I am a vegetarian

I am a vegetarian. More out of habit than religion. (I’m not very religious.) What that means, in practice, is that I don’t eat non-vegetarian food knowingly.

But it has happened unknowningly. Many times.

Until I was 22, I had not been out of India on my own, and things were fine. In 1998, I went to Charlotte, NC, for training. (On a KLM flight that placed me illegally in Germany, but that’s another story.) I was pretty groggy after an 8-hour night flight. So when I was woken up by the sound of breakfast, I bit into the big yellow thing on the tray in front. Sleepy as I was, I did feel a little suspicious. Didn’t quite taste sweet, like I was expecting it to. I saved it for the last, when Ram, my manager, walked past.

“Are you eating that?” (pointing to the nibbled food in front)

“Yeah… why?”

“It’s chicken.”

My nibble was small, and I was still hungry, but there was no way I could eat the rest of it. Unfortunately, that turned out to be my last meal for 24 hours. (But, like I said, that’s another story.)

At Charlotte, food wasn’t so much of a problem. A bean burrito for dinner from Taco Bell worked just fine. But we drove to Washington DC one weekend, and that’s when big trouble struck.

You see, a bean burrito contains beans. That’s why it’s called a bean burrito.

Presumably, therefore, a hamburger would contain ham. Why else would it be called a hamburger? I can’t eat that. Ham is meat.

But a cheeseburger is safe to eat, since it only contains cheese. So Ram, Gayathri and I (the vegetarians) ordered a cheeseburger each, while Kallol and Dev (the non-vegetarians) ordered some chicken.

As usual, I was the hungriest, and took a big bite.

It didn’t feel right. Neither the taste, nor the look of the big red blob that I had taken a massive bite of.

(mouth full) “Kallol, what’s this?”

(after a careful examination) “I think it’s beef.”

Aaargh! Meat is bad, but beef is a sin. My mouth was still full of it. Panic sets in. Spit it all out. Need to wash mouth. Where do I go? Does this country use tissue for that as well? Run into men’s room…

After a while, Ram (who HADN’T taken a bite) calmed me down. And I was wiser.

The person at the counter must have made a mistake. It was quite noisy at the Smithsonian Museum restaurants. She must have heard us say the “burger” part, and not the “cheese” part. Quite understandable.

So a few days later, under much quieter circumstances, we ordered two cheeseburgers (“with extra cheese, please”) each. For the night…

Two years later, at London Business School, Accenture’s pre-placement talk was scheduled just after lunch, and they were sponsoring lunch. Naturally, I was there. Wise as I was, I carefully picked the vegetarian sandwiches — after verifying with two people independently (and re-verifying after one of them had taken a bite of it.)

The good part about being a vegetarian is that desserts are OK. Meat doesn’t go into desserts. Or biscuits. Or snacks. Or so I thought.

The assortment of biscuits was good, and I helped myself to a few. One of them was a bit salty, and rather good. So I went over for a second helping. I couldn’t reach it from where I stood, given the small crowd that was busily discussing work at Accenture just near the table. So I politely walked over to the other side, from where the biscuit was closer anyway…

… and read the label.

“Prawn something”.

Shit. Panic. Nausea.

This time I had actually eaten it. There was no mistaking the nausea in my stomach. I gulped three glasses of water before I calmed down a bit. Convinced myself that it’s OK because it tasted quite fine until I figured it was non-vegetarian. And ended up skipping the rest of lunch and the Accenture PPT anyway. (Too queasy in the stomach.)

Things haven’t changed much since 2000. I’ve managed to avoid non-vegetarian since. And learned that Pepperoni is not a form of pepper, nor is bolognese a variant of lasagna. But on the few occassions people try to point out to the beef fat content in Mentos or fish liver oil in a sauce, my only response is:

Don’t tell me. I’m OK with non-vegetarian if I don’t know about it.

P.S: I’m OK with eggs, though.

  1. Bimal says:

    You have very well described your experience, mate. I do appreciate the Music Mission you have organised.

    Thanks very much.