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There's pleasure in biting into meat; but can you deny the violence?

Shreevatsa Nevatia
Shreevatsa NevatiaAug 25, 2016 | 15:18

There's pleasure in biting into meat; but can you deny the violence?

A few pages into The Vegetarian, we find its protagonist Yeong-hye seated in front of a refrigerator, surrounded by beef, belly pork, squid, sliced eel and pieces of chicken. She is packing these parcels of meat into rubbish bags.

After having suffered a bloody and grotesque dream, the young wife has turned vegetarian. This sudden choice has catastrophic ramifications. Her psyche implodes and her family is soon destroyed. Authored by the South Korean Han Kang, it's with good reason that The Vegetarian was awarded the 2016 Man International Booker Prize in May.

No habit is quite as universal as food. Though personal, our dietary choices often come to define our politics. Han reminds us we are what we eat. Her novel, much like hot food, is a full-frontal attack on our senses.

In a country where Mohammad Akhlaq can be fatally lynched for "storing beef" in his fridge, the narrative of The Vegetarian will perhaps be both confusing and vindicatory. When surrounded by her husband's colleagues, Yeong-hye is told, "Meat-eating is a fundamental instinct, which means vegetarianism goes against human nature, right? It just isn't natural."

As a beef-eating Hindu, I have often been forced to participate in such conversations. My feeble "I-just-like-it" defence usually gets drowned out by more boisterous advocates. With their arguments bordering on naiveté, they make the case that the soil from which plants acquire nutrients is composed of animal remains. Being a vegetarian, they conclude, is impossible. Embarrassed by such rhetoric, I simply bite my breadstick.

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Our carnivorous habits, Han Kang proves in The Vegetarian, are acts of brutality.  

Reading The Vegetarian inadvertently forces you to either arrive at or explain your moral position. You are repulsed when Yeong-hye's parents try and force-feed her pork. Egalitarianism makes you wish she were left alone, but her recurring dreams and her lasting herbivorous protest also leave you with a nagging sense of guilt. How can you justify the killing of animals for gastronomic experiences that are undoubtedly more recreational than essential?

Pulped by Penguin after that historic crusade by Dinanath Batra, Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History expectedly provided a few clues. I was taken right back to the source, to the one forefather who matters, Manu.

According to Manu, "When a man who is properly engaged in a ritual does not eat meat, after his death he will become a sacrificial animal during 21 rebirths." Just when I had convinced myself that my Parma Ham craving was nothing to atone for, Manu confused me with a yet more damning edict - "As many hairs as there are on the body of the sacrificial animal that he kills for no (religious) purpose here on earth, so many times will he, after his death, suffer a violent death in birth after birth."

With only morbidity to look forward to in the afterlife, I hastily scanned Doniger for solace. In On Hinduism, she writes, "If we list a number of animals we don't eat, we feel okay about the ones we do eat." To arrive at closure, I'd have to address the sacred cow in the room.

There is much that separates India's extreme Hindu right-wingers and Mahatma Gandhi, but they are united in their imagining of the cow as a symbol for the Indian nation. When asked if they're "veg" or "non-veg", a number of meat-eating Indians find it prudent to specify that they don't eat beef.

Dalits get flogged in Gujarat for skinning a dead cow, vehicles are petrol-bombed in Jammu and Kashmir to protest an MLA's "beef party", and in Haryana gau rakshaks force-feed cow dung to men ferrying beef. "We don't skin cows. We don't eat them." This presumption is altogether hypocritical.

According to a national survey carried out in 2014, over 70 per cent of India eats meat. A vegetarian prime minister does promote the widespread notion that all Indians value the lives of their animals, but the aforementioned statistic is enough to belie this global assumption. Ideology drives our eating habits, not empathy. We are what we don't eat. Gandhi had famously said that "in matters of conscience, the law of majority has no place", but surely mobs shouldn't be keeping our conscience.

The mindless shedding of human blood must certainly be protested, a democratic spirit must also force us to promote the hashtag #BeefBan on Twitter, but there is an urgent need for us to defend our meat-eating in purely ethical terms.

Academic and activist Kancha Ilaiah took on the task of becoming our spokesperson in April. He said, "Vegetarianism will destroy the brain capacity. You cannot compete with vegetarian nationalism with China, Korea, Japan and America who are full scale 'beefarians', 'porkians', 'fisharians' and even 'frogarians'."

Though laughable, Ilaiah's claim does something essential - it connects our diets to economics. A study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March this year, predicts that the world's meat consumption pattern will cost the global economy an annual $1.6 trillion by 2050. The warning is similar to those made by climate change experts, but it's one that "beefarian" Ialiah must consider.

I, of course, have never been able to find an argument that could match the articulateness of my literary masters. After seeing fish swimming in an aquarium at the Berlin Zoo, Franz Kafka is believed to have said, "Now at least I can look at you in peace. I don't eat you anymore."

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes, "What is it that should trace the insuperable line? The question is not can they reason or can they talk, but can they suffer?'"

JM Coetzee told an interviewer, "Yes, I am a vegetarian. I find the thought of stuffing fragments of corpses down my throat quite repulsive, and I am amazed that so many people do it every day." I gulp down my lamb.

For vegetarians, for every three in ten Indians, tolerance would not come easy. Our carnivorous habits, Han Kang proves in The Vegetarian, are acts of brutality. There's some pleasure to be had in biting into a succulent piece of chicken, yes, but it is time we acknowledged its inherent violence.

Last updated: August 28, 2016 | 22:30
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