Actress Sadaa posing with two dogs for a campaign for People for Animals (PFA)

Veg Today, Vegan Tomorrow, Animal Lover ‘Forever’

Sadaa’s Instagram profile says she is “proud to be a vegetarian and soon to be a vegan”. Our interest piqued, we decided to catch up with the actress, who has earlier been recognized for her animal welfare work by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and also been associated with People for Animals (PFA). The actress, currently done shooting for the latest season of dance reality show Dhee Jodi and having started work on Torchlight, her next movie in Kollywood (where she is known as Sadha), spoke with Irfan Syed in a telephonic interview.

Going Veg… and Vegan

Sadaa has been vegetarian since 2012. However, she’s been an animal lover since childhood. She remembers once as a young girl, when her parents and she were still in Ratnagiri (before they moved to Bombay in 2001), she spotted a caterpillar-like insect (she can’t remember the exact insect) in their garden. Without any provocation, the young Sadaa took a stone and squashed the bug. Her mom, vegetarian since birth, simply asked her why she did so. It wasn’t like the creature was harming her, she told her, adding that no animal does so unless threatened. Sadaa began crying, and still tears up whenever she recalls the incident. It ended up changing her perspective toward creatures big and small. An animal sympathizer until then, as her dad was in the habit of rescuing and caring for animals in distress, she soon turned an animal lover.

Actress Sadaa feeding community dogs at Marina Beach, ChennaiWhy she eventually gave up non-veg was because she didn’t really enjoy the taste and definitely didn’t enjoy the killing involved. And the actress, whose name means ‘forever’, insists it wasn’t due to health or weight concerns, both of which are strongly associated with her industry. While she’s never had an issue with weight (she’s always been on the thinner side and works out diligently), health is a happy by-product, she affirms. We agree, especially when we see this tremendous upside-down yoga pic of hers on FB. To those who insist you need to have meat to be strong (as her gym trainer does), she silences them with “That’s a lot of BS.” Wow, this herbivore can bite. She adds that she isn’t turning vegan because it’s trending in the industry right now, with several actors announcing they have gone vegan. If she were following the bandwagon, she would have already done so. Instead, she is taking her time, seeking substitutes and replacements, especially for beauty and grooming products, which are particularly tough to find in India.

How’s it going then, we check with her. For instance, how does she manage on the sets? That’s not a problem, as she has a cook, plus most Indian food is veg/an. She still has dairy products from time to time, but doesn’t see giving them up as a biggie. It’s the non-vegan items that are a challenge. She stays away from the high-luxe brands (the usual suspects) and buys faux leather. She is pleased that there are more vegan options available now than earlier, and is sure there will be more in the days to come, now that the country has banned animal testing. However, because she wants to go the full distance and be an ethical/lifestyle vegan (rather than just a dietary vegan), she isn’t sure when she’ll achieve the milestone, especially since the boundaries for veganism aren’t entirely clear to her. (What about the milk and fish she gets for her cats, she wonders.) It could be six months or a year – or she might just do it one fine day, as she’s also known to be impulsive.

And how have people around her reacted, first to going vegetarian and now to turning vegan? Her mom insists she has to have at least dairy. (Ah, moms.) Her dad, who likes his chicken and eggs, believes ‘chicken are born for being eaten’. Sadaa says she hasn’t asked her dad to give up non-veg in all these years, and therefore neither should he, nor others, ask her to give up being veg/an. She is emphatic: “What I put in my mouth and stomach is my decision. It’s not like I’m doing anything wrong. In fact, what I’m doing is a good thing.”

Animal Love… and Action

On her social media pages, she often posts about caring for distressed animals and asking people to adopt her fosters and rescues. But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, we learn. She doesn’t post even 1% of her fosters/rescues, she says, doing so only when she needs help. She has helped them all: cats, pigeons, owls… She narrates two incidents, one from a couple of years ago, the other more recent.

