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September 12, 2007

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Then one fine day six years ago, I renounced eating mammals, ...

Namit, you glossed over the interesting part - the reason for your decision. :)
Please share.

As it turns out, the protagonist in my nearly-finished masterpiece novel has also given up eating mammals (disclaimer: any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental :-). He is asked why, and curiously, his answer also happens to be close to my own (funny how that happens, but fortunately, such coincidences are limited in number). Here is the relevant extract:

‘When did you turn vegetarian?’ she asks.

‘Two years ago.’

‘What prompted that?’

‘I’m warning you. There’s nothing more tedious than a nouveau vegetarian expounding on his reasons for giving up meat.’

She laughs. ‘Oh, I can handle that. Besides, it’ll help me understand you better.’

‘Well, I’m not a strict vegetarian. I just don’t eat mammals.’

‘See! That’s interesting already. Why spare the mammals?’

‘Because they’re the closest to us. I can’t say how much they think, but have you ever seen a lamb agitate before a butcher’s machete? I did, in Egypt. It may well be pure instinct with no real awareness or mental trauma, but I now have my doubts. I asked myself: without proof, what entitles me to assume the opposite—that other animals are mere automatons, a bundle of blind reflexes? If they are more than that, and can anticipate pain, then my meat-eating sponsors their suffering, doesn’t it?’

‘Ok, but then why only spare the mammals?’ She looks amused.

‘Because biological affinities make it easier for me to empathize with them. They’re the least likely to be mere automatons and might even possess a simple consciousness. But I’m still debating this; I may well end up moving my line down to include birds and fishes, even mollusks and insects.’ His tone has turned playful.

‘Very important—don’t forget your reptiles! Or in your next life, you might be born as one.’ Their laugher drowns in the Friday evening din at the restaurant.

‘Interesting reasons,’ she continues. ‘Mine, I must admit, were more emotional at first. As a child, I saw a documentary on US stockyards. The sight of animals packed in long rows of cages did it for me. I couldn’t stomach their immobility, the sadness in their eyes. I began seeing their captive faces in the meat my mother served at home. This was long before I learned about the drugs and growth hormones they’re given, not to mention the meat and bone meal that was fed to vegetarian farm animals.

‘I’m now thinking about turning vegan. I’m convinced that to rely on any animal product is to consign that species to manipulative breeding, hormones, drug injections, and other horrible stuff. I think the only way to break this cycle of cruelty and exploitation is to not depend on animals for any product, food or otherwise.’

A birthday song, sung for a patron by the restaurant staff, distracts them. He is quietly amused by the phoniness of the spectacle. The waitress brings the wine.

When the venue for the 2008 Olympics was being voted upon, both Paris and Beijing were among the finalists. In a PR war to boost their own standing and lower that of the French, the Chinese authorities mentioned to the Olympic committee that Paris sidewalks are littered and smeared with dog excrement.(True!) The French shot back with a gem of their own. They explained that Beijing was free of dog s--t because the Chinese had eaten all their dogs!

Grown up in Bengali household with a pair of specially carnivorous father and uncle (my mother ate little meat and stuck mostly to fish), I remain a meat eater although not of the Chinese variety. I have never been able to resolve the ethical dilemma between my love for animals and my comfort with a "meaty" diet.

Hi Namit...

One of the things I saw in Shanghai (about 8-9 years ago) were backstreets where live snakes were being sold out of polythene tubs on the sidewalk. I think if you bought one, it was killed for you on the spot. Other than that, the scene reminded me very much of some of the backstreets of Bombay. I wonder if any of that has survived the wave of modernization that was even then hitting Shanghai and in particular, Pudong.

Hi Keyan,
I read that Pudong was all farmland until 1990; seventeen years later it is the financial hub and skyscraper capital of China. In Shanghai, 8-9 years seem like a lifetime of urban change elsewhere. We saw no snakes being sold on sidewalks, but I doubt that people have given up this culinary delight (even though it tastes just like chicken, I'm told :-) -- they probably buy it from a supermarket now. If some streets reminded me of Bombay, it was more due to their energy, crowds, and the traffic soup made up of two-, three-, and four-wheeled vehicles.

As a Scrrpio. Roast scropions and snakes sound delicious :)

I also like Green tea chocolate and Ice cream and also pocky!!! Western food can get sooo boring!!!

Amit, interesting post, but the characters in your story? They seem to have the exact same reason for turning against meat - preventing suffering. It doesn't really seem like one was "more emotional" than the other...

Hi Namit,

Your articles are a pleasure to read.
We (me and my wife) are going to Beijing this January 09 end. Any suggestions or a particular alley to see exotic food!!

We have several Chineese friends in Canada and they vouch that most Chineese (Han chineese forming the majority) will not touch snake, scorpion, beetle, dog, etc. etc.
Your reference to Confucious teaching is interesting although the Chineese had Buddhist influence also. Another thing I find interesting is their adoption of western names.

Thanks

Ajoy Majumdar
Canada
11th Jan 2009

Ajoy, for exotic street food of the kind I mention above, try Dong'anmen Daije between Nanheyan Daije and Wangfujing Daije. This is a few blocks east of the Forbidden City, across from hotel Oriental Garden. Tell us what exotic snacks you tried!

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