Are Bengalis Turning Vegetarian?

A severe existentialist crisis is tormenting the fish-loving and meat-gorging Bengalis after rumours of contaminated meat shattered the only religion they are passionate about – non-vegetarianism.

A severe existentialist crisis is presently tormenting the fish-loving and (later) meat-gorging Bengalis — and many are seriously looking at the vegetarian option. A tragedy of epic proportions has visited everyone, rich and poor, Hindu or Muslim, just when the Registrar General of Census declared that Bengalis are the most non-vegetarian people in India. In all, 98.55% of them eat meat and fish, while at the other end, only 25% of Rajasthanis touch non-vegetarian food. There are, of course, three other states that are uncomfortably close to Bengal, i.e, Andhra Pradesh Odisha and Kerala, where non-vegetarians account for 97-98% of the population — but as toppers and psephologists say, even half a per cent means a lot.

Two months ago, Bengalis started rushing to the toilets to puke when they heard of a racket of how meat from carcasses of dogs, cats, cows, buffalos and pigs dumped at municipal garbage yards in and around Kolkata was being mixed with fresh meat and sold. No one is coming forth to tell the utterly devastated Bengali with any clarity how long some (God knows who) have been eating this horrid flesh and which are the spots that used this contaminated meat. Since every genuine Bengali is either a poet or a protester, and the gifted ones are both, this “dark night without end” has spawned some of the most crackly wit imaginable. One such rhyme, for instance, warns drivers to be careful because, if perchance, they run over cats or dogs, well, then they would have to eat their flesh. WhatsApp and other social media are now so stuffed with this genre of black humour that they have almost driven out systematic canards villainising minorities or extolling ultra-patriotism that were/are pumped in so professionally in the last few years.

Let us understand why non-vegetarianism is the only religion that matters in Bengal. The terribly intellectual Bengali Brahmans claim that, almost a thousand years ago, the Brahmavaivartya and the Brihad-dharma Puranas made special dispensations for the Bengalis to eat non-veg. It is an open secret that even at the holiest of Hindu pilgrimages in the Himalayas, strictly vegetarian of course, traders make astronomical profits by slyly selling boiled eggs to muffler-covered, monkey-capped Bengali pilgrims or tourists. They must have some tiny non-vegetarian food — every day.

The main reason for Bengali obsession with fish is because it was, historically, the main source of protein since the state’s moist climate was not suited to growing dal, that supplies protein to most Indians. Credit: YouTube

A Mukherjee or Chatterjee or Banerjee (many with dubious ‘energy’) will explain that it is this ‘feesss” (fish) that has made them so sharp and that is why they led the Indian Renaissance. Frankly, the main reason for this obsession with fish is because it was, historically, the main source of protein in Bengal since its moist climate was not suited to growing dal, that supplies protein to most Indians. Besides, fishes were abundant in its numerous rivers, ponds, tanks and lakes. The same logic of availability deciding diet applies equally to Kashmiri Pandits and Saraswat Brahmans. We shall soon see how the obsession with fish was transferred by Bengalis to meat, in recent times, and therein lies the tragedy.

This scandal has hit the sale of meat and devastated lakhs of people whose life depends on this business. Faith in public food has been shattered and only the brave now dare to order chicken rolls at roadside stalls — by forcefully suppressing any vision of cats or dogs that may flash. Tragically, very few can even look at their beloved cooked mutton without sheer horror — for it could very well be of any other long-dead animal, big or small. The prices of fish have naturally risen and so have eggs, and, what is more worrisome is that vegetarianism is finally shattering Bengal’s holy non-vegetarian tradition.

The same Bengali who had frustrated Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s valiant attempts some five hundred years ago to coax him to abjure fish and meat is now being defeated by mere scamsters. But Chaitanya’s Vaishnava movement did bring Bengal closer to the Indian mainstream and also placed dal quite firmly into the Bengali diet as a substitute for fish protein. Even so, Bengalis decided equally stubbornly that they could love both Krishna and fish with equal ardour — the only Vaishnavas to do so. A crestfallen Chaitanya Dev decided to move to Puri for ever. But the present crisis is so serious that even if all the criminals are now caught, many Bengalis may still never be able to touch meat again, at least not outside their own homes.