In 2015, she saved about 40 pigeons (adults and babies alike) from her building when it was undergoing some repairs. The labourers had closed the ducts without thinking of removing the birds from within. The pigeons were trapped for a week or so, even as Sadaa and her parents tried frantically to help them, much to the chagrin of the society residents. Her friends didn’t come to her help either, not wishing to go against the society. When the firemen finally came, they were able to save most of the pigeons. She brought them home, putting them in her balcony in special carriers she had made for them. They were eventually able to save about 20 of them. While she released most of them, two remained for two years, and even after being released, would keep coming back. Mother hen, er, pigeon, anyone?

A rescued mother cat nursing her kittens at actress Sadaa's homeA few weeks back, she rescued a mother cat with her kittens. Again, her society was against the presence of community cats on the premises, and if Sadaa had not been there that day, would have had them thrown out. Sadaa brought them home and had the female cat neutered. Still recovering, the cat is already itching to go back to her stomping grounds on the roads.

Which makes us wonder: does she get attached to her rescues? It’s a fulfilling experience, but the actress believes you should let them go, especially if they belong to the streets. Also, it’s not humanly possible to keep them all. Presently, she has also got associated with Som Villa in Karjat, on the outskirts of Bombay, to help with her rescues.

The Man, and Woman, in Her Life

Sadaa has two cats at home, Sheru (male) and Laila (female), and she has heart-warming tales to tell about how both came to her home.

While her mom has regularly fed cats, her dad wasn’t really a cat person. In fact, he used to believe felines were not loyal, until he fell in love with a black cat (not Laila). Then, one day in 2010, on a road trip to Hubli, he spotted this tiny orange furball on the road, picked him up and brought him home. Sadaa admonished her dad: the cat wasn’t really a rescue, but an animal he had forcibly picked up. The scolding, though, was merely mock: Sadaa had fallen in love with the fuzzball by then. To alleviate any misgivings, they consulted with the vet, who told them cats are easy to nurture. (Until then, they had had only a rescue dog, who had unfortunately passed away.) After Sheru, so named because of his lovely leonine mane, the family has rescued many cats, and realised how easy it is indeed to tend to cats. “Sheru is the best thing my dad has ever done,” claims Sadaa proudly, the smile clear over the phone.

Sadaa's home cats, Sheru (front) and Laila (behind)Laila chose us, reminisces Sadaa warmly. When the family rescued her, about a couple of years ago, she was tiny, petite and malnourished. They nursed her back to health, had her spayed, and then put her up for adoption. Once a family in Panvel, another outlying area of Bombay, decided to adopt her, Sadaa and her parents drove down from their house in Western Bombay to pass on Laila to the family. That night, after returning from relinquishing the cat, none of the three could sleep. The next day, they went back to meet her new family. Turns out, Laila hadn’t eaten or slept either. They brought her back, all four sentient beings now happy. Five, it seems. Apart from Sadaa and her parents, Laila has impacted Sheru too. The tomcat has changed for the better since she arrived.

And how did Laila get her moniker? Sadaa went name-hunting online, but kept coming across the regulation ‘Blackie’. Another that kept coming up was ‘Maya’, but that made it seem black is evil. In the end, she went for ‘Laila’ of Laila-Majnu, who was believed to be dark-complexioned. And Sheru, Laila and Sadaa have been living amicably together since then, their love triangle not turning tempestuous in any way so far.

Talking Tough

Apart from affirmative actions, the actress believes in voicing her opinions on animal welfare equally strongly. She is a big proponent of #AdoptDontShop. In fact, she told off someone who approached her on her FB page for buying animals from him. She opines, and sighs, that animals are not commodities that you should buy them. She fails to understand rich folk’s attitude to having only pedigree dogs (not that she has anything against breeds), as they don’t know where these dogs come from: a puppy farm where the mother dog is forced to birth non-stop until she dies or is abandoned. What’s worse is that the same people often cast away the dogs once they get sick or old. All this happens – the actress sighs some more – because people think they are superior to animals. “Very few people understand… And people will take time to change…” she trails off.

