(Non-vegetarian) Food for Thought

In the mid 20th century, as the cities in America became increasingly multi-racial, middle class families that lived in the cities decided to up and go somewhere else. “White flight” is what the mass exodus of predominantly white middle class families from the cities in America to suburban and exurban regions is called.

As a result of white-flight, American suburbs became bubbles where people grew up not knowing the baggage of slavery that black America carries, if for no other reason than that there weren’t any black people around. This has the peculiar effect that for somebody who grew up in suburban America without encountering racism, affirmative action today seems like racism against white people.

There is an analogy to be drawn between this effect of white flight and what has happened in the Indian context. For people of my generation who have grown up in educated households in India’s cities, casteism is an alien concept. Nobody in my family cares what caste my friend I’ve brought home for lunch is from. Caste simply isn’t something that we use to define people. It is easy for somebody who has grown up in an environment such as this to forget the emotional baggage that centuries of untouchability carries.

In consequence, regardless of how disproportionate the representation of the upper castes in high office, positions of power, and wealth and education in this country gets, people who have grown up in cities in our generation will see caste-based reservation as ‘reverse-casteism’ – casteism against the upper castes. Centuries of history are relegated to the friendly neighbourhood liberal historian’s next textbook.

A recent incident demonstrates this all too well for my comfort. There has been a demand that non-vegetarian food that is cooked on the JNC campus be cooked in a separate kitchen, and served in separate utensils. If that sounds unbelievable, I know the feeling. The most troubling part about this demand is that it has nothing to do, even ostensibly, with hygiene or taste but with how some people find the very idea of non-vegetarian food icky.

Vegetarianism in India is by and large handed to people by virtue of what religion and/or caste they happen to belong to (or happen to have belonged to: I know people who no longer identify with either the religion or the caste that they were given into by birth, but retain their vegetarianism). The ickiness that people feel about non-vegetarian food is, therefore, also given to them. More pertinently, how far people are willing to go to relieve themselves of this discomfort is symptomatic of their having grown up in the bubbles that are affluent upper-caste households in India’s cities. (It could of course be that people say these things because they don’t care all that much about political correctness. The argument I’m making is nevertheless valid because most people do care about political correctness.)

My beef (ha!) with this sort of thing isn’t limited to demands that separate utensils be used for non-vegetarian food in a common canteen. It’s actually deeper than that. I remember a demand in college that a separate vegetarian-only mess be created on campus. There were more than enough people willing to join this mess for the caterer to run the mess profitably. Some of us saw a problem with letting people seal themselves away from all diversity of creed, and with subsidising this process with public money. That I couldn’t have articulated why I thought the vegetarian-only mess was a bad idea (even) as well as I can now didn’t stop me from trying. It did, however, stop me from succeeding.

People enter college as adolescents; the education one gets is supposed to convert them into adults capable of critical thought, able to act their role in society. College should be a place where people make friends with people from other cultural and social backgrounds, where people learn to think beyond the ponds they’ve grown up to think the world of. Grad-school should be much more so.

Whether the demand is that people be allowed to cloister themselves into parochial groups that shun diversity or that all traces of diversity be sidelined even in the common environment, the effects are the same. There is nothing anti- or extra- legal about these demands, especially if there isn’t any public money involved. However, as public policy, they must be discouraged as strenuously as possible. A society that loses its diversity has nothing left to lose.

If the demand that separate utensils be used to cook non-vegetarian food were nothing more than a request that gravies of different types not be put together, one might be inclined to agree. But calling it that would be to call the American invasion of Iraq an attempt to free the Iraqi people: however plausible or otherwise you think the cover-story is, you just know that it isn’t the whole story.

Where does this end? Is there a line here which we are sure will not be crossed? If today we allow for non-vegetarian food to be cooked and served separately because some people can’t stand non-vegetarian food, what stops us from asking tomorrow that people eating non-vegetarian food not sit at the same tables as others? It will never get to that point, you might say, and I’d agree – at that point, nobody could deny that this was untouchability.

The point of being educated and in an institution of higher learning, surely, is to realise that this is what is happening, and to do it now.

