Colorful, steaming bowls of dhal (lentils) and hot buttered chapatis (thin, circular bread cooked on a griddle). This is what we ate most of the time, out of necessity, growing up in provincial England in the early 1970s. My parents would comment from time to time, that the goreh (white people) surrounding us wasted so much money buying fish and chips, drinking alcohol at the pub, and smoking cigarettes. “If we did that we’d soon run out of money!” But on occasional Sundays we’d have a feast of black pudding, baked beans, and pork pie. My favorite part of the pork pie was the rich, thick, crumbly pastry. I ignored the transparent jelly between the pastry and the meat. My slice of pork pie was never big enough; Dad sliced the cylindrical pie six ways, as I had three sisters. I had no idea at the time that black pudding is a sausage made from pig’s blood and that the chewy white parts are animal fat. My mouth just knew it was on a delightful excursion. As it was on the occasional Saturday night when we had company and Mum conjured up chicken biryani. On these occasions Dad and his friend would go to the pub next door to drink beer, and we kids would watch programs like Rich Man, Poor Man on television, as we inhaled the warm, fragrant synergy emanating from the kitchen.
One morning everything changed. Mum woke me up with her hurried footsteps on the landing and her cries: “Everyone’s going to say she ran away from home! How will we ever raise our heads in public again?” Initially I was unconvinced about the gravity of the situation because every small transgression was magnified by my parents into a big drama. It turned out that they were right, for once, in their dramatic response. Dad had given us a rare choice: to continue with our education at a local university, or get married. My older sister, by about eighteen months, was not interested in academic education, so Dad had begun to arrange her marriage. But she gave herself a third option―she left home―during the night.
This was the beginning of my parents’ renunciation of the world and its concomitant pain and shame. They joined a family friend, who had five daughters and no sons, and who attended satsangs every weekend. Satsang comes from Sanskrit, and means ‘keeping company with the truth.’ The spiritual leader, or guru, went by the unlikely name of Fighting Cocks Uncle; his name derived from the pub he lived close to. The satsangs were impossible to avoid when we were hosting at our house, but when they were hosted elsewhere, I could often escape by claiming I had homework to do. Fighting Cocks Uncle would read passages from different holy books, such as the Granth Sahib (for Sikhism, the religion I was born into), The Vedas (for Hinduism), and the Bible, and then he would expand on the meanings of the texts. The essence of his teachings was that the soul and God were one, and we were all players on the stage of life. In each incarnation, the soul occupied a higher or lower form, depending upon our activities in the human form (karma). Those who could live in the world without attachments and desires would, at the end of their human lives, finally be free from the cycle of reincarnation, and their souls would be reunited with God. This was the meaning of life. Sometimes Fighting Cocks Uncle was moody and he chastised the santsangis for making insufficient progress in putting his teachings into practice in their daily lives. He even stopped attending the satsangs at one point as a protest. It was only when they collectively begged him to return did he concede, and resume his position as spiritual leader. Food was always shared at the end of each satsang, and in keeping with Fighting Cocks Uncle’s teachings, it was always vegetarian.
Mum and Dad’s renunciation meant the end of pork pies and black pudding and chicken biryani. They said we could still eat meat and fish, but they neither bought nor cooked anything that was non-vegetarian. And we did not have much money of our own. A couple of years later when I attended university, I indulged in the occasional Cornish pasty―a hearty semi-circle of pastry filled with meat and potatoes and other vegetables.
At the age of twenty-three I had an arranged marriage, as was expected of me. My mother-in-law-to-be graciously agreed to a vegetarian and teetotal lunch following the religious ceremony. She did express some concern that I would be feeding grass to her lion, but it seemed a moot point considering we were to live with her and my father-in-law after marriage; she would be in charge of the cooking, just as, I would quickly discover, she was in control of everything else. My in-laws organized a reception for us a week later, at which meat and alcohol were served.
A couple of years into my marriage, I felt some pressure to try and not be a vegetarian, as I was in a minority of one in the extended family. I ate baked potatoes with such regularity that my brother-in-law began referring to me as an alootarian (aloo means potato). But eating meat ruffled my conscience, especially as I had done some reading about factory farming.
My older daughter, Kiran, says she became a vegetarian at the age of six because I made her eat fish alongside her chips. Access to information on whether a vegetarian diet provides all the nutrients required for growing children was not as easy in the early 1990s as it is now, online. So I had erred on the side of caution when Kiran made overtures about giving up meat and fish. But she was determined, so I made her take a daily multivitamin tablet. At least I thought she was taking the tablets, until I found one at the bottom of the toilet. She said they made her feel sick.
