'Pakistan is a country. It's not a vegetable that someone can come and take it.'
The logic is indeed irrefutable. A vegetable is not sentient, it is immobile. It can be plucked from a bush, or dug from the soil with minimal guilt attached to whether it will feel the pain or miss its momma plant. It has no gender.
But I am sure Prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani did not want to inspire amusement when he said the above to veteran interviewer David Frost, who asked our Multani PM in an Al Jazeera interview whether the Taliban could take over the country. I posted this as my Facebook status, and it inspired a few of my friends to come up with some hilarious alternatives to the name Pakistan: Gajrabad, Alupur, Bhindistan, Chak Gobi.
But where I – as a foodie – feel particular pain is the implied derision of the vegetable. After all, can't goats, chickens, and cows be caged, snatched, and beheaded? And if the vegetable is held in such low esteem, what of the person who eats it? A new vegetarian convert once half-jokingly told me that when he tells people he doesn’t eat meat, they regard him with pity and derision.
The thing is, in our culture, a vegetable is indeed considered a flaccid thing; the eating of meat is equated with machismo, sexual stamina, strength, and yes, bizarrely enough, cricketing skill. I once overheard a pair of Peshawari Sikhs arguing that Pakistan produces the best fast bowlers because they eat ‘bada gosht.’ Right. So Pakistan cricket suffers because cricketers are not consuming enough pasanday.
There is an old truism that says you are what you eat. In Pakistan, the saying flips to ?'you eat because of what you are’. You are a Muslim, therefore you eat meat. It is another form of differentiation from the ‘Hindu’ other. It is what my mother called me when I refused to eat mutton.
After all, what we eat is so closely intertwined with our belief systems. From the field and enclosure to the table, every morsel is imbued with climate, geography, religion, history, and politics. The cow itself is sacred to the Hindus; how the cow is slaughtered is a sacred act for Muslims and Jews. In the West, vegetarianism has become an ethical decision taking the anthropomorphic view, a choice based on how animals are kept and killed for human consumption.
If foodies were to have a political spectrum, I would describe myself as centre-left. Right being the carnivores, left the herbivores. There are the carnivores: a cousin of mine revels in the cutting of meat during Bakra Eid, going into paroxysms of ecstasy at the sight, touch, and smell of dripping red, tender raw meat. He often gulps down a few choice slivers during the process, wielding his gigantic, freshly sharpened knife like a scalpel, then a fork, as he trims away the yucky bits and samples his work along the way. The artistry and rapture is a pleasure to behold. Alas, that life is not for me.
It is also not for my vegetarian Pathan friend Malika. Yes, the irony is too delicious to ignore. She has been told repeatedly that she cannot possibly be a 'true' Pathan, and she has had to risk offense when she has refused the famous Pathan hospitality. When she once said no to offers of racks of lamb and roasted chicken at her father’s village in Mardan, her aunt asked her with great concern: 'Has the doctor forbidden it for health reasons?'
In our culture, the not eating of meat is considered a compulsion rather than a choice. It is a choice for Malika, but intuitively rather than as a slap-on-the-head-like epiphany. The day after a family barbeque, she found the leftovers distasteful. A week passed, then 10 days, and she hadn’t eaten meat. She realised that she hadn’t really liked the taste and didn’t really miss it. In sociological terms, her choice of food had been conditioned. But even vegetarianism in Pakistani culture can be a rebellion, and like all rebels, she has had to suffer the consequences of going against the grain of society. At parties where her food choice is not known, she has had to nibble on the salad, gorge on the dessert, fill up with raita and rice. Hostesses in the know often tell her they found it hard to rustle up a vegetarian dish.
There it is. Our food culture revolves around meat. Nihari, sajji, haleem, biryani, pulao, tikka, kebab, kofta – these are the royalty of the dinner table. Beyond chaat of suspect hygiene and samosas, street food is too often about the bird or the bovine. At home, vegetables are dumped into the pot with the meat and slowly allowed to die in a mess of brown slush. The vegetables are over-spiced and overdone. Soft and flaccid, just like the Pakistan prime minister said was a western illusion.
So perhaps the slip of the tongue was not the prime minister’s fault. Perhaps we Pakistanis just don’t know how to treat our vegetables.
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