Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Baptised by Butter Chicken - Confessions of a Converting Carnivore

“Did you do justice to the chicken?”

An oft administered admonition to children. It means to lick every shred of meat off the bone. At least, the poor chicken can attain salvation after giving up his life to satisfy your hunger. Some humans have one thing in common with chickens – both can cluck continuously. While this constant clucking can drive one crazy, the connoisseur of chicken is more concerned about the second commonality between humans and chickens – the twain have only two legs.

A chicken leg is one of the favourite lollipop treats for kids. Battle lines get drawn up over the dominion and subsequent devouring of these poor limbs.  Many a night are spent gazing at the countless stars, and wondering how beautiful life would be if chicks had countless legs. Ahem! There is a pun intended here. It’s not just the chicken enthusiasts who dream about “chicks with countless legs” – the human male species abounds with similar fantasies. Someday, I will write a Ph.D. thesis on the human male species, but for now let’s avoid any digression, and stick with the chicks (the eating variety).

The Punjabis are a peculiar pack of meat-eaters. Every celebration from “Happy Birthday to Happy”,  “Lucky getting lucky enough to pass 5th grade” , “Lovely falling in love” and “Pinky fitting into her size zero pink pyjamas” are celebrated with a toast to our favourite bird – the hapless chicken. It is cooked via the Indian spice route, and bathed in golden butter to produce the national dish of Punjab – Butter Chicken.

A couple of decades ago, the stork dropped me into exactly such a household. I have often suspected that the stork had been to a Punjoo wedding feast that day, and was high on butter chicken drowned by a Patiala peg. The buttery bliss he experienced made him lose his sense of direction, and he accidentally dropped me into a Punjabi family. Whereas, I was originally intended to be born in a pious Jain family practicing ahimsa (non-violence) of thought, speech and action. So, now you know why I am the way I am. It’s the fault of the family and the stoned stork! Else, I would have been so perfect!

As soon as I opened my eyes after birth, I was baptised by the holy Butter Chicken, as were all my siblings and cousins. We grew up surrounded by butter chicken and its many cousins like chicken tandoori, chicken masala, chicken tikka, fried fish, mutton curry so on and so forth. 

When I was about 5 or 6 years old, my parents lived on the outskirts of a small town in Punjab. It was a large, beautiful house with a lot of outdoor space. Such an abundance of open space may lead one to experience the beauty and tranquility of nature, and ponder upon philosophical questions like the meaning of life. In our case however, the open space was viewed as nature beckoning the piteous chickens. My ever-efficient fauji father promptly utlilized the space as he thought best - by keeping a poultry! He was delighted that he could fatten up the birds his own way, and have an endless supply of the birds for his own brood.  I think there was a hidden agenda here as well. He probably wanted to ensure that his children were baptised completely into the Cult of the Carnivore. None of his progeny should ever become a lowly grass eater (ghaas phoos khane waale).  That would be an affront he would not be willing to bear. 

And then one day, when the birds were clucking joyously and trying to spread their wings in short flights, the strings of compassion began to stir in me. A lame chicken was about to end up as the piece de resistance on the dining table. I begged my father to have mercy on him, and let him live. I did succeed, but only in robbing Peter for Paul. There was another poor bird which showed up as the show-stopper for dinner. Temptation and compassion are’nt very good friends. That was a lesson I learned that night, as I competed for the chicken leg and licked the gravy off my fingers.

For the next eighteen years, Compassion knocked at my heart from time to time only to be locked out by Temptation. Then one day, it knocked very hard, and shook me. It was the day my elder son was born. My heart ripped apart as I saw the helplessness of a new-born from such close quarters. I thought of the similar helplessness of the animals that satiate our hunger. This time Compassion won the battle, and I was able to give up eating non-vegetarian food. I started practicing ahimsa of thought, word, action and became a saint. Free from the karmic cycle of birth and re-birth, my soul soared and became One with the Almighty – it was the quintessential “lived happily ever after”, end of story.
If only pigs could fly!

Compassion and Temptation continued to battle within me, and Compassion did have a winning spree for 3 years. I thought I had finally overcome my desire to eat meat, when suddenly all hell broke loose. I was invited to a Coorgi wedding! Surrounded by heavenly meat dishes, it was akin to an onslaught of rain on parched land. I was like the shark from “Finding Nemo” – who keeps telling itself that “Fish are friends, not food”, and then goes berserk when it sniffs blood. I was back at square one, competing for chicken legs and licking gravy off my fingers. And Compassion was defeated yet again, as Temptation strutted around claiming victory for another ten years.

It did’nt help to have a family that loves eating non-vegetarian food, and will cook it especially for you. I was often told that “Sher mar jaayega, magar ghaas nahin khayega” (the lion will die, but it won’t eat grass). Actually, this is my father’s favourite line whenever I refuse to eat chicken. Nevertheless, my grit has turned the tables on the treacherous Temptation for about three years now. Ninety-nine out of hundred times Compassion wins. The one time that it loses is when the aroma of a tempting meat dish drives me to temporary insanity.
Yes, I know a miss is a miss – whether it’s by a minute or by a mile! Yet, I continue in my pursuit of ahimsa – Hum honge kaamyab, Hum honge kaamyab ek din……

Disclaimer - This is merely a narrative of the author's personal experiences. There is no disrespect intended towards any community, nor towards people's food preferences. The article is written in good humour, and does not intend to convey anything more than being an interesting read.