A board outside the spotted deer enclosure in a zoo proclaiming actress Sadaa's adoption of the spotted deer therein

We then get to the tricky twin topics of jallikattu and gauraksha, and are heart-warmingly surprised the actress, unlike most folk in the industry, doesn’t play it safe. In fact, she spoke against jallikattu on Jodi No. 1, on which she was a judge. Not surprisingly, her views were edited out of the show. During the filming too, contestants would come up to her and share their viewpoints supporting the bull-taming “sport”. Many, friends included, also posted on her timeline. She would simply remove the posts. To the contestants, she argued back: “You say it’s about taming and training the bull… You put chillies in their eyes and bums… Which animal is ‘trained’ to take that kind of pain??”

About gauraksha and the cow-slaughter ban, she is more expansive. She feels things were better before the ban; now, people opposed to it are even more against animals. See what happened in Kerala, she exasperates. She gets philosophical, “I can handle animals aaraam se (with ease)… I find humans tougher to face…”

Pragmatic, Positive

Given the power a celebrity can yield, hasn’t she ended up influencing people to be more animal-sensitive, we wonder as we prepare to wind up. She takes a pause and responds, “You know, I haven’t even been able to change my dad…” She says she has totally given up on preaching, believing that unless it comes from within, it’s very difficult.

However, she ends on a positive note, for all the folk who have made the change. For all veg/an folk and other animal lovers out there, she says, “You all are doing a great job.” It’s just amazing, she feels, that so many people have turned veggie for whatever reasons. She signs off with, “Try and become veg/an (whoever hasn’t) – keeping in mind that that animal has feelings too. And… stay blessed.” Well, you too, Sadaa. Forever.

Quick Takes

Your favourite veggie food dishes/eateries/cities, in India and abroad?

I’m not much of a foodie. To me, food is a basic necessity. I enjoy home food, and when I travel, I stick to what I get in the hotel.

Like most self-respecting veg/ans, do you cook? If so, what’s your favourite dish?

No, I don’t, due to the nature of my work. I have help for my food. But so much Indian food is veg/an anyway.

Any fellow animal lovers and veggie folk you admire?

Anyone who does it for the right reasons, that is, animal love. So, not really someone who does it for health reasons. But that can be ok too.

Actress Sadaa with her home cat, Sheru, in what she says is her "all-time favourite pic"Do you plan to have dogs too, or is it only cats for you, also because they are low-maintenance?

Because of my work, I travel a lot, that too with mom or dad. Dogs get attached to you, whereas cats can manage on their own after a while. I could think of having dogs only when there is someone trust-worthy in my absence.

Is there room for a special someone with so many other special beings (animals) around? If so, will he need to be an animal lover and veg/an too?

When I’m not shooting, animal work keeps me busy. In fact, today (the day of the interview), I have a vet appointment at 5 pm. Special someone? He’ll have to be veg, by religion or otherwise. If not an animal lover, at least he shouldn’t be an animal hater! If so, I know how to make him an animal lover for sure!

VegPlanet magazine's cover pic for this story, featuring Sadaa with Sheru This is the cover story for the second issue of VegPlanet, a quarterly premium lifestyle magazine for vegetarian, vegan and veg-curious folk. You can find out more about VegPlanet here: VegPlanet site

All pix taken from Sadaa’s social-media pages, not necessarily with her permission ;-), except this one alongside, which is from VegPlanet

You can follow Sadaa on Facebook @ActressSadha and on Instagram @Sadaa17.

Cover pic for this piece, including snapshots of the three books featured and the title text

Animals / Books | Wonderful as an Animal

Logo for VegPlanet magazineThis piece is for the launch issue of VegPlanet, the new quarterly premier lifestyle magazine for vegetarian, vegan and veg-curious folk. This appears in their Media Matters section.

