you have missed the real reason Mrs Murthy is being trolled.It is because of her and Mr Murthy,s sycophantic praise of our Dear Leader.Nobody cares whether she is a veg or non veg.But people do care about important people in positions of power behaving as Chamchas of people way below their intellect level..Just to promote their businesses and themselves

  • Pramod 30 Jul 2023

    Well said??

Posted On: 29 Jul 2023 07:46 PM
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