On the Road

Travelling in India as a Vegetarian

To eat meat or not to eat meat, India forces the question.

I’ve always harboured a secret respect for vegetarians. There’s something inherently distasteful about rearing an animal, nurturing it, then killing it so you can eat its flesh. I’ll freely admit I’m a hypocrite, willing to trade the morally right for the merely tasty: I don’t mind doing the eating, so long as somebody else has already done the killing.

Once I’d decided to go to India, I began to flirt with the idea of vegetarianism. After all, I’d read that there are more vegetarians in India than in every other country put together. Hundreds of millions of Indians simply cannot afford the luxury of meat: this is a country where Rs. 100, or $2, is all many men earn in a day, and some do not even earn that. No Hindu will eat beef, and many will not eat meat of any kind. Even those who do draw the line at slaughtering it, preferring to leave that to the Muslims. They, in turn, regard pigs as unclean: pork and beef, therefore, are totally off the menu. Many restaurants will not have meat on the premises, and those that do divide their menus into ‘veg’ and ‘non-veg’ sections. In Varanasi, meat is banned completely: ‘non-veg’ in Hinduism’s most sacred city simply means dairy products. Better to live like an Indian, I reasoned, and stay off meat altogether. And I might eventually get used to not having it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have much opportunity to put my theory into practice. Two days after landing at Delhi, I caught gastro-enteritis. Meat, or the lack of it, had nothing to do with it; the most likely culprit was an ill-advised glass of lassi: a potent cocktail of bacteria-rich yogurt and tap water. At Qutb Minar, a magnificent set of ruins originally built by India’s first Muslim conquerors, but now swallowed up by Delhi’s southern suburbs, I lay on the grass feeling sorry for myself, rising a couple of times to lose some watery vomit and high-velocity peas into one of Delhi’s rare litter bins. It instantly became a tasty mid-morning snack for one of the local mongrels. Delhi was making me sick, and I had to get out. I took the night train to Rajasthan.

The following morning, I still had it coming out of both ends, so exploring the fabled blue city of Jodhpur would have to wait. I shut myself in my room and tried to keep India at bay.

As I began to recover, though, I began to feel hungry. Very hungry. But it wasn’t chapatti or curried cauliflower or any of the other staples of the Indian diet that occupied my thoughts: I began to crave meat. I lay on the bed, my mouth watering at the thought of black puddings, doner kebabs and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, with stodgy brown gravy; but most of all I fantasized about the king of processed meat products: the Melton Mowbray pork pie. I dreamed of devouring one of the bony cattle that sit chewing rubbish in the middle of the busiest of Indian streets, safe in the knowledge that they’re sacred. I felt like Captain Willard at the very beginning of Apocalypse Now, lying in a hotel room in Asia, slowly going stir-fry.

Salvation came from an unlikely quarter: a visit to the Temple of the Golden Arches, on my return to Delhi. But even the icon of globalisation won’t break the taboo: McDonalds in New Delhi serves no beef. Instead, I went for the deliciously-named Maharaja Mac: something like a cross between coronation chicken and a Big Mac. A few weeks earlier, even a few days earlier, I’d have disowned my future self for such cultural insensitivity.

My brief flirtation with vegetarianism taught me a lot about myself, mostly negative things. It taught me the limits of my willpower, of my sense of adventure, and of my ability to adapt to new cultures. It also gave me an insight into how vegetarians probably feel in carnivorous countries. I left India for Nepal, and when I saw chickens being slaughtered from the window of my hotel room in Pokhara – their throats were cut and they were flung into a plastic bucket on the ground to flap and bleed to death – I felt mildly repelled, but not at all guilty. And I ate chicken that night.

I’m now reconciled to being a carnivore. I know eating meat is bad karma, but I can’t help it. I’ll just have to take the risk of being reborn as a battery hen.

Phil Smith