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On a flight from Mumbai to Kolkata, the stewardess came around to serve our meals. “Veg or non-veg, Sir?”, she asked. “Non-veg” was the automated reply that went from me, being a Bengali by birth, life-long preferences and gastronomic attributes. The gentleman sitting next to me in the middle seat (I had the window), said to her, “I am on a fast” and declined the meal, looking visibly disappointed. The lady flanking him on the aisle seat also opted for the non-veg fare. It was no surprise as she was a Bengali too.

I realised that Navratri had commenced, leading to Dassehra. It was the third day of nine days and nine nights during which many people fast. Whether to detoxify themselves, please the Goddess, lose weight or just because others do it, I don’t know and I don’t care. As long as they are happy, it is fine with me. This gentleman was surely not looking very happy. Stuck in the middle seat, flanked by two passengers eating pulao and chicken curry, it was certainly not his day. I suspect he was a non-vegetarian on a normal day.

Diversity in India includes gastronomic diversity. During festivals, especially religious or quasi-religious ones, we Bengalis feast as if there is no tomorrow. Actually, we feast all the time. That is par for the course. Then, there are people who do not eat meat during such times. These are temporary breaks from being cannibals at other times. For vegetarians, life is simpler as most of our Gods themselves appear to be vegetarians, judging from the ‘bhog’ or ‘prasad’ that they are offered. There are others who fast and a some who don’t even drink water in penance during those days. No problem with any of this. It is a personal choice which must be respected.

The problem starts when tutoring commences and compliance is forced; when personal beliefs and preferences are thrust upon people who are not even interested in the first place. I have seen entire households suffer in silence when a controlling member turns vegetarian or vegan. These members are not necessarily elders. There are people of all ages including teenagers, who get swayed by a point of view, be it a dietician’s advice, a sadhu’s sermon, animal welfare, vegetarianism, presumed righteousness in disapproving cow milk being denied to the calf or blood and gore in the killing of animals low in the food chain. I have witnessed several households pandering to these whimsical ideas without a whimper. They sulk internally but are incapable of holding their own against one person’s cultivated belief despite their own education, experience and better sense.

Like religion, music, books, brands of shampoo and preferences for pets, food preference is also a personal choice. It may be conditioned by circumstances during childhood and in growing-up years but it remains personal. It need not become a dogmatic belief with which everyone must comply. This ‘single-belief’ phenomenon is the root cause of intolerance in every sphere of life. If I had someone telling me what to eat and when, I would either walk away or ask that person to take a walk.

Eat and let eat. It’s your life, it’s your body, it’s your happiness. You know best.

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