When Dad Is Veg, And Mom Isn’t… What Does Baby Eat?
Five years back, I was on the phone with my fiancé, discussing a topic that seemingly had no solution. We were to get married in December, and I was to move to Ahmedabad, where my vegetarian in-laws stayed. What would I eat? Somehow we had managed to glass over this vital question until a month before the wedding.
I have been brought up on a fish diet five days a week, with Sundays reserved for chicken, mutton or prawns. To my family, vegetarian food means having eggs. So the idea of going to a land where the new family was not only vegetarian, but even rejected onion and garlic, was, simply put, a nightmare.
In practice, it’s been less dire; I have done a brilliant job at keeping my real foodie identity an open secret in an otherwise liberal and loving family. I have gotten used to eating vegetarian food for two reasons: First, I live with a family that has believed in vegetarianism for generations, and I have no intention of disrupting that. And second (and more surprisingly), I have built a habit around it and am content. I indulge in non-veg on weekends, and that suffices. My husband, who has travelled around the world and has seen all kinds of meat being served in restaurants, hasn’t felt tempted ever. He calls himself a vegetarian by choice and not by religion. “When I know an animal died and then came on my plate, I just can’t eat,” he explains every time we broach the subject.
All this has set the stage for this autumn, when my son, Ochoa, travelled with me to Kolkata, the city of his birth 10 months before, to witness the grand Bengali extravaganza called Durga Puja. My extended family swarmed about him with gifts galore. Uncles and aunts lavished toy trains, balls and balloons on him, and neighbours visited with the customary box of sandesh and the almost-sugar-free kacha golla. (“Because babies shouldn’t be allowed too much sugar,” quipped one lady.) There were guests in the house often, and everyone wanted to talk about Ochoa, what his nature was like, how he was adapting to all the languages spoken around him – and what he ate. In the midst of these conversations, I was reminded of that phone call with my husband so many years ago. Yes, the food debate had now moved on to my son. The queries put forward ranged from the general — what constituted Ochoa’s diet — to the absolutely naïve – “What? No fish? How will he survive? More importantly, his brain won’t develop!”
Answering questions on what Ochoa will grow up eating wasn’t easy. I reasoned with my family by elaborating on the goodness of roti and ghee, spoke volumes about green vegetables from all I could remember of school textbooks. When I saw they weren’t convinced, I even told them I felt healthier ever since moving to Ahmedabad and a primarily vegetarian diet. Finally, there came a time when I felt tired and just stopped explaining.
But my family is more persistent. My mother asked if eggs count as non-veg (yes, they do), and one aunt even mashed a potato from a mutton curry into Ochoa’s rice. I didn’t have the heart to tell her what was wrong with that because, to be honest, nothing was. It was just a moral dilemma.
Ideally, I would like my son to know the extreme happiness of biting into a rui or katla fish made in curd, or of savouring his grandmother’s yummy prawn malai curry or the traditional biryani every Holi. I want to hear, “Ma, please make me your chicken stew,” on a day he doesn’t feel too well. But instead, I have begun his dietary journey as a vegetarian, because the cuisine is always on hand in the house and because of his proximity with his paternal grandparents.
Eventually, I want him to make the choice himself. He needs to know that for his father, compassion is a valued virtue, and people do just as well eating greens. But he will also witness his mother’s complex journey of treading between two types of diet with no great finesse. And one day, maybe, there will come a time when he will venture out into the world on his own, try out his first seekh kabab with friends from college, and know what I know. Or he might dislike the taste of it, dread eating a dead animal, and know his father’s truth.
Either way, we must wait till he gets more teeth.