In the Paleolithic age humans survived on edible plants and hunting of wild animals. They lived in small groups, made rough stone weapons and killed animals for food. The use of fire in the Lower Paleolithic age revolutionized the act of eating as they began to cook their foods finding wonderful ways of having vegetable dishes or mixing vegetables with meat. The survival instinct of eating got gradually replaced by the gourmet approach. The point to note here is that vegetarian and non-vegetarian ways of eating existed on planet earth since pre-historic times.
With the spread of civilization groups got converted into societies; societies into kingdoms; kingdoms into countries, and this process of evolution also led to the birth of religions. Political and religious ideologies began to dominate humans’ way of life and their eating too. Change of circumstances that could be religious or political or economic, and climatic conditions influenced eating habits. Furthermore, thanks to the dominant communities in various countries there emerged a kind of “official food” or standardized foods that were made available in all major outlets of the countries concerned.
No food sentiment
However, the basic characteristics of eating had been retained. And more importantly, it had always been food preferences, never “food sentiments”.
India has been no exception to this evolutionary process. In the country’s Holy Scriptures there are innumerable references to ceremonial or natural eating of all kinds of red meat and even alcohol. Swami Vivekananda said on many occasions that extreme cold climate or special circumstances made eating of red meat a necessity. Except for the religions based on non-violence to animals almost all other religions sanctioned eating of red meat in private or social ceremonies which is there to behold across the country even now.
The basic conflict between vegetarian and non-vegetarian ways of eating is that the latter involves “killing or slaughter” of animals which is not sanctioned by some religious doctrines in case it is just for “the pleasure of eating”. However, there is hypocrisy in this too. As far as killing or slaughter of certain animals is concerned there is no opposition, there are problems only when “certain other animals” are affected. Besides, when a tiger hunts down its prey—whether due to overwhelming hunger pangs or the pleasure of eating nobody can be sure enough—we do not call it “killing or slaughter of animals”.
In fact, Project Tiger has been a major campaign in India to preserve this beautiful species. Call it misinterpretation of religious scriptures or well directed misinformation or intolerant attitudes or plain blame- game politics the “food scenario” in India is highly disturbing at the present juncture. For the first time “sentiments” have been associated with the act of eating. Food harmony is now emerging as the key to ensuring communal harmony.
The perfect kind of food harmony can be found in all of the eight Northeastern states—Assam, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. In all the state capitals, towns and villages here you find every kind of gastronomic delight under the sun.
The North East boasts of being the home of multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual communities with their incredible variety of cuisine and mouth watering recipes. In the city of Guwahati – the gateway to the North East – the official food menu dominates the markets and restaurants thanks to the demographic composition of Assam. However, different people with different food preferences can easily find their choicest foods from specified markets or hotels. And this fact is known to all of the inhabitants of this city or the State.
The eating opportunities in the cities of Imphal, Aizawl, Shillong, Gangtok, Kohima, Dimapur, Itanagaretc could make a food connoisseur stick to the North East permanently. The most beautiful and the most direct food harmony is found in Shillong – the capital of Meghalaya and the second most important city of this region. On an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet above sea level this hill city with breathtaking natural beauty is also host to a cosmopolitan society of quiet hospitable and peace loving people. Narrow sloping roads and pathways crisscrossing the city Shillong is packed to the brim with activities from early morning (light breaks out here around 4am) to well into the night. You select any particular market street and behold.
Both sides of it are lined up with stalls/vendors selling grocery items, green vegetables, fish, chicken, mutton, beef and pork and so on. All galore in the same stretch of the street. Milling people would come up and buy whatever food they prefer. No one looks askance at them or smells them back to their kitchen. Then you can choose your restaurant- you can go to the upscale one or the local one with mixed menu or the one specializing in tribal cuisine.
Shillong is predominantly Christian. However, the apparently dominant community, not to speak of the extreme cold weather almost throughout the year, does not dominate the food menu. The pure vegetarian and the hardcore meat eater can live and are living here in perfect food harmony and a peaceful coexistence.
The official Indian food menu still prevails in all government functions, in all the prominent guest houses and in all the upscale hotels here. No doubt the North East and Shillong in particular have been the most sought-after tourist destinations. The food harmony here could just be the inspiration needed so urgently now.
The North East is blessed abundantly by Mother Nature. Maybe because of this, harmony is the buzzword here. Hankering after what other people are eating we are putting ourselves in direct confrontation with Her. Mother Nature has definite rules, and knows how best to manage this beautiful planet and how to balance the resources. Humans should know better and get wiser to have faith in Mother Nature and allowing her to take the final call.
(This article was first featured in our print publication ‘Karnataka Today’ Volume 1, Issue 1)