By Shoba Naidu
It’s not easy being a vegan, discovers Shoba Naidu
When a friend recently asked me why I had stopped being vegan, I looked dumb. I didn’t have a short answer. I had to step back and take stock of things before replying. The answer wasn’t a simple one. To give a credible explanation I had to turn the clock back to the year 2006 when I had turned vegan.
I had made a job hop. From being a mainstream journalist I had joined an animal rights group. The offer was attractive as I was very fond of animals and wanted to do something for them. I hated to see the grisly cruelty being inflictedon animals all around me – be it the mindless cruelty in chicken and mutton shops, or the heartless killing of street dogs.I thought I could put my experience in journalism to work for their cause. I had also come under the influence of Maneka Gandhi through her columns and TV programmes. There were days when I would jump into busy traffic – unmindful of the curious stares of the public –to berate a moped driver carrying live hens upside down on either side of his vehicle like bundles of lifeless hay, or fight with a cartman for overloading his bullock cart.
This animal group was headed by a friend who was vegan. The office space overflowed with Peta calendars, pamphlets and videos showing extreme cruelty in the dairy, poultry and piggery industry. These videos showed how newborn calves were separated from the cows and starved, so that the milk could be collected for human consumption; the male calves among these were butchered for the veal industry; how hens were put in tiny cages where they couldn’t move during their whole lives so that they could be fattened for the table; how squealing pigs were hung upside down on hooks while still alive and butchered. The list of cruelty was endless. These videos turned me from vegetarian to vegan overnight.
Globally, nearly 58 billion land animals are killed for food every year. Although India can take credit for propagating the concept of ahimsa, it ranks first in milk production and fifth in the world in meat production, and accounts for three per cent of the world output of meat. About 40 per cent of the Indian population are lacto-vegetarians mostly for religious reasons. Milk is considered vegetarian as no animal life is killed to procure it. Although this may have been true in the hoary past, the industrialisation of animal-based food industry tells another story.
I belong to a non-vegetarian family that enjoys its Sunday lunches of mutton biriyani and chicken fry. Somewhere down the line I had turned vegetarian after coming under the influence of ayurveda and naturopathy. The transition from vegetarian to vegan would be a cakewalk, or so I thought. But it turned out that it wasn’t easy at all. Why? Because veganism is not about food alone; there is a whole philosophy and lifestyle behind veganism that embraces the fact that animals are sentient beings and not objects to be used as food, clothes, accessories, cosmetics, medicines and for vivisection in labs.
Vegan converts in India generally cite one or all of the reasons below for following this philosophy:
1) Compassion for animals is one of the most, if not the most, important reason in India. Religion, especially Jainism, prohibits hurting living beings. ‘Live and let live’ is at the core of their belief system. Many Hindus, particularly Brahmins, are vegetarians by choice although they consume dairy products such as milk, curd and ghee. They cannot be categorised as vegans.
2) Health reasons – excessive cholesterol is bad for heart. Statistics show that more non vegetarians die of heart attacks than vegetarians. Middle-aged Indians allude to health for going off animal products.
3) Environmental reasons –dairy industry contributes to greenhouse gases and thus global warming; it takes more grains to feed animals in the meat and dairy industry than to directly feed humans. More youngsters are quoting this reason for becoming vegans.
As I went deeper into veganism I started reading the labels on all food products I consumed. At the supermarket, I peered with a magnifying glass at the ingredients which went into making such innocuous items as bread and biscuits (may contain milk products), shampoos, soaps and creams (may contain animal fats and oils) or have been tested on animals. I gave away my silk saris, threw away my fancy leather bags and footwear, junked the cosmetics and creams. I started shopping for soya milk and vegan alternatives such as tofu; bought bags of dry fruits and nuts as dietary supplements. I scouted around for ahimsa silks, fancy reed bags and rubber footwear.
My life now revolved around what to eat, how to eat, where to eat; what to wear and where to shop. Slowly it was boiling down to whom to meet. Even my friends circle started to shrink.
Shopping for food and essentials opened my eyes to the fact that we had learnt to exploit animals – living and dead—for almost everything we used. There was hardly any industry that did not exploit animals as a cheap source of ingredients. The acid test came in the form of the medicines I needed to take for my diabetes. Were the capsules tested on animals? Did they contain animal products? These ethical issues haunted me day and night, and made me quite unpopular both at home and outside. I literally went through fire and water in my pursuit of veganism.
Socially it was becoming difficult for me to move among non-vegans. At parties and family gatherings questions such as “Why are you a vegan? Don’t plants have life? Don’t they feel fear and pain? How can you consume them?” were thrown nonchalantly at me. Most of my conversations revolved around what I ate, and why I ate them. A concerned hostess who saw me nibbling at carrot sticks would say persuasively, “Indian vegetarian food is cruelty-free!” forgetting the animal fat (read ghee) slathered on the chapathi, or that the paneer or raita dish was made with a product that came from an industry that was anything but that. Another friend would ask “Is it okay for me to keep a cow, treat it humanely, allow the calf to drink, and then use the leftover milk?” (That’s what Gandhi did with his goat!)
At home, snide comments that it was proving expensive to keep me vegan were being thrown at me. (A litre of soy milk costs about Rs 90 while cow’s milk costs about Rs 30 per litre.) Three kinds of food (vegan, vegetarian and non-vegetarian) had to be prepared to cater to the joint family needs. During my vegan days I met several men and women who remained single or had broken up with their partners because they had refused to turn vegan as well. There were people who were bringing up their young children as vegans without realising what the long-term consequences would be. Was I prepared to go to that extent in my pursuit of veganism?
Relapse from grace
In a study done in Western Carolina University, Professor Hal Herzog, PhD, a psychology professor, found there were four main reasons why vegetarians went back to meat eating. About 35 per cent stopped because they were becoming less healthy; 25 per cent stopped because of the hassles or the social stigma; 20 per cent stopped because they couldn’t resist animal products and 15 per cent stopped because it took a toll on their social life. This could be true even for vegans as well.
Although most facts favour veganism yet very few people are vegans. What are the reasons?
1. Firstly, it is not completely proven that vegan food is balanced. There could be certain deficiencies in diet that could cause health issues. A staunch vegan friend of mine stopped being vegan when another friend had a stroke due to B12 deficiency. This vitamin is obtained from meat, eggs, milk and fish.
2. There is no support from the family and society at large.
3. It is not easy to procure cruelty-free vegan products.
4. Vegan alternatives to essentials are expensive. E.g.soya milk, or tofu.
5. Medical industry thrives on animal exploitation for cheap medicines.
6. Vegans need support groups to help them keep on track.
I cannot pinpoint one reason why I turned my back on veganism. It could be all of the above. It could also be a lack of will power to go against the tide, and so I took the easy way out. Most importantly, however, it was the craving of my body, and I succumbed to it. One fine day I was back to wearing my favourite silk sari and sipping creamy coffee! Being vegetarian was liberating – in body, mind and spirit!
I do feel guilty sometimes. Someday I still hope to go back to being vegan.
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