Fish is, however, different from meat and let us see when exactly did the fish-obsessed Bengali turn to meat, so passionately. To begin with, enterprising Sanskrit pundits and commentators of medieval Bengal like Jimutvahana, Bhabadeb Bhatta and Sarbananda — whose interpretation of the sacred texts are law — prepared the ground. They were flexible enough to accommodate both fish and meat, lest the native stock of Bengal leave the flock. From their books and from other textual records, like the Puranas written in Bengal, as also from the popular medieval folk ballads called the Mangal Kavyas, we get a fair idea of the type of meat that the masses ate. These included ducks, goats (male, female), deer, pigeons, rabbits, turtles, small birds, iguanas and even porcupines. Yuck! Today, even the die-hard meat eater cannot touch the meat of iguanas and porcupines any more. But, this is what the common man could eat — if ever they could afford or even catch them — which was not too common. We are not clear whether all of these birds and animals were eaten by the upper social groups of Hindus as well.

At this point, it is more important to remember that three types of flesh were decisively taboo for the Hindus of Bengal. The cow was obviously the first of them and ‘beef’ became the deepest cultural trench that separated Hindus and Muslims in Bengal, as in the rest of India. Large numbers of indigenous folk who were on the fringes of Sanskritic civilisation, however, continued to eat beef when available, but they did so quietly, without fanfare. Interestingly, Bengali zamindars scored extra brownie points when they sacrificed buffaloes before their goddesses Durga and Kali — as the huge animal could then be left to their musclemen from the marginal castes, to feast on.

This contaminated meat scandal has hit the sale of meat and devastated lakhs of people whose life depends on this business. Credit: Reuters Files/Shailesh Andrade

The other two banned meats were pork and chicken, as both were from unclean scavengers who ate dirty waste materials in villages. Muslims shared the horror of the pig but they consumed chicken. Here again, marginalised Hindu castes did partake of pork, if they could get it. Chicken was, however, branded as a prohibited ‘Muslim food’ for most Bengali Hindus — till quite recently. We may recall that Turkish Muslims captured the throne of Bengal full two years before they seized Delhi and thus the Bengali Hindus had the longest spell under Islamic rulers. The upper castes took extra precautions not to get “polluted” by the ruling Muslims and so food items like chicken, onions, garlic and some others were categorised as ‘Muslim food’. They were just not touched by caste Hindus — for centuries.

But then, we must also remember that two of out of every three Bengali speakers in the world, which includes those in Bangladesh and Assam, turned to Islam. Scholars like Sanjeet Chowdhury who have studied the subject insist that it is a fallacy so believe that “Muslims ate beef all the time”. Very few Bengalis – Hindus or Muslims–could afford meat and even if they could, it required a lot of people to consume a big lamb and many more if a cow or a buffalo was to be had. Thus, in pre-modern, pre-urban Bengal (and India?), mutton or beef could be consumed rarely, only on really big religious or social events. Besides, there were no refrigerators and individual families could hardly procure or preserve small amounts of meat. Retail sales came in mainly after urbanisation, as Chowdhury has pointed out.

But then, what were the ‘meat-safes’ doing in Bengali homes — that older generations still remember so fondly? These were small almirahs that had wire meshes or nets on all four sides for ventilation, that the middle class picked up from the Portuguese firingis and the Anglo-Indians. The latter may actually have stored cooked meat in them for a day or two, but most Bengali bhadraloks used this naturally air-cooled ‘meat-safes’ to preserve small amounts of cooked food or sweets or dahi, for short periods. These items were safe from rats and insects as their four legs stood in small pots of water. The important point to note is that the economics of meat coupled with the problem of perishability and the later break-up of the joint family, all led invariably to a preference for smaller animals or birds — if at all they could be caught or bought. This reminds one of ducks, as its meat and eggs were really popular in Bengal — before disappearing almost altogether from their home, along with ‘meat safes’, some time in the 1960s and ‘70s.

We are, of course, not discussing the ‘England-returned Bengali sahebs’ who were consuming chicken at least a hundred years before the traditional middle and other classes did. Rabindranath Tagore lampooned this class and its ‘airs’ with an oft-repeated poem, the verses of which run like this.

