by Raju Peddada
As always, for SNAM, to whom I remain eternally indebted.
Author's note: The best place to embark on this gruesome and contentious topic is from my own experiences, from over forty years ago, when I was a teenager. If the use of inverse psychology has any clinical credence, my father, at least in my case, had used to it successfully. By giving me a gun, and complete freedom, he managed to turn me, a belligerent and irreverent teenager with an itchy trigger finger into a inviolable vegetarian, completely against animal murder. To set the stage, I am beginning this article by recalling one of those experiences. And, when I conjure up that day -- thankfully seldom -- I do it involuntarily, presenting an experience from the criminal's perspective.
(Swans - March 11, 2013) Birds rise early to care for their young, ordaining our day with their pleasant and flighty alacrity, also painting our lives in eternal spring. They also are the colorful metaphors for our ephemerality, deciphering "live every moment." During my adolescence, in the early 1970s, I was a wayward delinquent. Someone who loved the precision of guns, devoid of the slightest clue to the psychological trauma they issued, especially to the ones wielding them, and the havoc they wrought upon nature's wondrous beings. I derived satisfaction in never missing my targets: birds. One New Delhi morning, in the spring of 1971 around 7a.m., just before leaving for school, it began with the spilling of my Bournvita milk upon hearing the loud low-pitched screeching of parrots swooping low like Spitfires, flying in a corkscrew tandem over the empty lots in front of our house. Parrots, with their awesome aerodynamics, always flew fast, and this was a courting pair in their procreative spring spirits.
I gulped the milk down, wiped my hand and the white sleeve, and ran to our bedroom for my .22, with my mother shouting after me "where are you running off too?!" She was busy serving breakfast and never did see what ensued. I slipped through my parents' bedroom and came out onto the portico through a sliding door, where I waited patiently. In their fateful timing, the pair settled on an exhaust grate about 25-feet high and almost 200 feet away. Then, in no jerky motion, with the skill of a seasoned sniper, I steadied the rifle on the wall, aimed, and fired at the bigger of the two birds. It was a body shot; the hit bird convulsed for what seemed like interminable moments on its back and slid to the side of the grate, only to be caught by its leg in the overlapping joint. It hung upside down, one foot free, dripping blood, fluttering helplessly, while the other flitted nervously about on the grate, trying to reach its dying mate. At that very moment, the sun cleared the buildings in the east, and the first rays hit the quivering parrot's iridescent green wings, which, almost still now, appeared like a shiny butterfly perched still on the black side of the grate. A silent visual scream arose at the murder of innocence and beauty, unbeknownst to my adolescence -- but it increased in decibels within me as the years dissipated, never abating in intensity.
I felt a pang of regret that very moment, only because the parrot did not drop dead immediately, presenting a gruesome spectacle for everyone to see. An extended struggle of my victims always made me feel bad. I left for school, thinking about it all the way, and sat at my desk in a stupor through six classes, till 3:30 p.m. At about 4:00, as I opened our gate, I hesitantly and instinctively glanced, five-o-clock to my right, at the grate, and found the mate still there, eight hours later. I saw the parrot day after day for what seemed like a month, sitting on the grate, right over its dead mate still hanging there. The parrot, which had nervously flitted about while its mate struggled, now sat still, stoic in resignation. You kill one bird in spring, and you are killing the whole nest -- I did not perceive this back then. Forty-two years later, I shake with contrition as I write this. Have I found release from it? Absolutely not! This, and many similar incidents, hang over my conscience like a meat clever poised over my neck, attached to a single ply thread that could trip, if I even flinched with the tiniest doze of mitigation or abatement in remorse.
In a punitive twist of fate, as if to remind me, I was thrust into a situation that only proceeded to turn up the volume of that ancient scream. In 1984, I became the Design Director at an Iowa advertising agency, with "The National Pork Producers Council" account to service. To understand the hog business, it was requisite of me to get the dime tour of the local hog cooperatives, which entailed seeing how they were housed, grown, fed, and slaughtered.
The last item on the tour: slaughter, the systematic execution of pigs, put me off for weeks. This being my first job in the U.S., I had no choice but to swallow my own rising bile and trudge on. There is this scary etching as frontispiece in Tristram Stuart's book The Bloodless Revolution that showed the horned incarnation of the devil, standing with a knife in one hand and pulling out the intestines from a hung human being with no arms with the other. This etching was an allegorical spectacle, drawn to address the non-believing public of a particular religion, but I confronted this reality in bloody realism.
Live pigs, hanging upside down with their hind legs clamped to a conveying chain, moved slowly on a metal rail near the low roof. They were spaced four feet apart, and their destination was the slaughterer, who stood in plastic coveralls, incidentally looking like an odd burqa, spattered in blood. The conveyor belt with live pigs, whose legs faced outward, towards the door and inspectors, stopped every minute or so, at a U-turn, where the slaughterer, with sharp curved blade, quickly put an eight-inch gash between its front limbs, right under the neck. As soon as this was done, a dam of blood broke free like an oil gusher, pouring directly into an open grate on the floor -- the animal screamed and shuddered violently as the chain moved it out of sight. I saw three pigs slaughtered, while standing about five meters away from that U-turn. By chance, I happen to lock my eyes with one pig, as the second one rolled into position -- what I saw froze me to my bones. I saw fear, and the knowledge of its own end in those eyes -- this was no allegory, that etching was real. I had seen the diablo... and, it is man. When we kill animals, it's hunting; kill a man, it is murder. I suggest you read The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Conell, written at the turn of the last century, to just have an inkling, if the roles were reversed.
