During my interaction with the omnivorous people, I have come to notice the strange curiosity with which they receive the knowledge that I am a vegetarian. The curiosity at first, I must indicate, is of a cautious variety. The caution, I have come to learn after being questioned by several dozen individuals over the past decade or so, stems from the primary assumption that I am a vegetarian owing to religious reasons. Curiosity notwithstanding, most sensible people are cautious when approaching any subject that is even mildly connected with religiosity. Offences are given and taken, regardless of whether offences were intended or not, with wild abandon, and hence people are given to exercising extreme caution in approaching such matters.
There is another reason, I have discovered, for the cautious curiosity expressed by my meat-eating brethren – health. Besides religion, the only other reason people assume I reject meat is owing to some serious health issues that is ailing me, such as high cholesterol; and just as with religion, they are equally cautious when the potential reason could be related to one’s health. While meat eaters may not have much sensitivity concerning the animals that are slaughtered for their consumption, I am glad to report that they cannot be faulted for lack of the same toward a fellow human. And I will whole-heartedly admit that I find this character trait very much gratifying; it would be ungrateful of me not to acknowledge this.
When I have repudiated both these causes – religion and health - as the reason for my vegetarian ways, caution gives way to complete and unabashed curiosity. I can readily understand this stage of emotion - if it is not religion or health, then what possible reason could a person have for not eating meat? The conversation generally begins to get interesting when I admit, as I invariably do at this stage, that I have not always been a vegetarian, rather, I have given up eating meat voluntarily a decade ago. Now curiosity is mingled with mild amusement and a visible sense of relief as well. The former may perhaps be attributed to the fact that the questioner senses a beginnings of a coming guessing game, and the latter clearly to the fact that there it is now clear that there is no danger in pressing the matter further since religion and health are clearly out of the picture; now it is a free for all.
Then the question that follows is one demanding clarification on the extent of my vegetarian ways: do I eat any seafood or eggs? For some inexplicable reason, people assume fish have no life or feeling and hence they are different from other “higher” forms of meat such as beef, pork, lamb, etc. I concede that I do eat egg, but answer in the firm negative concerning seafood. This inevitable leads to the question: why on earth don’t I eat meat? The answer I give, in as much a matter of fact manner as I can, is that I shun meat because of philosophical reasons, nothing more, nothing less.
Generally at this point, the conversion tends to become raucous, and any expressions of curiosity are quickly replaced with defiance mixed with derision. Defiance perhaps in anticipation of the belief that I am about to claim the moral high ground soon, and derision because they don’t fully understand what “philosophical reason” means yet, but they are ready to make fun of it, mock it and issue scornful remarks when an explanation is provided. Derision also because I have now declared myself to be different from most people and this difference is not due to any serious reason like religion or health. One can see the gloves coming off at this point.
I usually find that I am now under enormous pressure to explain what my “philosophical” reasons are. Trying to terminate the conversation at this point is pointless; blood has been smelt and they will get their pound of flesh come hell or high water! So in a very matter of fact manner that is both diplomatic and placating, I explain my philosophy briefly. I have mastered the art of brevity because my audience will have generally become completely impatient in the first few seconds of my beginning my explanation. So I attempt an explanation of my philosophy in a nutshell: all creatures have life in them, and they have as much as right to lead them to their normal completion as we do ours, and that these lives have to generally be extinguished in order to make those deplorable creatures ready for human consumption. I also add jokingly, with a view to ease the very visibly building tension, that in certain parts of the world, people are rather impatient and are know to consume creatures while they are fully alive and kicking, quite literally! At this stage, people have lost all patience and a discussion that began in equanimity is high-spirited and interruptions are many and frequent. I manage to add that since we presume to be the most intelligent species on earth, and with our remarkable success in agriculture, there is such a diverse amount of vegetables, grains, fruits and nuts that are available for our consumption, and that meat is really quite unnecessary. Hence, I conclude, that I have chosen to let other creature be.
At this stage, anger is very clearly present on the faces of the questioners, and specks of froth can be clearly discerned around their mouths. There is a marked redness in the faces and I quietly notice that the speakers are on their feet and my personal space is shrinking remarkably quickly. Someone invariably comes up with this question without fail: did I not admit to eating eggs earlier and did that not amount to killing chicken? I answer with an easy smile that an egg would perhaps develop into a chicken at some point in the future, but that it generally is not at the moment of my consumption. I stop kidding around when I notice the throbbing veins on the foreheads of my questioners, and quickly add that most eggs one buys these days are unfertilized and hence quite incapable of developing into lovely chicks, and that even the most persistent of hen would be bitterly disappointed if she were to try to hatch them.
By this time, my audience will have lost all faculties of reasoning, and this is quite evident when this question is thrown at me with a great deal of smugness and finality – am I not responsible for the death of plants and am I not being incredibly callous and indifferent to their fates? I am not smiling anymore at this point because the audience is beginning to creep me out, but I answer with a steady voice that I don’t kill most plants and tree because it is the fruits and vegetables that are harvested from them that I consume while they continue to lead fruitful lives. I slip in my observation that this quite different from meat-eaters where nothing but bones and innards are all that are left of the animals that are consumed. Perhaps an unwise thing to say to an angry mob, but one must not shirk from expressing ones beliefs. Beside, I was merely satiating their curiosity by answering queries posed and not imposing my unsolicited views by any means. Not surprising, and quite rightly too, one of the audiences that is still vaguely familiar with vegetables will raise the million dollar question – what about them carrots, eh? Isn’t the plant killed to retrieve the vegetable? There is general cheering among the audience at this point and victorious smiles are exchanged; one senses their belief that victory is in sight and that nothing can stop them now. Now I am not a bigot nor am I recalcitrant, and I readily admit to the accuracy of the questioner's statement and add that there are a variety of plants that are killed for the benefit of human consumption: rice, wheat and other such grain crops; radish, carrots, mushrooms and other vegetables; cilantro, parsley and other herbs, just to name a few. While I concede this point, I do ask the audience whether they don’t agree that life is less manifest in these plants than it is in a cow or a pig or a lamb, and that killing a cilantro plant is not quite the same as killing a cow with perhaps a young calf at its side. There is “awareness” among these creatures that is absent in plants and trees. Besides, I have to live as well, don't I? However, I choose to coexist as peacefully as possible with the other creatures to the best of my ability. While most agree to this, some do believe that a victory has been scored and my philosophy for becoming a vegetarian has been shredded and left in tatters.
Regardless of who has won the argument, I find it interesting to see the way in which people react when they learn of my reasons for giving up meat – it was not owing to religion or health, but my personal ideology - their reaction is defensive. They immediately assume that I think I am or that I perceive myself to be a better person than them. And all this even before I have explained my philosophy. It is strange that people can accept vegetarianism even if it is due to the illogical and blind reasoning prescribed by religion, but cannot accept a carefully reasoned and thought out reason that I present.