Author Venita CoelhoAt The Hindu Lit for Life 2016 litfest, held about a year ago, I had bumped into Venita Coelho, both of whose animal fiction books I had just read then. Venita has been a scriptwriter for serials and films, before recently moving on to authoring and activism. I wished to find out one key thing from her: the motivation for writing these books. Her answer was simple: “Write for children. Adults’ minds are too set.”

Perhaps why much animal writing is aimed at children. So, in this round-up of last year’s best animal-friendly writing, we feature a couple of children’s books, including one by Venita herself. But for good measure, and perhaps to show that all is not lost with adults, we also include one aimed at grown-ups. Happy animal-friendly reading.

Front cover of the second animal-fiction book by Venita Coelho, Dead as a DodoThe second in Venita’s Animal Intelligence Agency (AIA) series, Dead as a Dodo traces the efforts of three AIA agents – Rana (boy), Bagha (tiger) and Kela (langur) – to save a dodo. A lone member of this extinct species has been miraculously discovered, but as expected, avaricious hunters are in pursuit too, for unscrupulous collectors worldwide. The three sleuths need to take the dodo to safety, so that history does not repeat itself. Like her first book, Tiger by the Tail, this too is racy, with several fantabulous adventures. No wonder it won the fest’s Young World – Goodbooks Award. So, are the three able to save the dodo? The ending is… clever as a fox.

Front cover of Stephen Alter's 'The Secret Sanctuary'Stephen Alter’s The Secret Sanctuary is more sublime. This too features a trio (all bipeds though), also out on an expedition, but only by chance. As they head out for school one morning, they lose their way in the forest en route, and are forced to spend the night therein. Before too much harm can come to them though, they encounter a naturalist, who helps them navigate through and also educates them in the ways of the jungle. What baffles the kids most is that while they spot and touch many a wild animal, the animal doesn’t see or sense them in response. The premise is simple: animals are meant to be away from humans – and from humans harming them. If only that were true in real life.

Front cover of Han Kang's 'The Vegetarian'As simple and smooth as the previous two books are, South Korean Han Kang’s Man Booker-winning The Vegetarian is as complex and intense. The protagonist, Kim Yeong-hye, decides to turn vegetarian (actually, vegan, as she gives up dairy and leather too), but the story, in three parts, is not from her viewpoint. Kang presumably wants to portray how others perceive veg(an) folk. So, Part 1 has the protagonist’s family not taking her decision well at all, her father even forcing meat down her throat at a get-together. Part 2 is esoteric: her brother-in-law yearns to paint floral-scapes on her bare body, the idea being that a plant-preferring’s person’s skin becomes very alluring. (This may not be so esoteric after all: there are several studies supporting this notion.) Part 3, told from her sister’s perspective, depicts her institutionalization in a mental health facility, as she is seen to take her vegetarianism “to an extreme”. (Now, how often do veggie folk hear that?) Due to its surrealism and structure, Vegetarian is not an entirely easy read, but serves its purpose well: showing how challenging it may be for folk who resolve to lead an animal-friendly life to live that life, especially when they have to do so around unsupportive others. For folk who’ve turned veg(an) in real life though, that’s easy: just think of the animals.

Cover pic for this piece, a sigh-face cartoon with the title dialogue text and sub-head

Vegan | Veggie and Vocal (Sub-story) | “You don’t look vegetarian…”

Logo for VegPlanet magazineThis piece is for VegPlanet, the new quarterly premier lifestyle magazine for vegetarian, vegan and veg-curious folk. This is the sub-story to (within) the cover story in the launch issue.

