By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Traditional Travails And Tribulations Of The Total Vegetarian

It was as an essayist that I had embarked on my great adventure as a journalist 50 years ago;  and it was THE HINDU, one of the finest newspapers in the world then and now, which had encouraged me to develop my own silky style of writing English.  Since then, till today, the newspaper has assigned several different roles to me as an amateur all-round writer. 

My very first contribution was an essay titled The Vegetarian, which was published in the Sunday Magazine in December, 1962.  Compared to a series of essays which followed (including those on The Marker, The Liftman and The Railwayman, .which I have featured in this blog earlier), it was a rather insubstantial piece of writing, and I never thought it would survive the test of time.  But somehow it seems to be still readable, so please do read on!  


December, 1962
The Vegetarian

 THE vegetarian is a specialist.  He specializes in facing problems.  Society seems to frown on him, especially that stratum of it which consists of waiters, headwaiters and stewards.  Whether in this country or elsewhere, whether in a hotel or in a ship, not a few tough problems beset the man who would insist on being shown a meatless menu.

 Merely telling them what he wants is a nerve-racking ordeal for the vegetarian in any sophisticated place where the business of eating is going on. A disgusted waiter breathes fire over his shoulders, a suave but critical headwaiter looks at him askance from a distance, and inquisitive neighbors cast furtive glances at him as the poor vegetarian fumbles with his carte and struggles to select something. 
Pot au Feu, Grilled Liver & Onion, Chicken a la Strangano, Prawn Mayonnaise,  Lobster au Gratin, Kofta Kashmiri. . .  the vegetarian's head reels.  He thinks feebly of the rapture with which the heroes of P.G. Wodehouse have gone through similar compilations, but that doesn't help him in the least.  Finally, after he has timidly asked for and eaten the odd item in the list, he notices that not even the disproportionately fat tip  he leaves on the saucer is able to produce a look of satisfaction on the waiter's face.

This, after all, is just one of those things a man can afford to laugh away, even if he does happen to have a couple of friends watching his performance;  but the vegetarian often finds himself in far more sinister predicaments.

He dreads in particular those dinners which his crazy friends and colleagues seem to be bent on arranging on every trivial occasion.  When they're all still in the lounge sipping their apertifs, the vegetarian has been betrayed by the busybodies to the headwaiter, who has an ugly head like a villain's. 
The minute you have sat down at the table, the villain lunges towards you  --  and, fixing you with a pulverizing stare, bellows at you:  "Vegetarian, SIR?"  Heads turn towards you, knowing smiles are exchanged between friends, and you find yourself nodding under a cloud of sweat and apprehension.  Separate dishes are brought over specially for you;  you are deliberately forced to dislocate the pace of the dinner.  By the time the others are starting their second course you have already finished yours, and the waiters are all glaring at you.  You dare not ask for a second helping;  none is offered, presumably because the villain thinks you couldn't eat more. The chaps on either side of you talk to each other merrily over your head.  You try to smile weakly at their jokes, and feel like a fool.  They're all hacking and chewing ferociously, while you fiddle with your useless assortment of knives and forks.  And through all this terrible nightmare you are being harassed spitefully by the villain. He keeps on looking at you menacingly  --  and, pouncing every now and then on careless (or maybe callous) waiters, reminds them in his stentorian voice:  "VEGETARIAN! VEGETARIAN!"

Hotels, after all, have never been as progressive as airline companies in the matter of customer-handling.  Vegetarians all over the world have now started feeling a certain pride on seeing the airline companies vying with each other to glorify him.  Vegetarian meals on board airliners are no longer concessions, but a legitimate feature.  The vegetarian feels confident at last!


PostScript, 2013

Fifty years are a long span of time even in the life of a nation or the whole world, leave alone the life of an individual;  and there has been a remarkable upgrading world-wide in the status of vegetarians during the past half-century.  And yet they continue to face serious problems too now and then, as they did in a dinner organized for an Indian soiree at the recent Cannes film festival. 

But the whole theme seems to call for a fresh commentary now, so let me continue this exercise tomorrow!

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