How long shall ye remain, O India,
Confine thy meal to dal, rice and water?
There’s so little to eat and drink here, so
Let’s enjoy our Whiskey-Soda n Murgi-Mutton,
Begone, you pigtailed priest, go,
Come, o my bearded friend, good Mian.

But why was this poor Mussalman Mian more in demand? The answer will also point out the period when the upper crust of Bengali Hindus broke their age-old taboo against Muslim meat-based dishes and onions, garlic, masala. The Portuguese had introduced chillis and potato in the 16th century while the British brought in tomato, beet, carrots, cauliflower, etc, in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Let us not forget that in the 1820s and 1830s, Derozio had taught his students from orthodox upper caste Hindu gentry in Hindu (later, Presidency) College to consider beef as a symbol of ‘liberation’. Many students from the topmost castes and class followed him and revelled in shattering religious orthodoxy and superstition — to the undisguised horror of the Bhadralok class, especially the Brahmans.

The real meat revolution took place in Bengal around 1858 when the zamindar class and the wealthier trading groups developed a fancy for banned ‘Muslim foods’, courtesy the ‘khansamas’. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But the real meat revolution took place in Bengal three decades later when the zamindar class and the wealthier trading groups developed a fancy for the banned ‘Muslim foods’. This was sparked by the arrival of the Awadhi brigade that landed in Kolkata in 1858 — as the retinue of Nawab Wajed Ali Shah, the defeated ruler of Lucknow. The latter could hardly afford to retain his army of bawarchis and khansamas who had travelled with him and his courtiers and courtesans had to look elsewhere for selling tastes and pleasure. The rich and bored Bengali aristocracy was soon their main target. This class had prospered by collaborating with the British ever since the Battle of Plassey of 1757. Many more became more wealthy after Cornwallis’ Permanent Settlement of 1793, when these new zamindars ‘bought up’ the authority to collect land rents on behalf of the British. They made huge profits, by hook or by crook, and had money — but nowhere to spend. More relevant is the fact that they were quite tired of their bland ‘Brahmanical food’ that stopped them from tasting the exciting, colourful, aromatic and delicious dishes of the firangis and Mussalmans. After all, the Nawabs of Awadh had perfected the epicurean tastes brought in by the Mughals and this long journey covered so many recipes in its four centuries — from Samarkand, Bukhara, Kabul, Delhi, Agra, Lahore, Faizabad, and finally Lucknow.

How long could the Hindu upper classes remain immune to the heady scented waters, the ghungroos and dances performed under glittering chandeliers and the accompanying music and songs in the highest traditions of Hindustani classical gharanas? The zamindar class soon adopted the fine muslins and chikan dresses; the ittar perfumes, the sweet, scented paan, the jalsas and, of course, pigeon racing and kite flying contests. Bengali women and other traditional classes were uncomfortable with this transformation and took several decades to accept it, in parts. Slowly, however, hot and oily Mughlai flavours started influencing the simple rice and fish diet and the mutton from fat lambs and sheep replaced the insipid meat of small he-goats of Bengal. These dishes came cooked with lots of spices but had to be consumed outside the home. It took quite some time for even the wealthy to set up ‘Mughlai food kitchens’ in their own homes — that were kept at a safe distance from scornful Brahman cooks who despised the bawarchi and khansama.

Finally, in the 20th century, Bengali women took over these kitchens and adopted their own half-way dishes like koshaa mangsho. Within a couple of decades, even simple middle class families started enjoying spicy mutton on Sundays. It may surprise many to learn that in many weddings or feasts, the fare was kept strictly vegetarian till the middle of the 20th century or only fish was served. This is also the time, when English fish fries fought valiant battles with mutton chops and cutlets, and the heady aroma of ‘Mughlai paranthas’ wafted around the cafes and restaurants that had come up everywhere. Of course, all of these new ‘foreign’ dishes emerged with strong Bengali flavours, that, like their accents, could hardly be disguised.

