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Veggie millennials wear their animal love inside and outside, and wish others could do so too. Irfan Syed spoke with several of these new-age free thinkers and doers, and found that while it’s never easy, they won’t – or can’t – have it any other way
Altab Hossain, Kolkata-based interior decorator, animal activist and vegan, dreams of ‘animal liberation’ by 2030. That’s barely 14 years from now. Altab is presently 28. In 14 years, he’ll be 42, the same age as this writer presently. To this writer, a non-millennial, though vegan and animal-lover himself, that may seem more a pipe dream. But not to veggie millennials such as Altab, who believe that anything is attainable, as long as you want it from the heart. So much so that they even wear it on their sleeve. Altab is a relentless campaigner on social media as well as in the real world. He even has a poster on his furniture company’s office door, urging visitors to not hurt animals. Other veggie millennials wear it closer to the skin. A fairly viral FB post bears a pic of a girl’s wrist with the following text tattooed: ‘Until every cage is empty’. But that’s the millennial mindset for you: empathetic, exuberant, expectant.
Now, who exactly are millennials? As the name indicates, they are folk who came into adulthood in the new millennium, so those born between 1980 and 2000, the oldest being on the younger side of 40. Psychographically, they are folk with a ‘refreshing mindset’, free of ways of thinking and living that are too ‘set’ with their seniors. Especially when it comes to animal welfare – or liberation, as Altab would say – and living a life with compassion for all.
We spoke with several such millennials – vegetarian, vegan and veg-curious (non-vegetarian folk who are curious / interested in vegetarianism) – from India, abroad and in-between (Indians living abroad as well as foreigners married to Indians and now living in India), to understand what it means to lead an animal-compassionate life, why it’s important to them, and how they deal with reactions to such a considerate way of living.
For sentient beings… and for well-being
Straight off, why veggie? The answers might seem like the usual suspects in categorization – love for animals, care for the environment, health concerns, spiritual leanings – but when you listen in on individual responses, they scintillate. And perhaps even inspire.
Anne Camille Guevarra, a pre-med student and aspiring writer based in Manila, Philippines, where “veganism is considered a taboo” (why, even veg dishes have tiny pieces of meat in them, she exasperates), one day clicked a link to what she thought would be yet another funny animal video. What she watched though proved to be life-changing. The video, now quite famous, shows a cow running from a slaughterhouse, determined not to be a menu item. Roused by his desire to live, witnesses and others who followed the story urged for him to be housed in a sanctuary, where he, now named Freddie, spends his time eating and ambling around with other cows, safe in the knowledge that they can finally lead a free life. That night, beef was on Anne’s family’s menu. Anne got thinking, ‘This is another cow that wanted to live.’ She stopped consuming meat that day on. Eggs, dairy and leather followed four days later. Anne has now been vegan for 1½ years.
With Kamaldeep Singh, a practising CA in Kanpur, the realisation and change was more slow and experiential. Although “concern for animals was brewing within for some time”, it got a kick-start when he watched Hachiko, the heart-wrenching movie of a dog who keeps waiting for his human companion at the latter’s disembarking station long after he has died – nine years, to be precise. Like most others who’ve watched it, Kamaldeep was moved to tears by the end. He started volunteering at People for Animals (PFA) in his city. An occasional meat-eater until then, he gave it up soon after. Eggs, which had formed a massive part of his diet, exited next. One day, others brought in an injured cow at the centre. By experience, volunteers felt she wouldn’t survive for long. Then, someone informed of a calf roaming nearby. They brought in the calf too. Turns out, they were mother and child. Mom and calf cried on being re-united. But a few days later, the mother passed away. Seeing “the cruel effects of the dairy industry” at close quarters (the debilitated and weak animals seemed to have been abandoned by a dairy farmer), Kamaldeep resolved to turn vegan. He decided to do so on an apt date: October 2, birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, who held that ‘the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated’. Perhaps to continue the symbolism, Kamaldeep also responded to his email interview in green text.
While she may not have helped animals directly, Shevon Bhattacharya, an American science teacher married to an Indian and living in Mumbai, has worked with animals as a scientist. In her university days, she would use live rats for experiments, but slowly realized that just like dogs and cats, animals who everyone finds easy to love, rats too are sensitive beings. She turned vegetarian, no, not in India, but in the US of A itself. However, she is happier to be veg here due to the variety of options available. Plus, she’s lost a good deal of weight since ‘going green’. She was never too hot about meat, and giving it up has led her to adding more vegetables and fruits in her diet, which anyway is a good thing, she cheerfully adds.
Like Shevon, there are others who share that while being healthy wasn’t the main reason to go veggie, it’s a great ‘side effect’ to have. Rahul Gala, a procurement professional in Mumbai, too is great shape since turning vegan four years ago; among other things, he doesn’t have a bloated stomach anymore. Jaan Adam, born and brought up in Chennai but living in Australia after her marriage, and the lone veg-curious person we spoke with, relishes that thinking more vegetarian helps her get more greens and fruits – with their accompanying beneficial vitamins and minerals – into her family’s diet. She is keen that her kids have more of a plant diet even in the Western Australian country town where she currently lives, where it’s difficult to find veg food outside.
