Being Vegan in India
hen I moved to India, I thought it would be a vegan’s Mecca, a place where, at last, I could mingle with others who practiced a lifestyle just as fervently as I did.
I had chosen veganism a few years before because the whole animal slaughter thing became too difficult to ignore. I knew that most often the motivation for vegetarianism in India was more religious than animal-inspired, but the idea that an entire country could strive for ahimsa towards animals seemed both astonishing and perfect.
Image: Abhijeet Kini
That first day in India, taking in the barrage of things foreign and unknown on Mumbai’s streets, one thing stood out: Nearly every restaurant had a sign that marked itself as “Veg” or “Non-Veg.” Entire restaurants devoted to vegetarianism? I had died and gone to heaven!
Later that day, traipsing through the supermarket with naïve glee, I revelled in the system of labelling in which vegetarian products bore a green dot in a green square and animal-based products bore the label in brown. Very few vegetarian labels existed in the US.
The Jain family with whom I was staying told me how pleased they were that I had chosen vegetarianism even though I was American. (Translation: They were glad that even though I was from a heathen country where a typical dinner was a hunk of meat, I had chosen to forego that.)
The notion of the sacred cow, which I loved ingenuously as a kid, I saw in practice: Buses and cars bunched up in traffic to let them pass. It all seemed too good to be true. And it was.
You see, while India can lay claim to the earliest records of vegetarianism, adopted for similar reasons to mine — “Thou shalt not kill to eat” — the more than 30 percent of the population who are vegetarians in India are lacto-vegetarian. Vegetarianism comes in different categories, and it is these crucial distinctions that make my trusting vegan assumption so wrong.
Lacto-vegetarians consume dairy products, and this country consumes a lot of them. India is the number one milk-producing country in the world, and dairy products are a vital part of the diet, in both rural and urban areas. I soon realised Amul’s milk, butter, and cheese were as ubiquitous as their ads.
Veganism runs against all of this. As a diet and as a lifestyle, it excludes the use of any animal products to produce food, clothing, or anything else you might use in daily life. So, not just no milk, curd or ice cream; it also means no silk sarees, leather shoes, and making the sometimes Herculean effort to use alternate toothpaste, shaving cream, and other basic products. Even sugar, which can be refined using charred animal bones, is taboo. (The first time I was told this by a zealous vegan cash register girl, I sheepishly removed the sugar from my shopping cart, and wondered if I would ever enjoy dessert again.)
Going to a restaurant was the first test of my veganism in India. My ignorance of Indian dishes at that time aside, there were few items on the menu which excluded dairy products.
Actually, that first time, there were none. Undeterred, I asked the waiter to please leave out the following: sugar, butter, milk, and any other dairy products. He looked at me without expression, though in my self-consciousness, I sensed derision. “Par wahi to khana hai,” he said, take all that away and what’s left? When the food came, I realised the dal had the glorious-yet-prohibited taste of ghee, which I had forgotten to mention.
After lunch, we went to get roadside tea. The vendor happily agreed to leave out the milk. Later, I found out the flavouring agent in the tea came from animals.
Just like in the US, animal products were intrinsically woven into the daily fabric of life.
As for vegan non-food products in India, forget it. Toothpaste? Bone powder. The beautifully-patterned shirts and sarees I had always longed for? Silk. Most cosmetics have wax. And alas for my premature excitement over supermarket labels: The same manufacturers who are so stringent about green dots and squares often do not list milk in their ingredients. That is, when they bother to list ingredients at all.
In a country that loves dairy products, and uses so many other animal-produced luxuries, I wondered dejectedly — but with a lingering sense of American superiority — was veganism even possible here?
Manish Jain is a vegan, and the creator of IndianVegan.com, a portal which promotes veganism in India by stressing ethical reasons, debunking myths and employing health experts for back-up.