 You may read the cover story here: Cover story to this piece

“Don’t plants have life”, “Where do you get your proteins from”, “We will put chicken in your food, you won’t even know it”, and other things veggie millennials are tired of hearing…

“If we don’t eat animals, animals will take over this world.” – Altab, Kolkata

“If carnivores can kill their prey, then…” – Arundhati, Mumbai

Trust you me, I have converted many staunch vegetarians to non-vegetarians in my life…” – Deepan, Chennai / Bangalore

“Don’t you miss bacon?” (No, I don’t.) – Anne, Philippines

“But you’re an American… Why would you want to give up non-veg?” – Shevon, Mumbai

“So, what about fish?” – Erika, Mumbai

“How could you give it up? Is this forever??” – Kadambari, Chennai

“Plants have life and water is a fish’s home. A vegan should not have these both.” – Rahul, Mumbai

“God made these animals so that we can eat them…” – Lavanya, Chennai

This is epic: “You don’t look vegetarian…” – Vrushali, Mumbai

Brinda, Mumbai, has heard – and given back – a lot worse. Unfortunately, we had to exclude it for reasons of language. Her language, that is.

Cover pic for this piece, a collage of all the respondents with the piece title and sub-head

Vegan | Veggie and Vocal (Main Story)

Logo for VegPlanet magazineThis piece is for VegPlanet, the new quarterly premier lifestyle magazine for vegetarian, vegan and veg-curious folk. This is the cover story for the launch issue.

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

Kolkata-based vegan activist Altab Hossain holding a poster on animal welfare during one of his outreach events

Altab during one of his outreach events

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 with one of her nine doggie friends

Anne Camille Guevarra of Philippines holding one of her nine doggie friends

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.

Kamaldeep Singh of Kanpur with Ginger, a street puppy he met on a holiday in Manali

Kamaldeep with Ginger, a sweet little pup he met on a holiday

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’.

Vegetarian Lavanya Ratha with her infant son

Lavanya has to fend many annoying questions, around her son and herself

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.

Brinda Poojary of Mumbai holding aloft a poster for animal welfare during a march

Brinda during one of her animal marches

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.

Chennai- and Bengaluru-based Deepan Kannan regarded a South Indian veg food menu on a banner

Chennai- and Bengaluru-based Deepan loves his veg South Indian food

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.

US-born, India-married Shevon Bhattacharya celebrating Kukur Tihar with her doggie friends, June and Pepper

Shevon celebrating Kukur Tihar with her doggies, June and Pepper

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

An open box of Nordic Kandie Magic marzepan with 12 pieces, with two having silver and gold leaf

Luxuriant Marzepan, for Luxury Gifting

A content marketing post for a luxury marzipan brand based out of Bombay / Mumbai. First, their post on SlideShare, and then my original post below.

This post on Nordic Kandie Magic SlideShare

When it comes to gifting, especially luxury gifting, only the best should do. After all, this is a day and age when people have travelled to destinations as exotic as the Cook Islands and as expensive as Guana Island. And when it comes to gifting food and confectionery, it gets even trickier. The well-heeled, apart from being well-travelled, are also adopters of new-age, healthy lifestyle and dietary choices. Trans fat free, gluten free, organic, vegan, artisanal… The list goes on, much like that of their dream holiday destinations. Finding a gift that matches all these preferences would call for the services of a genie. Or in our case, some good old kandie. Nordic Kandie’s range of handmade, gourmet marzipan (or marzepan, as we prefer to spell it, to reflect its authenticity) and couverture chocolates ticks all the right boxes when it comes to high-end gifting, right down to the elegant gift box. But allow us to start at the beginning.

Marzepan, as you may know, if you’ve been to a Scandinavian country, or an Anglo-Indian neighbourhood closer home, is a sweet made essentially of almonds (blanched and ground into paste) and sugar (though in some places, that’s replaced with honey). The ratio of almonds to sugar may vary, but authentic marzepan is that known to contain at least 35% almonds. Ours is made up almost entirely of almonds, but that’s only the delectable beginning. So, if it doesn’t contain almonds – in some countries, it may be made of anything from cashews to pili nuts, and commercial marzipan usually contains almond flour – it’s not marzipan.

An almond-flavoured marzepan ball with almonds beside

The heart of marzepan, almonds are being counted among the superfoods these days. They’ve for long been known for their health benefits, thanks to all the goodness they bear (protein, vitamin E, antioxidants, manganese, magnesium… this list seems endless too), and are especially famous for providing an “energy blast”. So, mom knew best, after all. However, the elders may have been off the mark in one respect. Recent studies show that apprehensions of gaining girth – thanks to it being such a loaded luxury nut – are unfounded. Almonds are quite filling and it’s usually not possible to have too many at one go without feeling satiated. Unless you’re taking part in something like a ‘Man vs Nuts’.