For Erika and Rica, though, the reason was primarily health. Erika Bhatia, Belgian by birth but living in Mumbai for the past three years with her pilot husband and a student pilot herself, has been vegetarian for 20 years, after she was diagnosed with celiac disease at the age of six. Celiac is a serious genetic autoimmune disorder where the intake of gluten leads to damage of the small intestine. It needed her to adopt a largely plant-based diet. However, even at four, she was grossed out one night when a piece of bone got stuck in her throat while having ham. Erika has been very healthy since turning veg, and as these things go, has proved to be quite an animal lover too: she is a proud doggie mom of 1½ year-old Lab, Piper.
A couple of years ago, Rica Donabelle Umayan, a fourth-year BS Psychology student in Taguig City, Metro Manila, Philippines, started restricting her diet, among other reasons, to lose weight. (In the past, she has also had an undiagnosed medical condition.) Over time, she saw that she was consuming only five foods: bread, apple, raisins, peanut butter and bananas. Her “boring” diet led her to research on more foods she could have and enjoy, leading her eventually to Dr Michael Greger’s Nutrition Facts site. Dr Greger is a renowned nutritionist and a zealous advocate of a plant-based diet. On the site, Rica came to know of the benefits of such a diet and the many foods she could enjoy therein. Vegan for 1½ years now, the best part, she feels, is how it led her to also caring about animals and the environment (thanks to all the reading and viewing she did). No, the really best part, she adds, is starting her own vegan dessert store, Ethical Munch, where she places PETA fliers for interested folk. Outside, she often wears T-shirts with animal compassion messages. Now, what did we say earlier about veggie millennials wearing their animal love on their sleeves?
For the animals, against the world
Deciding to go veggie is one thing, living that decision quite another. And no, the challenge, as one would suppose, is not the seeming lack of food options available; veggie folk are quite happy to survive on salad when nothing else is available, such as when they travel abroad. The first, and biggest, wall is reactions of people around them, from immediate family and relatives to friends and colleagues, and even to random ‘well-wishers’.
Shevon’s parents back in America were initially hurt by her decision to go veg, as she would no longer be eating what they cooked. Also, they weren’t sure what to serve her. Slowly though, like most of these stories seem to go, they came around and began preparing veg dishes for her. Things are better in India and with her in-laws. Although her husband and his family are all non-vegetarian, they haven’t forced her to go back to meat-eating. Lavanya Ratha, born and brought up in Mumbai but presently a Chennai resident, married the same way: her husband and in-laws like their meat. However, it’s not them she faces resistance from; it’s everyone else around. She’s had to face questions ranging from “Then, why did you marry a meat-eater?” (as if food preference is the only reason for love and marriage, she retorts) to “What will you feed your kid?” (she’s miffed that they’d think he’d automatically grow up liking meat just because his father does so). Tired of the constant volleys, her response is categorical: “Just like my religion, my loans and my problems, this is none of their business.”
Altab, of the animal-liberation-by-2030 goal, perhaps had it the hardest. His family isn’t just staunchly religious, but also relishes having meat twice a day. They also stay in a predominantly Muslim area of Kolkata. So, Altab was up against a trifecta. When he informed his family of his decision to go vegan, they first tried to dissuade him, citing reasons of religion and health. Finding his resolve steely, they refused to cook vegan food for him. As a result, he often had to sleep hungry. Family, friends, neighbours alike called him crazy, stupid, unreasonable. But Altab refused to budge. Slowly, seeing how determined he was, his family gave in and started making some vegan meals for him. In the meantime, Altab learned to cook for himself – like any self-respecting vegan, no doubt – and today makes a very mean vegan biryani. Well, maybe his liberation dream isn’t really that far away then.
While it’s great joy to see your close ones accepting your decision and taking care to make veggie food specially for you, it’s even better when they decide to join you on the journey, at least to some extent. Mumbai-based learning specialist, Vrushali Tillu’s family, already vegetarian, has been taking further animal-friendly steps: they ensure that the products they purchase – food and grooming items – are free of animal ingredients and haven’t been tested on animals. Brinda Poojary, an embryologist pursuing her PhD in Mumbai, went less the gentle-persuasion way and more the tell-them-of-the-horrors route. She shared with her family harrowing truths of the dairy industry (gained from watching documentaries like Earthlings, Cowspiracy and Forks over Knives, and the outreach work she does); over time, they reduced and eventually gave up bringing home dairy items. Arundhati Lakkad, an instructional designer also in Mumbai, was thrilled when her dad let her keep the street dog she had rescued during the floods of 2006. (Named Chikki, she eventually passed away a couple of years ago.) However, Arundhati was even more joyous when her dad too decided to go vegetarian, thus making the entire Lakkad family 100% veg. Kind of like that green dot certification. Rahul though perhaps has the happiest ever after: his wife decided to turn vegan too.
