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Vegetarian in Mumbai? Welcome to the meat-free neighbourhood ~Amrit Dhillon

reposted from The Star - special thanks to |

NEW DELHI—Militant vegetarians in Mumbai first began keeping meat-eaters out of their apartment blocks a few years ago, pressuring residents’ associations to keep out carnivorous newcomers. Later, the restaurants in these neighbourhoods took meat off their menus for fear of offending vegetarian customers.

Now, the movement has gone a step further with grocery stores and supermarkets keeping meat and eggs off the shelves. Even sandwiches, salads or desserts that might contain egg or meat are not stocked.

Mumbai’s vegetarians aim to turn their neighbourhoods into vegetarian enclaves. In a supermarket in Malabar Hill — home to wealthy families, most of whom are staunchly vegetarian — none of these items is available.

“My customers began complaining,” said Neeraj Gupta, who runs a small supermarket in Malabar Hill. “They didn’t like having to walk past where the eggs were kept so I decided to take everything with eggs in it off my shelves. I’ve got to keep my customers happy.”

Known as India’s most cosmopolitan city, Mumbai has areas where global fast food joints such as Pizza Hut and McDonald’s have taken all meat items off their menus.

When these chains first entered the country, they were aware of religious sensibilities and never served pork or beef to avoid antagonizing Muslims and Hindus. Instead, they served chicken, mutton, fish and eggs.

Mumbai’s cosmopolitanism has also generated a backlash against meat-eating by ethnic groups who see it as a sign of Westernization. Many of the city’s neighbourhoods that are also set up along ethnic lines, making the city’s vegetarians more pushy than in other cities.

So in areas of Mumbai such as Malabar Hill, Cuffe Parade and Kemps Corner, their menus are totally vegetarian.

Mumbai’s carnivores can’t understand what the fuss is about. “I respect the beliefs of vegetarians, but I’m going to cook in my flat, not theirs,” said Rukshana Alam. “But I’ve been told they don’t even want the smell of meat being cooked to enter their flat.”

A choreographer in the film industry, Alam said she has struggled to find accommodation in some neighbourhoods because of the vegetarian fatwa though, she says, it is never spelt out as the reason for rejecting her.

“Non-vegetarians are quietly discouraged by the existing tenants in a building,” said Indrani Malkani, head of the Malabar Hill Residents Association. “By law you can’t discriminate against them so it is always done discreetly.”

Cameraman Abdul Zaidi said he was not rich enough to live in Malabar Hill but often passes through it on the way home. “One day, my wife asked me to get a cake but the shopkeeper said he didn’t keep anything with eggs in it,” said Zaidi.

Carnivores are also being kept out of the new apartment blocks. “If my first few buyers are vegetarians and they ask me to avoid selling the remaining flats to non-vegetarians, I do that,” said builder Harish Mehta. “I’m happy to respect their wishes to live with like-minded people.”

If vegetarian vigilantism is a force in parts of Mumbai rather than other Indian cities, it's partly because most people, given the shortage of space, live in blocks of flats rather than houses. The occupants form residents' associations to formulate basic rules for the complex and so when the vegetarians are large in number or vocal, they can keep out carnivores through these rules.

Another possible explanation is the large number of rich Jain families in the city. Jains originated in the neighbouring state of Gujarat, which accounts for their substantial presence in Mumbai.

The areas striving to become carnivore-free zones are usually inhabited by the Jain community, most of whom are diamond merchants, traders, industrialists and clothing exporters.

Jains are vegans who do not even eat root vegetables such as onions, garlic and potatoes. For them vegetarianism is not simply about refraining from eating meat yourself — it is about not seeing anyone else butcher an animal or consume meat anywhere around you.

“I don’t want to go into a supermarket and see these things displayed on the shelves. It is abhorrent to me,” said Rupika Jain, a Kemps Corner resident. “And I don’t want to walk home past a restaurant and smell charred flesh.”

It is because vegetarianism is such a strongly held belief that most restaurants in India that don’t serve meat clearly identify themselves as “vegetarian.” Those serving meat specify that different utensils be used for the meat dishes.

The Pizza Hut outlet has a big neon sign saying “100 per cent vegetarian,” while McDonald’s announced in September that it would open its first vegetarian-only outlets in the country in two pilgrimage towns to respect the wishes of pilgrims; one near the Golden Temple in Amritsar which is sacred to Sikhs and the other in Katra, close to the Hindu Vaishno Devi shrine.

Last month, a controversial new school textbook on hygiene and health provoked a storm for claiming that vegetarians are morally superior to meat eaters.

The latter, the book said, “easily cheat, tell lies, forget promises, they are dishonest and tell bad words, steal, fight and turn to violence and commit sex crimes.”

In another section, it says: “The strongest argument that meat is not essential food is the fact that the Creator of this Universe did not include meat in the original diet for Adam and Eve. He gave them fruits, nuts and vegetables.”

Vegetarians adopted a new mascot last month when the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in India launched an ad campaign featuring Ramajit Raghav, the Indian man who became the world’s oldest father two years ago at the age of 94.

A photo of Raghav shows him cradling his baby boy with the headline “Vegetarians Still Got It at Age 96” and Raghav is quoted as saying: “I have been a vegetarian all my life and I credit my stamina and virility to my diet.”

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