When it comes to the almond source too, we’ve set the premium bar high. Our choice is the world’s finest, the Mamra of Iran. The defining quality of the Mamra is that it’s cultivated organically and so retains the finest flavour, texture and taste, all perfect for making our marzepan luxuriant. Not surprisingly, Mamra almonds constitute only 3-4% of the world’s almond produce. (If you see parallels between this and high-quality wine, we like where you’re going. Gourmet marzepan and fine wine, in fact, make for a very appealing combination, not the least because both are acquired tastes. But more of this some other time.)

Now, if the almonds are organic, can our sugar be otherwise? Befitting the health-conscious, we use only organic sugar for our marzepan. Making the actual confection itself is a complex process, and in our case, artisanal, perfected over centuries of marzepan-making. Our founder, Thea Tammeleht, is a sixth-generation marzepan maker, from Reval in Estonia, the Scandinavian nation widely regarded as the birthplace of marzepan. In India, in keeping with tradition, we make it all by hand in a European-standards factory.

Nordic Kandie Magic marzepan in the making

Almonds from its finest place. The recipe from its birthplace. To add further exquisiteness to our marzepan, we kept going west. To Belgium. Which can only mean one thing. Our marzepan is enrobed in authentic, luscious Belgian chocolate for a truly divine experience. One bite, and you’ll be transported to all those small chocolate stores dotted across Belgium, or as we’d take pride in thinking, to our stores in India.

Edible-gold-covered Nordic Kandie Magic balls

This is precious candy, do we hear your saying? But. There’s. More. Seriously? How? Here’s how. Make your marzepan experience the ultimate in decadence by going for a covering of – hold your pranayam breath – silver or even gold. Even as you wonder if our marzepan needs to be kept locked up (well, maybe from roving palates), you would of course know that this is the edible variety. This is a thin sheet (or leaf, as it’s called), much like the varkh found in some Indian sweets. However, like the rest of our marzepan and couverture chocolate range, it’s 100% vegetarian and vegan. (What’s non-veg/an about varkh, do you ask? That, if you don’t already know, we’ll leave you to find out for yourself. You could be surprised, or rather dismayed. Additionally, in many cases, the varkh is made not of a precious metal but aluminum, which is of course hazardous for consumption.) We use purified 24K gold and 18K silver for these premium pieces. Needless to add, these are certified for their authenticity from the source, a globally renowned maker of edible silver and gold leaf based in Italy. (Iran, Estonia, Belgium, Italy… Our marzepan seems the world in a box, doesn’t it? As well as… a world of luxury in a box.)

If you prefer things a bit more down-to-earth though, we offer numerous embellishments (more than 100, and free of cost if you order in bulk) on the marzepan pieces. And keeping in mind the Indian fondness for variety in everything, we offer a range of flavours as well: cinnamon, rose cardamom, salted caramel, strawberry, mint, nutmeg… Well, what do you know, our marzepan seems to be for the gluttons, after all.

The tradition of having edible silver and gold in confectionery comes, not surprisingly, from the royals and aristocrats down the ages. They believed it to be the elixir of life and would more than occasionally indulge in marzepan topped with gold leaf. Marzepan itself was considered a confection for the regals, due to the fine and rich ingredients it is made of. For the same reasons, with or without the gold, it was also considered a treat for the royals. Queen Elizabeth I is known to have developed quite a liking for it. Which is perhaps why at the beginning of this year, the German President, Joachim Gauck, gifted Queen Elizabeth II a marzepan model of the Brandenburg Gate for the new year. With our artisanal, gourmet marzepan, encased in equally exquisite packaging, we only seem to be continuing this rich tradition.

