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A vegetarian country and a forgotten social narrative

  • Published at 02:19 pm April 9th, 2018
A vegetarian country and a forgotten social narrative
A news story one week ago caught my eye: According to The Telegraph, Bangladesh is the most vegetarian country in the world. As per a UN report, the average consumption of meat here is about 4 kilos (annual per capita intake) compared to a whopping 120 kilos by a person in the US. That people in the US love their meat is now common knowledge due to social media plus countless number of Bangladeshi Americans who leave this country slim and light, and come back for a holiday after several years looking plump.  Of course, when members of the diaspora come back looking like they have been eating to their heart’s delight, relatives back in Bangladesh are happy. After all, in Bangladesh, the definition of bhalo shashtho or robust health, still means someone who is very large. Reminds me of a famous saying by late philosopher, poet, and thinker Humayun Azad who astutely observed: There is a distinct relation between hunger and a sense of beauty. People in countries where there is food scarcity, take heavy figures to be attractive whereas in countries with ample food, being thin is a sign of beauty. In a time when obesity is intractable globally with UK imposing sugar tax on soft drinks, we can take pride in saying that, at least in Bangladesh, we still love our greens more than we love meat. Come to think of it, nowadays, I find that many households in the major cities do not allow mutton to be featured in the weekly eating plan -- beef is limited and even chicken comes every alternate days with fish inserted to ensure a balanced diet. Bangladesh is now properly fed, people hardly die of hunger anymore. Yet, with the revelation of the FAO, that this country consumes the most vegetables, memories of an austere past comes back. The 70s, when people worked just for food In 1974, the country faced a famine, following a natural disaster in 1970. There was a cataclysmic cyclone and even before the new nation could overcome the devastation of that natural calamity plus the shattering impact of the grueling nine months of Liberation War, there was another crisis. Since Bangladesh exported jute to Cuba, a state aligned to the USSR, aid from the US came with a condition: Stop selling jute to Castro, otherwise there will not be any help. Scarcity of food drove millions towards the city to find work in exchange for three square meals. This trend triggered the domestic help employment culture in cities. Young women came and worked at homes, not for a regular monthly salary, but for three meals. I distinctly remember their main demand was rice. A bowl full of rice, a little salt, and a piece of onion were all they wanted. Lucky was the day when they got a little vegetable, and meat was a treat that came during Eid.
I distinctly remember their main demand was rice. A bowl full of rice, a little salt, and a piece of onion were all they wanted
It’s not that the families for whom they worked had meat and fish, depriving the domestic help. In a Spartan post-independent Bangladesh, a large homogeneous middle class could afford meat once a week, some once a month. Living on a budget, nay, living on a tight budget, that’s how life could be defined. Every cigarette had to be accounted for. A man felt like a king with Tk20 as dispensable cash. The surge of young people coming to the cities to work as domestic support was high till the 90s.  By the early 80s, the practice of monthly payments to household workers began and I recall that while the regular salary was between Tk120 and Tk150 for a maid in 1982-83, the news that a businessman in the area was paying Tk1,000 per month raised avid interest, fuelling gossip. The murky side of food deficit Not too many people talk about it now and many a senior person would rather hush it up, but there was a dark, diabolical side to young women coming to city homes to find work. In countless cases, they were sexually exploited by someone in the household. To be frank, at that time, there were many pregnancies of domestic help which promptly triggered another seedy operation: Backstreet abortions by nurses of public hospitals. Faced with the daunting task of surviving, a lot of women willingly relented to such demands which often carried extra tips on the side. Maids being beaten, scalded with an iron or hot spatula, locked in a bathroom were common practices; regrettably, hardly anyone went and complained to the police. Come to think of it, the gravest human rights violations were carried out by our own relatives, in front of us.  Privation in all sectors of life bred cruelty. That culture is all but extinct now since young women from villages coming to the cities prefer to develop a skill and work at garment factories or other manufacturing sectors. Well-fed and still there’s love for the greens Come back to current day Bangladesh, where many urban families are not compelled to make weekly food charts anymore and domestic help can actually call the upper shots. How many times have I heard working parents admit, “the most important person in our lives is our bua.” Times have changed for the better, young women coming to the cities can choose what they want to do and they don’t have to provide extra favours for food anymore. And, as for being the most vegetarian country in the world, well, obesity is creeping in, so better drop the meat and opt for the veggie burger. Towheed Feroze is a journalist, teaching at the University of Dhaka.