One man's meat is another's poison

Topics Coronavirus | BS Opinion | China

Fancy a fruit bat for breakfast? How about a few sea slugs in your soup? Or some scales from the ant-eating pangolin for starters? If none of the above is to your taste, some succulent morsels of dog meat might pass as a health-giving and warming repast to fend off the icy winds that sweep through the bitter winters of northern China.

Many of these tastes are considered treats in countries of Africa, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Rim, and especially China. In the Seychelles and Guam Mariana, fruit bats are considered a delicacy. The current outbreak of coronavirus with its apocalyptic spectre of more than 2,000 dead and thousands afflicted in a wide swathe of countries has sent tremors through the world economy. It is said to have emerged in the wet markets of Wuhan in Hubei province, which had “a thousand stalls selling fish, chickens, pheasants, bats, marmots, venomous snakes, spotted deer, and other wild animals”, confirming that the virus had an animal source.

The plague-like spread of respiratory disorders and pneumonia, resulting in a trail of deaths, is far greater than the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic of 2003, which caused around 800 deaths. Both epidemics are caused by genetically similar strains of the virus.

A Bloomberg report in Business Standard last week, quoting a 2014 survey of five Chinese cities, found that 83 per cent of respondents in Guangzhou had eaten wildlife in the past year; in Shanghai it was 14 per cent. The consumption of a baffling variety of wildlife isn’t merely a weakness for exotic bites. Traditional Chinese medicine using wild and domesticated animal products, the report adds, is a $60-billion global industry.

Chronicles of life in China devote chapter and verse to the ongoing battle between government authorities and consumers over what the public can or cannot eat. Journalist Pallavi Aiyar’s award-winning reportage-cum-memoir Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China (Fourth Estate; Rs 395) goes one step further than graphic man-eats-dog accounts. At the onset of the SARS crisis she comes upon a poster showing a man, with fork and knife, with a fluffy, smiling cat on his plate, carrying a prohibitory warning: “I was aware that some Chinese ate dogs, but I hadn’t been aware that cats were considered chow too…” Banning dog-eating had been subject to extermination campaigns since Maoist times but, following rabies scares in 2006, 54,429 dogs were killed in Yunnan province. “All dogs were ordered killed regardless of whether they were strays or pets and without mind to whether or not they had been vaccinated.”

A key issue was the suppression of SARS fatalities due to stringent censorship: Most students in the institute where Ms Aiyar taught English were blissfully unaware of the galloping SARS crisis; such a situation may be amplified in the current spread of coronavirus. More piquant is her account of the horrors that ensued when she chaperoned Indian business delegations to Chinese banquets. Meatier and weirder dishes indicated high status and respect but provoked protestations of outrage among Indian guests, when, for example, confronted with “chicken feet a la mode”.

More recently, the human rights lawyer and activist Nandita Haksar, in her entertaining culinary history The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship (Speaking Tiger; Rs 350), gives a telling account of deep-seated cultural and caste prejudices that prevail among Indians over diets. When she married a fellow Naga student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, a question she was inevitably asked was: “Does he eat dogs?” What people from the Northeast eat may be repugnant to some but even among her own meat-eating community of “downstairs Kashmiris” (that is Kashmiris settled in the plains), certain dishes, such as a dessert called “khubani”, cooked with goat’s meat, may seem unconventional to many.

Ms Haksar delves into the politics of food, in particular a spirited debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar on the prohibitions on inter-dining among castes and communities. Gandhi revised his conservative opinion that restraint on inter-dining was essential for the “rapid development of the soul” when Ambedkar, in his attacking 1937 essay titled “Annihilation of Caste”, exhorted, “You seem to be erring in the same way as the reformers working in the cause of removing untouchability … Every man and woman [must be freed] from the thralldom of Shastras … [so that] he or she will inter-dine and inter-marry, without your telling him to do so.”

The debate’s violent spillover poisons the present with lynching of Muslims and Dalits trading in cattle and cow hides. Enforced bans on eating beef, and even eggs, are today the hallmark of vegetarian Hindu nationalism.

The proliferation of dietary bans now invades the lofty corridors of high culture. This week the National Museum in Delhi barred non-veg dishes being served during an exhibition on the culinary history of the archaeological kitchens of Harappan sites. When it became clear that the ban was due to objections by some MPs, a museum official explained: “This museum has so many idols of gods and goddesses, and a relic of Lord Buddha. International dignitaries visit this museum. We have to consider these sensitivities here.”

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