We invite you to be a part of this luxuriant gifting culture. Pay a visit to any of our stores in Mumbai and Delhi or get in touch with us here. Give it to your BFF for her baby shower, your closest kin you’ve invited for the destination wedding, your C-Suite frequent flyer, your blue-blood Deluxe Suite guest. And because we’re sure you won’t be able to resist its temptation, we suggest you also gift it to yourself.

An exquisitely wrapped box of Nordic Kandie Magic marzepan

Cover pic for this post, with silver-coated marzipan balls below and the text 'MMMarzipan' above

IrfindingVegan: Mini Marzipan, Mega Magic

IrfindingVegan LogoFor this post alone, this series should have been called Irfvestigating Vegan. Read on.

Nordic Kandie Magic logoOne of my Bombay friends is an associate with Nordic Kandie Magic (or simply Nordic Kandie), makers of gourmet marzipan and luxury chocolates. She had undertaken this association just a bit before I was in Bombay last, around Feb, and has been talking to the Nordic countries and back on how good the marzipan is. I heard her out as a friend, but as a foodie (or rather, voodie, a vegan foodie), I had tuned out. The only times I have been exposed considerably to marzipan is during Easter or Christmas or both (see, I have been that tuned out), when I used to work with this large organization in Bombay and when the sizeable Christian population in the department used to bring this sweetmeat for the rest of the folk. As far as I remember, it would contain egg, and so I wouldn’t have it (while I wasn’t vegan then, I was veg). Sensing my lack of shared interest, she seemed to ease up in her marzipan mania communication to me. And then one day, boom.

A Nordic Kandie Magic mini about to be dunked into chocolate, with almonds in the backgroundShe got back squealing to me Nordic Kandie’s marzipan is very much vegan. Her WhatsApp message came around the beginning of April, so I thought it to be a belated All Fools’ Day prank. However, as the notifications from her continued with more and more exclamation points, I decided to speak with her. She gushed to me. Not wanting to first be elated and then disappointed, I calmly asked, “Are you sure?” She was vehement, “Absolutely!” And then she made me super-proud. Not by the confirmation that it is indeed vegan, but by narrating the tactics she employed to find out it is so.

Edible-gold-covered Nordic Kandie Magic ballsShe asked her boss, the lady who runs the company, whether it’s got egg. No. Milk? No. Cream? Nyet. (Her boss is from an erstwhile USSR republic, and more about her at the end.) Milk solids? Nada. Gelatin. No-no. The lady equally vehemently told her – as if offended that people think she puts these “contaminants” into her fine marzipan (and chocolates) – they use only almonds (and the best, mamra, from Iran) and organic sugar, and where they use chocolate, it’s Belgian and sans lait (without milk). And for the high-end marzipan, silver and gold (yes, thin slivers, and certified from where they buy this precious metal), but I am only Irfan Syed vegan, not James Cameron vegan. In short, she didn’t ask her boss directly, but very directly/indicatively and in various forms, and each time, her boss denied putting any meat or dairy vestiges in it. Time for me, and my heart, to go boom-boom. It was vegan, and my friend had found out, or investigated, indirectly. Just the way I do it. And like it.

Yes, that’s my strategy. When I need to find out whether or not something is vegan, I never use the v-word directly with the attendant/manager. Most folk, especially in India, don’t know what vegan is, neither as a concept nor as a word. At one place, the manager even shot back with a question of his own, “Baingan?” (Brinjal/Eggplant/Aubergine in English.) My friend had done (learnt) well. (She had also learnt to not dislike street dogs with my influence. That’s another strategy of mine: don’t forcefully urge people to be nice to animals; rather, show love to animals in front of them, and they’ll gradually begin liking them a bit, or at least loathing them less. But that is a part of the Irfanimals series.)

It was my turn to do the “inrestigation” – the rest of the investigation. I went to Google and the Nordic Kandie site and social media pages, and found that it is indeed “100% vegetarian and vegan”. And even the images looked good enough to eat. I turned the investigation back to my friend. Why doesn’t the lady say it’s so? Ah, that’s because many folk don’t know what vegan is; when she says so, many still ask her whether or not it contains egg. Villiterates (vegan-illiterates).

