Thursday 20 June 2013

The Interrogation

They brought Kien back to the fire-base in an armoured personnel carrier, the heavy vehicle bouncing so that he was thrown from side to side. With his arms tied behind him, he couldn’t brace himself, so he was tumbled around the troop compartment, colliding with the boots of the men sitting on the benches along the sides. One or two of them kicked out at him, but the rest of them just sat there. He couldn’t do any harm now, after all.  

He could smell them, a mix of sweat and the strange musky perfumes they wore, and more besides, some kind of ointment and gun oil. With his eyes covered by the blindfold, he couldn’t see a thing, and the bouncing and the blow to his head made him want to vomit.

Kien had been in the fields, getting the ground ready for harvesting, when the soldiers had come. He hadn’t been too concerned at first, because they had come many times before, walking through the village and poking at anything they wanted with their gun barrels. But this time it had been different. They’d come right for him, their big boots trampling the dyke between the paddy fields.

One of them had motioned him to move up on the dyke, with a jerk of a rifle barrel. Kien had come up on the dyke, still thinking it was something minor, and then something had struck him hard enough on the head from behind to knock him down. The next thing he knew, he was trussed up and bouncing around in the APC.   

The M 113 stopped just before he’d have had to throw up, and he was pulled out and thrown to the ground. He could feel the sun on his face, and the familiar smell of mud, and the two things made him feel a little better. But they didn’t let him lie there for long.

“You,” someone said in Vietnamese, with a strange accent. “Get off the ground. Up.”

With some difficulty, Kien got off the ground and squatted awkwardly. The blindfold was too thick to allow him to see anything more than shadows, but he could make out that there were at least three men standing in front of him. One of them bent, thrusting his face so close that Kien could feel the breath on his face. It was cool and smelt of cigarettes.

“Your name is Nguyen Kien, is that right?”

“Yes,” Kien said. “I am from –“

“We know where you are from. Tell us about the VC.”

“I don’t know any VC,” Kien said. “VC buku, very bad, number ten.”

“Don’t lie. We know the VC were in your village, we know they talked to you. Tell us about them, and nothing will happen to you.”

“No VC,” Kien insisted. “I don’t know any VC.”

“You lie!” the foreigner screamed so loudly that Kien flinched. There was a moment of silence, in which the distant clatter of a helicopter was suddenly audible. Another helicopter flew overhead, and then another. “You might as well tell us,” the American continued, more softly. “All you have to do is tell us, and we’ll let you go.”

“But how can I tell you what I don’t know?” Kien asked, trying to sound reasonable though his arms were going numb below the elbows and his head was throbbing again. “I have never met a VC.” From the puff of angry breath on his face, he thought the soldier was going to hit him, but the man stood up and moved a few paces away. He could hear them talking, in their incomprehensible foreign language.

Kien wondered what they were planning to do with him. He’d heard tales that anyone the Americans took prisoner, they killed. Someone said they were thrown out of helicopters over the forest. He wondered what would happen at home, if he didn’t go back. The thought made his head hurt more, so he tried to think of something else.

He thought of the field as he’d seen it that morning, the earth that needed breaking up and readying for the sowing. He’d planned to borrow his neighbour’s buffalo for the job. The buffalo was a mean beast, with bloodshot eyes and wicked horns, but at least it was capable of work, and old Quang didn’t charge anything for lending it out except the feed and water. He was glad he hadn’t borrowed the animal already, or it would have been left in the field, still yoked to the plough. He suddenly felt sorry for the buffalo and didn’t blame it for its mean mindedness so much.

The helicopters had passed, the sun was very hot, and he began to feel thirsty. The soldiers were still talking among themselves. Kien tried to wriggle his arms into a less uncomfortable position.

“Don’t move!” the Vietnamese-speaking foreigner snapped, and his shadow moved closer again. “I’m warning you for the last time – when did the VC come to meet you? How many were there? Who were they? Do you know their names?”

One of the other Americans said something, in a high nasal voice. The first one replied, and then turned back to Kien. “They asked you to plant landmines, didn’t they? They gave you the mine which blew up our patrol yesterday – the one you put in the hollow tree trunk outside the hamlet. Isn’t that so?”

“I don’t know anything about it,” Kien insisted. “Yesterday I was getting ready for the planting. Ask anybody.”

“Do you think we’re fools?” the American snapped. “We have information that the VC came to your hut at night, and gave you the mine. It isn’t the first time you’ve done a job for them either.”

“Who told you? It’s not true.”

“Doesn’t matter who told us. If you know what’s good for you you’ll stop lying and tell us what we want to know.”

Kien heard the third American mumble something below his breath. The second soldier, the one with the nasal voice, replied sharply. He sounded angry. The third mumbled something, even lower. Kien could see his shadow move away a little, as if he were dissociating himself from the others.