When we moved to the US in 1999 my husband, Bob, worked in Norfolk, Virginia, where PETA is headquartered―no, not People Eating Tasty Animals, but the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. I still cooked meat and fish for Bob, and younger daughter, Priya, but Kiran and I remained vegetarian. I tried to be vegan at one point, but it did not last long, because I love dairy-based desserts. My love affair probably began with our free school lunches in England which came with jam roly-poly and custard, chocolate shortbread and white mint custard, and other heavenly afters each day. A yogi I met in Virginia Beach, where we lived, told me that macaroni and cheese had precipitated her fall from vegan grace.
I joined PETA, and began to learn about animal cruelty beyond factory farming: the fur, wool, and skin/leather industries; laboratory research; puppy mills; entertainment (such as greyhound racing, cockfighting and dogfighting―I had always known that animals did not belong in zoos or circuses).
Three years later, after another move―this time to California―Kiran soon became a vegan, like Jen, one of her new high school friends. Jen was so strict, she did not even eat honey. Being in charge of food was already challenging with Kiran’s nut allergy, Bob’s multiple allergies―to particular fruits and vegetables and soy products―and my decision to stop cooking meat and fish when I no longer wanted to handle them while raw. I was happy to put prepared frozen food in the oven. Bob traveled a lot for work, so I felt guilty when Priya wanted to eat non-vegetarian food that required preparing. The situation improved once she learned to drive and could buy takeout for herself.
Much of the cruelty that occurs on factory farms and in laboratories has come to light through the videos and pictures released by undercover animal rights activists. But in recent years, these activists have been labeled domestic terrorists, and have been investigated by the FBI, charged, and imprisoned. Even though they have neither injured nor killed fellow humans―unlike white supremacists and anti-abortion activists, who have yet to be categorized similarly. The torture itself that has been exposed has taken a back seat to prosecution for property damage and hindering corporate profits. Even free speech activities such as protesting have been criminalized. Unsurprisingly, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), whose membership comprises mostly conservative state legislators and corporate lobbyists, is the incubator for the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, which has been used as a model bill in states around the country, to curb the activism of both environmental (“eco-terrorists”) and animal rights activists. ALEC is also the source of other pro-corporate legislation including: “Stand Your Ground” gun laws that allowed for the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer; prison privatization; deregulation; education privatization; voter ID laws; pro-fossil fuel proposals (along with climate change denial). So ALEC’s agenda is to curb the rights of Americans, including the right to know the horrific conditions under which animals are caged for food and research, because humane treatment will dig into profitability. Yet ALEC is registered as a nonprofit organization.
In California I joined The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization that promotes alternatives to animal research and a vegan diet for disease prevention.
Alongside the ethical dilemma, the connection between animal consumption and climate change is well documented, with 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions linked to meat and dairy production. Surprisingly, this is greater than the emissions from transportation. In a welcome move away from the all-or-nothing approach, Brian Kateman’s book The Reducetarian Solution is an anthology of essays which span the multiple justifications for curbing consumption of animal products. Argued from their own areas of expertise, the authors all agree on the benefits of a reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy products.
And this is a position that allows me to have my cake and eat it too. But not every day. It also makes my return to cow’s milk in my chai an easier transition, now that I suspect the phytoestrogens in the soy milk substitute I had used for many years contributed to the hormonal havoc I experienced during menopause.
This position of compromise helps me to come to terms with some of my other incongruous behaviors, such as my inability to extend my compassion for other animals to insects, spiders, and other bugs. Especially those who make their way into my house. Occasionally I will ‘escort’ the intruder out into the garden. But my normal response is to take off my shoe and smash the cockroach, cricket, spider, silver fish, et al.. For the most part, I try not to kill anything outside, unless it is really close to the perimeter. I try to use non-toxic products to keep my home free of these unwanted ‘guests,’ because I do not want to share a ‘living’ space with them at any point―not even after cremation.
Avoiding fur has not been difficult, as it has never appealed to me. But I could definitely do a much better job of avoiding leather and wool. Through my work in the Fair Trade sector I learned about ahimsa (peace) silk which is produced without killing the silk worms responsible for creating the coveted silk fiber.
Then there is the matter of the squirrel eating the avocados on my tree. I have to admit I have even considered buying a Taser―not to cause injury, but to train it―Pavlov’s squirrel, if you will. But I know my money would probably be better spent on avocados themselves. Sometimes I dream about buying a BB gun. Maybe Bob could eat the squirrel, with an avocado salad. At least it would have been a humane killing. Free range squirrel and a lot more avocados to look forward to.
I have often had to defend my food choices when in the company of Bob’s family: “Why do you eat ‘fake’ meat as a vegetarian?” To which I have repeatedly replied that I am not rejecting meat on the grounds of taste or texture, but on ethical grounds. I cannot lie, bacon smells delicious. But I am not tempted to eat it. Here in Southern California vegetarian and vegan food is pretty easy to find. And thankfully, a lot of Indian food is vegetarian―including dhal and chapatis.
Sarita Sidhu is a nonfiction writer and an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. She has worked as a teacher and an advocate of Fair Trade for many years.