I was born into a non-vegetarian household, where my mum couldn’t cook purely vegetarian meals and my father couldn’t eat pure vegetarian meals. In spite of being devout Hindus, we consumed beef and pork, among other sundry meaty delicacies. Roast beef remains one of my favourite flavours to date; prawns in a butter garlic sauce coming in a close second.
My childhood equally consisted of a deep love and affinity for animals. I grew up with dogs, cats, parakeets, budgerigars, turtles, fish, rabbits, and even a duck at one point. The little duckling imprinted on my mother, and before she died in a tragic mishap, she followed my mother all around the house. It was adorable, and the upshot was that my mother couldn’t ever look at duck meat without feeling ill again. Same with us and rabbits, and obviously dogs and cats. The thought of eating an animal I had as a pet made me physically ill. But, we were still non-vegetarians.
For the longest time, there was a disconnect between the animal and the food on our plate. Of course, many people would say that, as moderately intelligent people, we should’ve known better. While that is absolutely true, the fact is that we didn’t.
My first encounter with this reality came at a fish market in Goa. Till then, I imagined fields of happy cows and sheep, led into a shed, where they were humanely killed. That morning, my dad and I had gone to buy fish and vegetables, at the adjoining vegetable market. I waited for the fish to be cleaned, a process which took place behind the market stalls.
Just adjacent, there were blocks in a line. The dampness and smell indicated habitual slaughter of chickens. The odd forlorn feather remained stuck to bloody patches on the floor and on the walls. It was a grim sight. I looked away, only to see that a few feet further, there were chicken sellers. I saw a lady point to one of the trussed birds laid out in front of a vendor. And the man reached forward, and undid a bird from the bundle. It was then I realised to my mounting horror and nausea that the birds were still alive. I was in the fish market; there are dead fish, so this unconscious thought had extended to the chickens in my mind. Except they weren’t dead. They were alive, with their feet tied together in bunches of 5-6 birds, some laid out flat, and some hung from hooks extending down from the ceiling.
The bird started squawking, held aloft by its legs, desperately flapping its wings. The man ignored all of this — probably used to this — and walked purposefully towards the butcher’s blocks. My stomach bailed at this point, and I turned to flee. But not before I heard the swish and thud of the knife, the swiftly silenced squawking, and the blood pooling onto the floor. I took the car keys from my dad, and sat in the car, rocking back and forth in shock and horror.
That moment, the connection had been indelibly forged. I instantly gave up meat — but not fish. I still imagined that death was painless.
Many months later, I started eating meat again, because it had become difficult for my mother to manage meals. The horror had also passed a little, and although the images were still carved into my psyche, I let it go. I just didn’t think about it any longer.
This year though, that overwhelming disgust came back, and this time my whole family had the same epiphany.
My dad was working in a different city, and my mom was planning to fly down to be with him for a few weeks. I had work, so I was staying put at home. The night before my mother’s flight, we realised that our bathroom had a mouse.
After freaking out and wringing our hands pointlessly for some time, we decided to break out an ancient (humane) rat trap and some blocks of poison. Yes, I realise those methods are in direct contradiction with each other, but honestly, we were completely in over our heads.
We put down the poison, and set up the trap. And the next morning, my mom left. Over the course of the week — I survived a week with a resident mouse — I saw the poison disappear, and the trap remain untouched. Until one day, I heard the trap shut with a loud snap. And I heard panicked screeching.
At that point, I knew the mouse was frightened out of its mind, but I was a ball of terrified tension as well. I looked at the trap and, sure enough, there it was — a tiny, dark brown creature with small pink paws and a long tail. It was clutching the bars of the trap, and every time I took a infinitesimal, scared step towards it, it went into a frenzy, flinging itself again the walls of the trap.
I started crying because I was so scared. Obviously not as scared as the mouse, but I was trying hard to imagine how I was going to get that trap out of the house, out of the building, and release the creature. In the middle of all these considerations, the mouse decided to fling itself against the right door, and the trap sprang open and it ran out. And I ran away screaming.
I was convinced that mouse was going to be a permanent fixture, because (secretly to my relief) the poison didn’t seem to be working. A week passed, and then one day, the mouse didn’t run away when I went into the bathroom. It slowly edged towards its nest, and I felt deep sorrow at having been the cause of its distress. The poison had worked. It was dying. And I was surprisingly in tears.
The mouse went away the way it came, and I never saw it again. And I was depressed for days because I killed a creature that did nothing wrong. It didn’t know that I was afraid of it, that the stuff it was wrecking was mine.
My mum spoke to me on the phone, and she had recently decided to be a vegetarian. She asked me, ever so gently, whether I was sure I wanted to continue being a non-vegetarian, seeing as I felt so badly about being responsible for the death of a mouse.
She was right. I stopped eating non-vegetarian food entirely. No meat, no fish, nothing. At least I am no longer conflicted about the morsels I put into my mouth. And I feel a little more at peace.