In the coming months, I and my colleague managed to create one of the most endearing promotional campaigns for the pork producers. We designed a logo in the shape of a pork chop in deep flesh pink, with the word PORK in Palatino typeface reversed to white, and then we proceeded to tag it with this line, "The Other White Meat," positioning it as an upscale meat. Needless to say, the advertising campaign, consisting of pictures of cheerful families with pork chops, peas, and carrots topped with a cream sauce on their dinner plates, signed off with the new logo and tag-line, was a blockbuster hit. But I still had nightmares over my own hypocrisy, as this mocking hog appeared again and again in my dreams, saying: "Vegetarian, huh?... for money, you'd do anything!"
Vegetarians versus carnivores had been a vast debate, and it still is, although on many fronts, the gathering evidence is fetching the argument unequivocally in favor of the vegetarians. This had been a philosophical argument, beyond moral or environmental limitations -- it actually goes back to the morphology of our being: our origins as hunters and gatherers. Mankind's earliest impulses had been to find a food source and settle down. This happened eight thousand years ago, after the discovery of seed-yielding grasses in the fertile crescent, the swampy land between Tigris and Euphrates in the modern-day Iraq. We got civilized only after farming was discovered -- the deliberate selection and systematic cultivation of seeds as a food source. The cultivation of grasses (rice, wheat, barley, millet, and corn) led to settlements, neighbors led to civility, and civilizations were born. In fact, the systematic slaughter of animals was non-existent in ancient civilizations.
This all changed around the 13th century BC with the advent of Abrahamic faiths, starting with Judaism, then Christianity, and later Islam. Scholar John Edwards, in 1699, gleefully snickered at the "God" who had first declared that humanity must subsist on fruits and herbs, then changed his mind after Noah's Flood, and issues forth the new charter for mankind: "The fear of your and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered -- every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you..." (Genesis 9: 2-3). Abrahamic strictures on humanity's right to prey on animals versus the ideal mankind that exists in harmony with other creatures produced a fissure that vegetarians didn't have to sweat to highlight. The ethical and scientific justification of abstaining from meat weighed in heavily with the European thinkers and moral philosophers during the renaissance, and perculated well into the late 19th century.
Early explorers to India, especially after the plagues of 14th-century Europe, were astonished to find a healthy civilization, almost utopic in manifestation, with no animal butchering or bloody entrails dumped or piled on street corners, festering with parasites, blood and feces on the streets and gutters, stench and disease, as in Europe. They stumbled upon a people who abstained from eating animals, restrained violent impulses, and adhered to the Hindu precepts of "Ahimsa," which taught the fundamental moral principle that all life has value, and any violence towards that life is immoral. This was the antithesis to the Abrahamic mandate of infinite dominion. The seeds of ancient Hindu philosophy of Ahimsa were brought back by many explorers, and by the time the age of reason and enlightenment (1600-1800) took shape, vegetarianism had already taken sturdy roots.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, new inventions, especially the microscope and surgical procedures, began laying out the human anatomy in detail. In this age of discovery, both our physical as well as our psychological world were charted, bringing new species of peoples and ideas under the microscope of the scientific community. Brave explorations with the scalpel on human anatomy confirmed that we were 100% similar to apes, and similar to other herbivores as well. Anatomists and dieticians, in a voluminous chorus, substantiated that our teeth and intestines were those of herbivores. Scientific reasoning was a big factor in turning what seemed like vegetarian radicalism into a sound medical system. Even neural scientists chimed in with their discovery of animals having nerves capable of extreme suffering, blowing the whole sect of people whose moral rectitude depended on the criterion of sympathy, only for the believers. Great pre-eminent searchers of truth of the 17th century -- Descartes, Gassendi, and Bacon -- passionately advocated vegetarianism. In fact, scientific vegetarianism was endorsed and promoted by the pantheon of intellectuals, and philosophers.
Vegetarianism versus meat consumption is the battle of reason-ideas against obdurate ignorance. One look at who is pitted against each other here reveals more than anything out there: Vegetarians are environmentalists, scientists, thinkers-intellectuals, philosophers and creators, as opposed to meat advocates: Religions, big-businesses meat industry, and ancillary businesses and government. Show me one conscientious intellectual or a scientist who is a spokesperson for the meat industry. Here is a wonderful little parah from The Bloodless Revolution by Tristram Stuart: "... contact between Hinduism and Christianity found its apotheosis in the monastic Bishop of Helenopolis, Palladius (AD c.363-431) who dramatized a dialogue between Alexander and Dandamis the Brahmin. Dandamis shuns Alexander's splendid gifts, outsmarting the 'conqueror of many nations' with the rebuttal that, 'The earth supplies me with everything, even as a mother her child with milk,' and quips that it is better to be fed to beasts than to make oneself, 'a grave for other creatures.'"
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)