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Sunday, January 17, 1999
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To be or not to be a vegetarian
By Manohar Malgonkar

THE Dalai Lama is a world figure, a holy man who has lived up to his image and is also a truly civilised person. And after Martin Scorsese made a major film on his life, Kundan, he is much more widely known and has become a cult figure in Europe and America; the sort of person people go out of their way merely to get a glimpse of.

So when Stephen Wu, the Manager of a vegetarian restaurant in New York, the Zen Palate, received an order to send up lunch for a gathering of Buddhist monks in New York which was to be presided over by His Holiness, he must have experienced a jolt of elation similar to that of a London caterer or tailor when he gets that coveted ‘By Appointment’ notification from the Monarch’s office.

The "teaching session" was being held in the grand ballroom of a hotel, the Roseland, but the Dalai Lama himself had been put up as befits heads of states or of faiths — in a suite at the Waldorf.

The Zen Palate cooked one of its specialities, brown rice and fettuccini, packed it in a hundred or so individual boxes, and had them delivered at the conference venue. It is reported that, while many of the monks ate their lunch with obvious relish, there were some who made it clear that they would have preferred a non-vegetarian meal. And as for His Holiness, he had himself driven back to his hotel and there ordered room-service lunch: beefsteak well done.

Reading about this incident, I was reminded of the times when I used to visit the USA and find myself in similar situations. There were occasions when, with beefsteak served as the main dish at sit-down meals, I used to peck at the garnishings and wait till I got back to wherever I happened to be staying to assuage my hunger with cheese and biscuits — well, crackers.

Stephen Wu had good reason to feel let down. Like most of us, he must have been under the impression that, even if all Buddhists were not vegetarians, their holy men could not possibly be habitual meat-eaters. Apparently many are, and in particular, the Tibetan lamas don’t have taboos about what kind of meat they eat. Lamb, pork, poultry, beef — anything goes. But an all-vegetarian meal? Ugh !

As for the Dalai Lama himself, it seems that he tried out vegetarianism for a time but found that he did not keep good health on a meatless diet. So now he is vegetarian and non vegetarian on alternate days. That Friday of the conference in New York must have been his non vegetarian day.

Another world-famous personage who, too, tried out vegetarianism — and gave it up — was Britain’s Prince Charles. Odd as it may seem, it was an Indian lady who is an ardent Buddhist who tried to get him interested in the teachings of Buddha as well as the benefit of a meatless diet, and the Prince seems to have been receptive to her arguments and culitivated ‘an intense’ relationship with her, much to the horror of the phalanx of officials whose task it is to guard him against such un-British interests. Whoever had heard of a British Royal who put up with faddists who were against blood-sports? Indeed, the Prince’s Private Secretary Edward Adene is said to have expressed his misgivings to his friends in no uncertain terms: "It has got to be stopped."

And stopped it was. His Royal Highness’s bred-in-the-bones love for hunting and shooting has remained unabated, and so has his preference for non-vegetarian meals. Long live the roast beef of old England!

Oh well. After all, as they say, there is no accounting for tastes — in music, in art, in our notions of what constitutes beauty, in our preferences for pets, but, above all, in matters of food.

So the Punjabi business tycoon, after a hectic round of hobnobbing with his contacts in Europe and the USAand having gorged on expense-account smoked salmon and lobster, returns to his kothi in Phagwara and yells for hot makki rotis and sarson da saag; or again the Maharashtrian doctor who is on the faculty of Chicago’s teaching hospital and whose annual pilgrimage to his dusty village near Dhulia is still three months away, is thinking of the zunka-bhakri meal that will be offered to him on arrival. Mind you, both these dishes are the common man’s daily fare; but when you don’t get them for a long time, they acquire the dimensions of crab mousse and quiche Lorraine.

But one thing. Away from its own peculiar environment, neither dish will taste the same.

Which may explain why the Dalai Lama, brought up as he was on cattle-flesh since infancy if only for the reason that vegetables don’t grow in the Tibetan climate, chose an American alternative to his native fare in preference to the vegetarian fare on offer. But the reason for Prince Charles’s disenchantment with meatless food seems fairly straightforward.

After all England is no country for vegetarians.

For one thing they don’t know how to cook them: they boil them into a mush to kill off their taste and then pep them up with salt and pepper. But an even more important reason is that vegetables in advanced countries such as the U.S. and the U.K., beans, carrots, cucumbers and the rest, may look like their namesakes in less developed countries, but they certainly don’t taste the same. For the past 50 years or so they have been cultivated to rigorous standards of size, shape, colour and, above all, longevity. In the process they have been divested of their distinctive tastes.

And now they have made another breakthrough! Genetically cultivated vegetables. The tomato has already made an appearance: looking just perfect. Blood red, large as a tennis ball and guaranteed to yet be in its shape, gloss, colour, and firmness for months and months. And it is only a matter of time till the same thing happens to onions, potatoes, beans, carrots and the rest.

What better excuse for the entire human race to turn non vegetarian.

That is why, for anyone interested in giving vegetarianism a try, India is the right place. Here vegetables are still cultivated by farmers with traditional methods. What is more, here going vegetarian is not a fad but a way of life for many ethnic groups. In Gujarat, Kutch, Marwar, the richest people have been committed vegetarians for centuries. It is they who know how to cook the best vegetarian food.

As for myself, I would have happily eaten Mr Wu’s brown-rice-fettuccini boxed lunch and may be sent him a note to say how much I had enjoyed it. So I am not knocking his fare when I say that, if all those Buddhist monks gathered in New York had been sent up a Gujarati thali meal, they might not have wished that they had been given something non vegetarian instead. And I have a feeling that even His Holiness might have broken a rule and preferred it to steak well done, even on his meat-eating day.Back

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