Vegan certification over, there was now only one thing to do: sample it. My friend came to my help here too. She said she’d send me some, at no cost. I wasn’t complaining, especially as it is high-end and not something I’d eat on a daily basis. Also, this is one of the perks of being a vegan blogger.

True to her word, though a bit delayed in her word – during the wait, I stopped short of sending her typical jokes like ‘Are the almonds coming from Iran?’ – it came last week, a couple of weeks later than promised.

The box was huge, and I wondered whether the European understanding of ‘sample’ is ‘copious’. But disappointingly or elatingly, it was packed long and hard. There was the outer box, then the bubble wrap (lots of it; bubble-wrap poppers would have been delighted), lots of cellotape, and then… squish. I felt my scissors had made an incision. Some sticky gel began oozing out. (Did some bubbles of bubble-wrap contain something other than air?) However, my mom, who’s apparently more used to packaging food items, assured me, “It must be something to prevent the items’ loss of quality or taste.” To me, it seemed a moat, for once I was through that, there was the jar of mini marzipans, like a fort beyond the water.

Nordic Kandie Magic Minis in the jarI cleared the wraps, cleaned the liquid, and held the jar of joy in my hands. Branding-loving me admired the packaging. The jar made of glass and not plastic, indicating premiumness. The deep blue ribbon, bestowing richness. And finally, the luxurious-looking brand card. I loosened the ribbon and proceeded to the lid. It was tight. I held the jar against the light and saw a vacuum seal. Neat thinking. I held the lid more firmly now and started slowly rotating it. The lid loosened and my senses did too: the aroma of almonds slowly went through my nostrils and then into me. I looked in: from top, the bits looked like billiard balls neatly arranged at the start of a game. I lunged in and popped one. Umm. This should be called mmmarzipan. Then, another. Then, another. And then, started feeling a bit full. But of course: it’s made of almond. I had my lunch (light), and then opened the jar again for dessert. Again, um, two, three. I couldn’t seem to be able to have more than three at a time. Which, come to think of it, is a good thing. It automatically forbids you to have too many at one go and fill up yourself and your hips soon after. Also, you can keep and savour it, even that tiny bit of a jar.

A user photo of a jar of Nordic Kandie Magic minis on a ledge overlooking a beach at sunsetI had the mmmarzipan mmminis over three days. By the second day, I think I had figured out how to have it. Yes, these are foreign, specifically, European sweet-treats, and so an acquired taste. I even devised a small ritual. Open the jar, smell the contents (like they do wine), have the whiff of almonds pervade me, whet my appetite and then dig in for one, two, three, stop. Also best not to mix up flavours/tastes. They come in different colours/flavours such as rose, vanilla, light chocolate and dark chocolate and are coloured accordingly. My favourite was dark chocolate, also as I don’t have a sweet tooth, and not surprisingly saved those bits for the last on all days and for the end. And once there were none, I went back to leching at them on the FB page. And started sucking up to my friend.

Thea Tammeleht, owner of Nordic Kandie Magic, holding an open box of marzipan magicTo tell you a bit about the company, from the investigation I have done, Nordic Kandie is run by Thea Tammeleht, an expat of Estonian origin. She started this a few years ago, after multiple years in the corporate field, to pursue her passion and long lineage of making marzipan. In fact, on further investigation, I found that there is a long-standing war, though not a bitter one (can’t be when marzipan is involved), between Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and from where Thea hails, and a German city with a typical German name: long and pronounced like you have marzipans in your mouth. What’s the war over? Over which city the dessert originated in. I don’t know about that dispute, but over these Nordic Kandie treats there is none: these marzipan minis are mega magic.

Find out more about Nordic Kandie on their site: Nordic Kandie website

Connect with Nordic Kandie on their Facebook page: Nordic Kandie FB