But the prohibited bird was the last to enter the homes of the growing middle class quite recently — finally, in the 1970s-1980s or even later. It started with the fad for the omelette made from chicken eggs, that came with an irresistible aroma. The more traditional eggs of ducks and turtles were also prized, but they lost out eventually. It is not a coincidence that during this period, there was a sudden proliferation of more hygienic poultries in Bengal that ensured that ‘clean’ broiler meat was available at affordable rates. But getting the chicken home was still a problem as centuries of tradition and prejudice needed to be overcome.

It would, indeed, be a worthwhile exercise for social scientists to compile the numerous ingenious excuses that were cooked up by Bengali Hindus during these decades to bring this bird into his kitchen. There are so many stories how doctors prescribed chicken broth or meat for someone in the family for recovering his or her health. Presto! The younger generations refused to let this opportunity go and poultry chicken started ruling the Bengali table. In any case, the food scarcity of the late 1960s had plagued Bengal and had devastated all food traditions. American wheat imported under the ‘PL-480 scheme’ forced protesting Bengalis to reduce the hills of rice they devoured and consume chapatis instead. Moreover, since Bengal never produced more than a fraction of the mustard it required to sustain its insistence on only mustard oil for cooking, this wall also breached during the years of food scarcity. Groundnut oil flooded the state and all sacred traditions about cereals and cooking mediums crumbled with ration shops determining the diet — for almost every strata. The new Bengali was now compelled to experiment beyond his non-negotiable rice and fish — though the older generations screamed and stubbornly resisted this sacrilege.

During the 1970s, ‘roll-stands’ came up in large numbers on crowed pavements and at street crossings — because unemployed young men decided to desert the Naxalite revolution and eke a living from food stalls.

Non-traditional foods came in and by the eighties, the earlier-exotic ‘Chinese’ food found its proletarian counterpart through countless roadside ‘chowmein’ shops that gave office goers and students a quick, hot meal at reasonable rates. This is when ‘chilli chicken’ also played a big role in bringing the bird on to the plates of more traditional and poorer folk. Strange: but the earlier traditional snacks just wilted away — as salaries and bonuses went up. In these same decades, middle class homes and kitchens of nuclear families were invaded by pressure cookers, gas ovens and fridges, that came along with mixers-grinders and packets of powdered spices. The whole character of Bengali cooking and eating was changed, much beyond wildest predictions.

Coming straight to our present times, it was thus only a matter of time that chicken and mutton would jostle with fish to satisfy the carnivores of the state. During the 1970s, ‘roll-stands’ came up in large numbers on crowed pavements and at street crossings — because unemployed young men decided to desert the Naxalite revolution and eke a living from food stalls. The hunger for meat escalated as Bengali versions of ‘Mughlai food’ were sold in every nook and corner and people did not have to go all the way to old Muslim localities for these mutton-chicken dishes. No one, especially the passionate revolutionaries, ever bothered about the class of meat they ate, but the vast bulk of Bengali Hindus still view beef with dread or disgust, just as no God-fearing Muslim ever touches pork. Then, in the last 10-12 years, another practice invaded every locality — that of selling hot biriyani straight from handis placed on footpaths, that came with chunks of mutton or chicken.

The relevant point is that this led to an explosion in demand for chicken and mutton, but though people joked occasionally about whether the meat was from a ‘big animal or a small one’, no one imagined even in their widest dreams that dead animals would actually be mixed in. Bengal has become more adventurous with food and lifestyle tastes, especially as it is no more witnessing a battle between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ — but a no-holds war between the ‘haves’ and ‘must haves’. Values and morals just do not bother this new ‘lumpen bourgeoise’ that has seized power in Bengal — as in much of Bharat. What is worrying people more is why this racket is not being exposed in its full dimensions and the guilty not exposed. A few names have come out but no one knows which shops or hotels accepted this foul meat — so that at least many could breathe a sigh of relief. Obviously, such a racket could never have flourished without the involvement of municipal officials and even elected representatives, in some way. Who are they? One could actually say, a la Arnab (Goswami), Bengal needs to know! Because this is not just a crime — it is a kick at the big bellies of the most carnivorous people of this country — who love eating, arguing and travelling more than anything else, even work. Many are suspecting a deep-rooted conspiracy by the vegetarians — who were always jealous. But surely, Lord Chaitanya must be very, very amused.

Jawhar Sircar retired from the Indian Administrative Service as Union culture secretary.