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A Vegan Walks Into Rural India

A Vegan Walks Into Rural India

Little did I know that the humble masala chai would be my undoing.

We’ve all heard the `vegan walks into a room’ joke. How do you find out if someone is vegan? You don’t need to. The vegan will announce it within minutes of walking in.

I’ve been accused of overdoing it with the ‘spreading the vegan message’ myself. My six-year-old niece once asked me, “Maushi, why do you say the word ‘vegan’ 700 times in 5 minutes?”

The only time I don’t talk about how vegan I am is when I’m traveling to villages for work, which I do a lot since I started a rural journalism project last year.

Ghee - pure for some, impure for me. Image source: vegrecipesofindia.comGhee - pure for some, impure for me. Image source: vegrecipesofindia.com

Melghat
Being vegan in Melghat was a piece of dairy-free cake. The everyday food in Melghat is vegan anyway, and whenever the people whose homes we visited offered me tea, I said I was allergic to milk and they would make me black tea. The only time I inadvertently drank tea with milk here was when we went into a home to pee. Lalita Bethekar, the NGO worker who showed us around Melghat, had a way of walking into random homes, making friends with the people who lived there, and then asking them if we could use their bathrooms. 

When you visit a Korku home in Melghat, `bathroom’ is code for a corner in the backyard where you answer nature’s first call. So we walked into a home one afternoon, and Lalita worked her magic and once we were done, the woman of the house, Badi Mai, offered us tea.

The room was very dark, and my friend was still at the post office. Lalita went back to get my friend, and I was alone with Badi Mai, who didn’t speak a word of Hindi or Marathi. Once Lalita and my friend came back, tea was served. I had tried to tell Badi Mai that I didn’t drink milk, but when I drank a few sips of my tea, I could taste the milk in it. 

It was 95 percent water and 5 percent milk. There clearly wasn’t enough milk for four cups of tea. It was a very dimly lit room, and I cannot be sure, but I have a feeling that Badi Mai was drinking her tea black. 

I realised then that a dash of milk in tea is a luxury in that home. And I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I had been given milk that I didn’t want, and taken it away from her.

Badi Mai makes tea for her visitor. Image credit: Shatakshi GawadeBadi Mai makes tea for her visitor. Image credit: Shatakshi Gawade

Etawah
Along the banks of the Chambal River, tourists are still wary of being kidnapped. One of the conservationists we met for our gharial conservation story told us not to worry about being kidnapped, and that because he was slightly plump, he was more afraid about the dacoits kidnapping him. Though the dacoit situation is no longer alarming. 

You would think that as a woman in the prime of life, traveling with a female friend, safety would be my biggest concern here. But no. I was more afraid of being made to drink milky tea.

Fresh milk straight from the source. Image credit: Vinaya KurtkotiFresh milk straight from the source. Image source: sciencemag.org

In Sahson, one of the villages we visited, we walked in on a group of men shooting the breeze in one of their front yards. We spoke to them about the conservation of the river, and then they asked us some questions about how we intended to use the information and offered us tea. Tea, a seemingly innocuous, even friendly notion to most people, can become a social imbroglio for a vegan. I tried to use the “I’m allergic to milk” excuse, but it backfired. “You won’t be allergic to this milk, it comes straight from our cows!”

I don’t even like milky tea, I insisted. “But you’ll like this tea, it comes straight from our cows!”

I had run out of excuses and had to drink the tea. Maybe it was the fact that the provenance of the milk had been repeatedly emphasized, but I could actually smell the cow in the tea.

My God-approved tea. Image credit: Shatakshi GawadeMy God-approved tea. Image credit: Shatakshi Gawade

I realised that I’m a people pleaser first, and then I’m vegan. I’ve been a people pleaser for most of my life, and veganism is a relatively new trait for me. So I hadn’t yet figured out how to be vegan without hurting the feelings of others. These men who took such pride in the milk of their cows are not the evil diary industry moguls exploiting cows and making them stand in their own piles of shit. They love their cows like they’re family, and telling them that a major source of their livelihood is cruel to cows is not my cup of tea.

For the same story, we then met the wildlife warden of Etawah. Mr. Suresh Rajput spoke to us about his experiences and beliefs, and made several anti-speciesist comments. I was impressed. He said things like “the earth and these resources are for all the species, not just humans” and “we need to figure out a way to balance our interests with those of animals”. 

And then he offered us tea, and I told him I had mine black, so he made black tea for me. 

But with the tea came laddoos that reeked of ghee. 

I didn’t know how to refuse those. We continued to talk, and he intermittently paused to push the plate of laddoos closer to our side of the table and insist we pick one. The third time he did this, I picked one up and brought it to my mouth and pretended to eat it.

“Why aren’t you having the laddoos? Have some, please have some”, he insisted. 

We continued to talk, and I was acutely aware of the unctuous laddoo oiling my left palm. I silently brainstormed ideas to get rid of it without the wildlife warden noticing that I hadn’t eaten it. I didn’t want to offend him, but I really really didn’t want to eat the laddoo. 

Maybe I could slip it in my bag when he looks away. Or I could use the trick I used to make vegetables disappear as a child: slip in under the chair or bury it in a flowerpot. I crouched down to pick up a dropped pen and was tempted to drop the laddoo under the sofa (there were no flowerpots in sight), but I realised that he would eventually see it and know what I had done. 

Just as I was about to give up and eat it, the warden got up and went to the adjacent room for a minute. I scanned the room for a place to put the laddoo, and then I realised… I could give it to my friend! “Please, please, please, take this!” I whispered to her urgently.

My vegetarian friend had saved the day.

My ghee laddoo. Image credit: Shatakshi GawadeMy ghee laddoo. Image credit: Shatakshi Gawade

Rajasthan
In Rajasthan, refusing tea is akin to turning one’s nose up at the host’s hospitality. So one of the members of the collective we travelled with came up with the perfect excuse for me: he told people I had promised God that I wouldn’t drink milk.

It worked almost everywhere. The ghee was harder to escape. Not all homes served rotis with ghee, but at times the rotis swam in pools of ghee. 

My body developed its own defence mechanism to avoid ghee: I fell ill. I got a cold and mouth ulcers, which made eating anything a challenge. I survived the month mostly using my “God promise” lie. Though there were times when I cheated out of laziness and the inability to ask for special treatment. 

I realised that I have now been vegan long enough to not crave cheese and chocolate, but I don’t know if and when I’ll ever get used to the social aspects of being vegan. I hope that day comes soon, because there are only so many lies I can come up with to lay off the milky tea. 

 


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.

By Vinaya Kurtkoti
Cover photo credit: Shatakshi Gawade