Making the veggie journey
The actual process, or duration, to go veggie was like the proverbial bump compared with the mountainous reactions of people around. Almost all millennials we spoke with did so in a time-frame of a few days to a few months. Altab took one month to go from veg to vegan. Anne did so in a week. Kadambari Narendran, a special children educator and volunteer at Blue Cross, Chennai, was only veg-curious when she attended a bootcamp a year or so ago. The sessions and discussions with animal activists and campaigners from across the country shook her to the core. In about six months, she turned vegetarian. Compare that with first the eight months this writer took to go veg and then 1¼ years to go vegan, and you get the millennial mindset right away.
Vrushali, Arundhati and Deepan Kannan would all love to turn vegan, but their love for various items of milk keeps them from doing so. So, while Vrushali is able to resist the loveliest leather shoes that are apt for her tiniest feet (her words), she isn’t able to do the same with the lure of milk in her tea. Arundhati, who does much animal welfare work, including buying promotional materials from SPCA, loves her Bengali sweets and cheese too much to think of ever giving them up. Deepan, a management consultant from Chennai but presently based in Bengaluru, who “loves animals more than humans” and has been vegetarian for 15 years, also would love to take the next step and go vegan, but finds his joy for paneer a deterrent at present.
While it’s already heart-warming that they’ve come so far in their animal-love journey, if they need that final push, Kamaldeep has a nudge to offer. He says, “If you’re still dangling between your love for animals and that for animal products, you are yet to make the connection.” To which, Shevon counterpoints, feeling it’s best to do so when you are ready, rather than out of a sense of guilt or obligation. What they all do agree on is that there are enough options available these days – veg or vegan – and you won’t feel like you’re missing a thing. Anne and Brinda used to have mock meats, for the texture and feeling, but over time, didn’t feel any more need for it. And if you still feel you’re missing something, Anne shares a heart-felt thought: “Just think of the animal. And you’ll automatically not miss it anymore.” We couldn’t agree more.
Reaching out – with love and wisdom
Going veggie is just the beginning of the animal-welfare journey, feel our millennials. Brinda, who does a lot of outreach work such as organizing marches and hosting kiosks in public places along with conducting visits to animal sanctuaries, feels that if they don’t spread the message, instead keeping their beliefs to themselves, then they aren’t really helping the animals. Many others belong to her school of thought. Altab has tirelessly ensured many see the cruelty that animals go through on a daily basis and has helped several hard-core meat-eaters turn veggie themselves – even while he rues that he lost some close family and friends in the process. Animal freedom requires a lot of sacrifice, he both sighs and sounds out.
Many others frequently help animals in distress. Arundhati narrates fondly of the time she rescued a few owlets, which made her fall in love with these birds of the night. Vrushali warmly recalls her experience of giving a solemn shelter dog a bath during a visit to In Defence of Animals (IDA), Mumbai, the canine gurgling with joy.
Others do the “more regular” helping around. Lavanya secretly feeds the street animals around her home, as the other residents don’t like an open display of affection to these “filthy animals”. Shevon contributes to ASPCA back in America and to Youth in Defence of Animals (YODA) in Mumbai. Apart from that, she is a doggie mom to June and Pepper, with who she fervently enjoys Kukur Tihar, the second day of Diwali celebrated in some parts of North-East India and Nepal in honour of man’s best friend. Training specialist, Richa Godse’s home in Mumbai is a “nursing home for dogs”, where her equally animal-loving friends tend to injured, sick and sterilized animals.
In true millennial style, all campaign relentlessly on social media. Rica, for instance, regularly publishes blogs and vlogs. Social media, our digital-savvy millennials not surprisingly feel, is a great platform for spreading the word further and also for connecting with animal lovers worldwide. Many are part of veggie groups, from local ones to global communities. Most, perhaps wisely, believe in presenting their point of view and leaving it at that. Which is very important, Anne can’t seem to insist enough. She espouses that being aggressive and shouting, whether on social media or offline, will get you nowhere; then, “people just remember your shouting and not your message”. Deepan’s is another voice of reason, urging veggie enthusiasts to be conscious of the difference between animal love and animal-based politics, such as what seems to be happening in India presently. He cautions that animal rights in our country needs a nuanced dialogue, for vegetarianism has traditionally been tied to Brahminism, thereby acquiring religious tones. Go soft and slow, our millennials seem to be saying. Kamaldeep possibly puts it best: “I keep planting seeds. I know they will grow.” Trust our veggie millennials to use a nurturing, plant-based analogy.
There is a sub-story to this piece: One common thing veggie millennials are tired of hearing. Read the sub-story here: Sub-story to this piece