By Anupa Mistry
Visiting India as a 13-year-old was a nightmare realized. Bad things happened: being groped by skeezed-out men in crowded places, disembarking a congested train by jumping as it pulled away from the platform, traveler’s diarrhea, seeing a giant cockroach in a hotel bathroom (my first roach!), getting a bag of chips snatched from my hand by a hissing monkey, screaming at an overly persistent street vendor from a hot, cramped car, blowing smog-blackened snot from my nose in New Delhi. I can go on (but I won’t). My reaction to all of these things was very visceral: Ugh.
That was a digression—Amazing Race has already taught you that India is cray-cray!—because probably the biggest culture shock my only-once homeland visit provided was THE COWS. En route to a New Delhi hotel, my dad giggled and marveled, “See, I told you! Everywhere!” Small town cows, big city cows, traffic-blocking cows, pasture-grazing cows. White, brown, and white-brown cows, and more often than not, withered from the heat and lack of purposeful fattening cows. Cattle in India are cared for lovingly by owners, or, like, whoever is around, and allowed to wander, which is mostly what they are good at. Sometimes they’ll stick their head in a window or door while you are watching The Simpsons dubbed in Hindi and you’re like ‘holy cow!’ and then you laugh at the cultural collision and things make a bit more sense.
Hindus revere cows not because we are weird, you stupid xenophobe, but because (among other religio-cultural explanations) they once provided important sustenance/support to an agricultural people — milk products, manure for fuel, cow-power for farming and short travel. Part of the country’s mythology, this is why no one says anything when cattle block traffic for hours.
So it follows that if you’re not a vegetarian Hindu, you might be a non-beef-eating Hindu. This is where I found myself post-India, as a teenager with mad pocket money and malls to conquer.
I don’t really remember eating my first hamburger but that’s probably because I made it into a total, rebellious non-event: expertly ordering an innocuous fast foody thing as if it wasn’t the first time, eating it while blabbing with girlfriends like it was NBD, going home to scarf down Mom’s dinner and hide the evidence. Over time, I realized I didn’t really like Big Macs or Papa Burgers (though I can fuck with a Whopper every now and then). Growing older still, I ate my first steak and tried Carpaccio and realized how one could get googly-eyed over a certain, corporeal shade of bloody pink. Now, I don’t not eat beef but it seems as though growing-old things usually stop me like, y’know, calories and health benefits.
And though my (all-meats-but-beef-loving) parents know and tenuously understand my non-religiosity, they do not know any of this. I don’t pick up pepperoni pizzas or insist on steaks and hamburgers when we grill. In April, I flew with my Dad and brother to San Francisco and didn’t object as I heard Dad specify “HINDU MEALS” during the booking process. (There is no such thing, really, as a Hindu airplane meal—it is vegetarian.) During some kind of blowout with my Dad this past spring, while he was on his usual preservationist tangent, I mumbled “no” when he yell-asked, ‘So do you eat beef now?!” It’s not worth fighting an ideologue, I told my inner adult afterward.
But really, part of it must be cultural guilt.
India forever is those pretty-eyed, nose-ringed, semi-mythical creatures I encountered at 13. In the small village where my grandfather was born, a wieldy, elderly relative showed me how to milk a cow by hand and lead young calves on shaky legs to drink. I helped steer a bullock cart to family land where I sucked raw, too-sweet juice from freshly-cut sugar cane. And even with modern-ish amenities, I watched women sweep cow dung into hardened cakes of instant fuel. These quiet moments helped bend the chaos to remind me, even years later, of things that still are.