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7 thoughts on “(Non-vegetarian) Food for Thought”

  1. A cogent argument indeed.
    The very fact that there are still lots of people, who would like to be differentiated or rather distinguished by the food they eat and find the another person’s food icky derails your previous assumption (If I dare say so!) that “Caste simply isn’t something that we use to define people.” Since as you mentioned vegetarianism in India is enforced by religion and in most cases by caste.
    Only because we did not come across outright ‘casteist’ folks in IITM doesn’t mean they don’t exist anymore. Casteism is still rampant, though not to the level of the early 1900’s. But you can’t deny it’s existence.

    -Virgin

  2. I was saying you and I aren’t overtly casteist, having grown up in the ‘suburban white bubbles’ of India’s cities. I was pointing out that casteism in the educated classes has taken on this politically more-acceptable form.

  3. Taking into account the hygiene in the kitchens run by the caterers I think its reasonable to expect separate kitchens. For all we know, they don’t wash utensils cleanly, or wash them at all in the course of a day. Of course I am not so touchy about say a weird insect wich I don’t eat being cooked in the same room as my chicken biryani. But I can understand why some people might find this filthy. Asking them to eat food which might just have a chicken piece (which has happened with some vegetarian friends on mine :D) is not same as expecting them to be open-minded and tolerant. Its plain unfair and inconsiderate.
    As an aside, I did not know the reason, as you mentioned, that gave rise to suburbs in America. Interesting to know.

  4. Asking them to eat food which might just have a chicken piece (which has happened with some vegetarian friends on mine 😀 ) is not same as expecting them to be open-minded and tolerant.

    By all means improve kitchen hygiene. But how you do it and what you do as a failsafe matter; you cannot, in a public place, expect people to be ostracised because you’re irrationally touchy.

  5. not responding to the later part ofarticle veg/non-veg, but to the simplistic view, and one may add the popular view of casteism and reservation in india. was the upper caste spared during the 1000 years of islamic and christian rule in india? did christians and islamic conqurers think and act as superior to the so called upper castes in india? were the “upper castes” always upper in social hierarchy?. how come jats and yadavs getting reservations when they were once ruling classes?.in the group of lower castes, weren’t there any addition or subtraction of people? karna of mahabharta is an example of upward movement.and i am sure there must be numerous ones during buddhism period.

  6. The entitled dude and his thoughts above are an example of what I called “reverse-casteism”. Karna from the Mahabharata went from being a lower-caste man’s son to being a king. Never mind that the Mahabharata is myth. Never mind that Karna, even in the mythical Mahabharata, was cursed for lying about his caste. Never mind all that; India was glorious. Unless you were a woman. Or from a lower caste. Or both.

    Brahmins and Kshatriyas have exchanged the highest rung in the caste ladder, mostly owing to local power struggles. But they have always been ‘above’ the vaishyas and the shudras, in that order. The Dalits have been considered too ‘impure’ to even be part of the caste system, the varnashrama. They are outsiders, untouchables.

  7. Somebody else showed me this page today and I realize that it’s been a while since you wrote this. Anyway, I thought I’d jump in and make a few comments.

    The notion that vegetarian messes can strengthen existing casteist biases is mildly interesting and perhaps worth following up on. If the main problem is that vegetarian messes are resulting in de facto segregation, there is an easy solution. Common dining halls! As a vegetarian, I am entitled to only pay for things I eat and I would be happy with any solution that ensures this and while not relegating me to second-class status.

    btw, the 4 caste division into Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras is oversimplified revisionist history written by Englishmen with an agenda. I bet if you ask around among your friends, you’ll find many people who don’t know which of these four divisions their caste falls into. The British had clear agenda of painting us as subhuman savages in order to justify their exploitation of us. And so they made the most of every failing of ours while completely ignoring similarly terrible things they were doing. Yet it’s a real shame that we believe what they tell us about us over what we should know ourselves.

    And it’s also not true that Brahmans and Kshatriyas were the sole ruling classes. Reality is a lot more complicated than that. You should know this given that you presumably live in B’lore. The Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka are classified as “OBCs” and yet have historically been rulers and feudal landlords. We can still debate whether they “deserve” to benefit from affirmative action but what I want to point out here is that your comments about the caste system sound ignorant.

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