Vegetarianism is serious business in India. It is not a feel good, fashionable lifestyle choice. Thousands of years of ingrained cultural and religious considerations have given rise to the strict dietary practice. It is estimated that there are approximately 220 million vegetarians in India. If true, there should be around 780 million meat eating Indians. But it appears that vegetarians, who by this estimate comprise roughly 22% of the population, pack considerable clout when it comes to driving public policies regarding housing, content of supermarkets and nature of neighborhood eateries.
To understand Indian vegetarianism, one must first appreciate the fact that it is not just a personal eating habit arising out of simple likes, dislikes or even health considerations. It is comparable to the dietary restrictions followed by orthodox Jews - dictated by religious beliefs which are non-violable for their adherents. Non- meat eating Indians consider the flesh of dead animals "unclean" and many would not eat or share cooking utensils with a meat eater. Some of my friends in school were dedicated vegetarians of the above variety. I remember that during lunch we would raid each other's lunch boxes for variety. My vegetarian friends happily shared their delicious uppama, utthapam and assorted puri bhajis with us. But they would not accept anything from us meat eaters, even when our "tiffin" contained nothing different from their own vegetarian fare or just an innocuous cucumber and tomato sandwich. The reason, they politely explained, was that since our food was prepared in kitchens where fish and meat were also cooked, they could not partake of it. No one felt offended because we understood the deeply felt conviction with which they declined our friendly offerings.
An AP report in Tuesday's Houston Chronicle describes a trend that goes beyond the personal and encroaches on discrimination against non-vegetarians, in my opinion. I have always been aware of the bias against meat eating tenants in certain parts of India - mostly in smaller towns in vegetarian regions. Places of Hindu pilgrimage do not permit any meat within city limits. Most of India also bans beef. But I was surprised to learn that the practice is spreading even in a large cosmopolitan city like Mumbai. I have a further question. What about pets? Dogs and cats need meat. Are tenants allowed to own pets?
Living in a vegetarian 'monopoly'
By RAMOLA TALWAR BADAM
BOMBAY, INDIA - Nevermind pets, smokers or loud music at 2 a.m. House hunters in Bombay increasingly are being asked: "Do you eat meat?" If yes, the deal is off.
As this city of 16 million becomes the cosmopolitan main nerve of a booming Indian economy, real estate is increasingly intersecting with cuisine. More middle-class Indians are moving in, more of them are vegetarian, and the law is on their side.
"Some people are very strict. They won't sell to a nonvegetarian even if he offers a higher price than a vegetarian," said real estate broker Norbert Pinto.
Vegetarianism is a centuries-old custom among Hindus, Jains and others in India. The government reckons India has some 220 million vegetarians, more than anywhere else.
"Veg or non-veg?" is heard constantly in restaurants, at dinner parties and on airlines. And the question has long been an unwritten part of the interrogation house hunters must submit to. But it's becoming more open, and the effects more noticeable, all the more so in Bombay, which attracts immigrants from Gujarat and Rajasthan, strongly vegetarian states, as well as followers of the Jain religion.
In constitutionally secular India, there's no bar to forming a housing society and making an apartment block exclusively Catholic or Muslim, Hindu or Zoroastrian. Vegetarians say they too need segregation.