Wednesday, May 24, 2017

It all depends on the "default"?

Recall my observations on the Indian usage "non-vegetarian" that is often referred to as "non-veg"?  What?  No?  How could you forget?

Ok, lemme quickly recap for you.

Meat eating is the default food habit in England.  The ones who do not eat meat, have to identify themselves as vegetarians or vegans or whatever else.  When the Subcontinent absorbed the English language, a new usage was created for the food habits there: non-veg.  As in not-vegetarian.

Such a special coinage to refer to the meat-eaters makes the rest of the world also think that Indians are vegetarians.  The reality is far from that.  It is a minority of Indians who are vegetarians.

Even back in my childhood days, it seemed like quite a few of my classmates were "non-veg."   I was the principled holdout during my school days when I refused to taste my classmates' lunch, unlike my siblings who apparently did--which I came to know much later in life.

Only after coming to America did I taste a little bit of animal protein and alcohol.  But, even that is so small a quantity that my daily life is pretty much that of a teetotaler vegetarian.

Estimates of vegetarians in India are as low as 20 percent of the population to about 30 percent of the Indians.  Even if one takes the average, only about a quarter of India's population restricts itself to vegetarian food.  An overwhelming three-quarters of the population is non-veg.  This is not new.  It has always been that way. Consumers of animal protein have always exceeded the population of vegetarians.

Then, one would think that in India, too, there will not be any need for the "non-veg" usage, right?

I suspect that, as in many instances, this is a result of identifications being shaped by the rich and the powerful.  I think that given the high profile role of brahmins in the British Raj, well, both the British and the brahmins made vegetarian as the default word to describe Indians in the new language.  And, therefore, a new word for the others.

The "other" is based on such definitions of default conditions.  During my early years in the US, I was always surprised that only the non-white groups were referred to by their prefixes, as if the word "American" meant only white.  In my commentary-writing days in California, I once submitted an essay in which I argued that white criminals should be referred to as being white, just as reports call out the racial ID when the perps are "others."  Of course, the commentary was not published.

I wrote another piece about female athletes.  It was common then to refer to female athletes of a college not by the college nickname--like the Trojans or the Ducks--but as the Women of Troy, or the Lady Ducks.  In this essay, I wrote about how the reports were then equating the name only to men, and therefore specially calling women out.  This was not published either.

Maybe those essays were not published because they were crappy writing.  Or, maybe because I was calling out the obvious, and people are usually uncomfortable with dealing with such truths.

Language, too, is about power.  The dominance of "vegetarian" is a reflection of the power that a minority had over an overwhelming majority of "others."  The phrase "non-veg" is not any accidental creation.


Ramesh said...

The percentage of vegetarians was much higher in India when we were young. It has declined as food habits have become more cosmopolitan and a lot of the young have taken to meat eating while their parents remain vegetarian. And its not a Brahmin thing either - that's a Tamil Nadu oddity. Punjab for example is actually heavily vegetarian . Its the Sikhs who are meat eaters and the impression therefore is that the whole of Punjab is heavily meat eating. Far from reality - many of Punjabi Hindus of all castes are actually vegetarian.

I had the opposite problem to the linguistic issue you have raised. In Chinese, there is no word for vegetarian and I had to describe myself as a non meat eater, non fish eater, etc etc. What a pain !

Sriram Khé said...

Hmmm ... you are the resident Indian and, therefore, I am a tad hesitant to oppose you on this. But, I shall ;)
My understanding has always been that it is many Sikhs who are vegetarians. The non-Sikh Punjabis are omnivores, budget permitting.
As for the percentage that was vegetarian in the past, versus now ... The brahmins and a few "forward communities" were mostly vegetarians. But, the vast majority of the population did not belong to these groups, and didn't eat much animal protein in the past only because they were often dirt poor. Now, thankfully, extreme poverty and poverty has been vastly diminished and along with that there is a greater open demand for animal protein. In addition, the global outlook of people has promoted animal protein consumption among the traditionally vegetarians also.
My point is this: "The percentage of vegetarians was much higher in India when we were young" might be true only because most people were damn poor when we were young.

I can easily imagine the China problem you describe. Back in Bakersfield, an older Chinese-American couple had invited us to the Chinese New Year banquet--and they were disappointed that I could not eat most of the courses that were served ;)

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