When a Bengali stops eating fish it becomes news. My dadu (grandfather) decided to be a vegetarian in our suburban Calcutta home in early 1970s and the whole neighbourhood and all our relatives were shocked. Most of his well-wishers were worried about his chances of survival without high-protein diet in his late sixties. The fact that majority of the Indians are hale and hearty on vegetarian diet is never enough justification for Bengalis. The vegetarians of "cow belt" and "curd belt" are always ridiculed by the Bengalis.
My dadu opted for vegetarianism not due to any change of heart or faith but simple personal health. Like all bhadralok Bengalis he was on a regular machh-bhat diet and was suffering from myriad digestive disorders. When neither homeopathic nor allopathic system of medicine could cure him completely he started experimenting with his diet. As he gradually switched over to vegetarian diet, it made wonders to his health.
Trouble started, when rejuvenated, he started championing the cause of vegetarianism and started lecturing all and sundry. He even raised doubts about the benefits of fish-based diet. Now that was pure blasphemy for Bengalis who swear by fish that lies at the roots of Bengali intellectualism!
It was as grave a crime as suspecting the relevance of Marxism in pre-Buddhadeb days. No Bengali could digest that. The neighbours started avoiding dadu, the youngsters started calling him "pagla dadu" (mad grandpa). He took to writing booklets propagating vegetarianism and distributed those free of cost. As he could not convince anyone he decided to set an example by turning his whole family into vegetarians. Luckily none of his sons were staying within his reach - two of them settled in Delhi and two in UK. So my thakuma (grandmother) became the only victim.
Poor lady, she grumbled and toed dadu's line. The more thakuma protested stricter became dadu. His food became increasingly bland till he would permit only salt and haldi for boiled vegetables. A connoisseur of maachher jhol, thakuma was not enjoying her meals at all but her health showed definite improvement. Still the ladies in the neighbourhood were unhappy, a sadhaba (married woman) should never be a vegetarian like a widow. So occasionally they would cook fish and stealthily sent it to my thakuma. It went on till one day my dadu discovered and put an embargo.
The embargo was total. Dadu would not even permit the tenants to eat non-vegetarian food. As a consequence the tenants of ten years left. Leaving a handful, the neighbours and relations stopped visiting dadu. No exception was ever made for the sons' families. It was another matter that leaving a few they would prefer to eat out during their annual visits.
Gradually thakuma yielded and unwillingly converted. But dadu could understand that he was fighting a losing battle against the fish-eating Bengalis. Soon he shifted his focus to the under privileged - the rickshaw- pullers hailing from the neighboring state of Bihar started crowding his room. Some even pretended to convert to his cause in lieu of free meals.
Vegetarianism is a global fad now, after getting western endorsement to a century-old Indian concept now even many Bengalis pay lip service to the cause of vegetarianism. But fifteen years back when dadu died he was a disillusioned man, no Bengali true to his fish took him seriously.
Nandini Dutta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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