Every time I think of food, the only thing that comes to mind is how I was never allowed to waste any, while growing up. My father had a tough childhood; he was orphaned at the age of eleven and he was shunted from one relative to another because none of them wanted to part with money for school fees, clothes or food. They were always hungry, never having enough money to eat a proper meal, and therein lay his intense dislike of those who treated food as a luxury which could be wasted. He was extremely strict about it and I have vivid memories of sitting at that table with tears streaming down my face because I simply could not eat any more.
As an adult I can now see the larger parenting goal in it; as a child I was terrified and resentful of him. I didn’t realize it then, but food became the lynchpin of the “rebellious phase” of my late teens.
When I went to law school at age seventeen, I enjoyed a greater degree of freedom than before. During my second year there my sister underwent a routine medical checkup for the new job she was about to start and her protein and calcium levels came back dangerously low; the doctor said that if she slipped and fell off a chair it could break her leg. We couldn’t comprehend this; she was a healthy twenty three-year old with a sweet tooth — how could she have a deficiency of anything? Panicked, my mother got the same tests done for me and the results weren’t different. The doctor attributed it to our vegetarian lifestyle and that truly set the cat among the pigeons. Vegetarianism was the other thing my father had always been strict about and my mother, a Kashmiri pundit by birth, had given up eating meat to make life (and her marriage) simpler.
My father refused to entertain the idea of my sister or me eating meat and we were both sent to receive booster injections. My mother wondered if this was a permanent solution but that was hardly the point. The long-suppressed frustration and fear which had accompanied almost every childhood meal was boiling over and I couldn’t bear the fact that I had no control over what I ate or how much of it I ate. Eating food was such a straightforward, uncomplicated act for everyone around me; none of my friends could understand my experiences, let alone share any of them, and even those who had been brought up vegetarian were at peace with it.
I wanted to regain some degree of control over food and I started eating meat. I cannot remember particularly enjoying it and the guilt accompanying the lie caused me to stop and start over multiple times until it was no longer a novelty. I ate meat until I graduated, by which time the dynamic in my family changed to a large extent.
Since my sister got married I have become the sole beneficiary of my parents’ affections. It’s not just that they pamper me; they have also come to understand my need for independence and dislike of authority. To my great surprise, my father’s vociferous insistence on eating every morsel on the plate has dulled and he will now put up with a few instances of food waste. He does not condone it, but he does not treat me like a child either, and I am grateful for it. This, combined with my own realisation that I ate meat out of a childish need to reassert control and not because I actually enjoyed it, has led me back to vegetarianism. I don’t miss my previous food habits at all, and not having to lie to my parents is immensely relieving. Oddly enough, I am now closer to my parents than I was before, and while this isn’t the ideal roadmap for a better relationship with one’s parents, I do not regret it because those years rid me of my frustration and anger in relation to food; it is now as simple for me as it is for everyone else.