“We could hand you over to the Rangers,” the first foreigner said to Kien. “They’ll get everything you know out of you.”

Kien knew the Rangers, and their reputation for cruelty. They were worse than the Americans, even though their victims were Vietnamese.

He wondered what it would feel like when they shot him. Would it be over in an instant, a shaft of pain and then nothingness? Or would he suffer for a long time before dying? And then what came afterwards? Were perhaps the old Buddhist sayings about rebirth his father had been wont to mumble relevant after all?

“The Rangers,” the American repeated. “You know, they’ll cut off your ears.”

“No VC,” Kien repeated. He wished he knew what he could say to satisfy the foreigners enough for them to let him go, or at least to let him stand up and get the circulation back into his limbs.  “No mine. I’m just a rice farmer. I don’t know anything about VC.”

The American sighed, almost with regret. “You know,” he said, “one of the men the mine blew up, the one who lost both legs, he’s a friend of mine, from back in school. What do you think his wife and kids will do now, with him crippled? What do you think of that?”

Very far away, almost too far to hear, something exploded. Kien felt the vibration of it in the ground.

“The VC aren’t your friends,” the American said. He sounded almost reasonable. “You know as well as we do what they’re like. They come to your villages, and force you to give them your rice, right? I’ll bet that was what happened when they came to you. They forced you to do it, didn’t they? Put a gun to your head, maybe? They’re too cowardly to take the risks, so they make an innocent farmer like you do it. Isn’t that so?” He paused. “Tell us about them, and we’ll make sure they won’t hurt you ever again.”

Kien said nothing. A helicopter flew by overhead, so low that even if he had said anything it wouldn’t have been heard.

The shadow belonging to the soldier with the nasal voice stepped forward, and lifted a leg back,  so that Kien knew he was bracing for a kick. But the first shadow threw out an arm. “Khoung,” he said in Vietnamese. “No.”

The second man said something short and violent-sounding and moved back.

“Is one of the VC a friend of yours?” the soldier asked. “Is that it? A school mate, or someone you used to play with as a kid? There’s no point protecting him – when they join the VC they drop their old friendships. You know this already, don’t you?”

Kien nodded. At least that was a safe thing to do.

“You’ll want to go home, right? You have the field to prepare. Old parents waiting for you – maybe a wife and kids? You want to go home, don’t you?”

Kien nodded again.

“Then tell us,” the soldier said. “Who are the VC who met you?”

“There were no VC.”

The soldier came closer, and bent. Kien felt something press against his forehead, something hard and cold, and smelt gun oil. “Last chance,” the soldier hissed, the friendliness gone from his voice. “Tell us who they were, you little dink, or I’ll blow your head off now.”

Somebody called something urgently, and Kien heard hurrying feet. The gun barrel moved away from his head a little, and the Americans huddled together, talking. The third soldier, the one who had been mumbling, was talking now loudly and excitedly with the newcomer.

“Get up!” The first soldier’s hand was on Kien’s shoulder. “Up! Get up and in the truck.”

“Where are you taking me?” Kien wanted to ask, but his throat was too dry. His legs were shaking at they took the weight of his body.

“Why didn’t you tell us which Nguyen Kien you were?” the first soldier asked angrily. “We want Nguyen Kien from Vu Ac hamlet, not you. We could have saved ourselves all this. You almost forced me to kill you. Stupid gook!”

“I tried to, but you wouldn’t –“

“Shut up.” Hands fumbled at Kien’s wrists and his arms dropped helplessly by his side, completely numb. The blindfold came off, and blinding sunlight struck Kien’s eyes, almost making him cry out. The first soldier leaned towards him, a narrow face with a sparse moustache and blisters below the lip. Sweat made rivers down his cheekbones. “Get in the truck.”  

Kien looked around a moment, and saw the other Americans, watching. The one he thought was the third soldier looked quickly away, as though guilty. Behind them, other troops were digging positions along the firebase perimeter and stringing barbed wire.

“Get back home,” the first soldier said, wiping his face, and looking suddenly elderly and exhausted. “Don’t let me ever catch sight of you again.”


Kien trudged up the dyke between the paddy fields. The truck was already a plume of beige dust, rolling back towards the fire base. A tiny helicopter crawled like an ant across the sky to the west.

Kien felt good, happy to be alive. Even the painful tingling as sensation returned to his arms felt nice. He paused a moment to finger the bump at the back of his head where they’d hit him. It was crusted with dried blood, which also matted his hair, but he’d heal. It was better than a bullet to the brain.

From here, he could see the hamlet, a cluster of huts under the trees. OId man Quang’s buffalo was tethered under one, and it raised its head from its heap of grass, watching him. Kien thought he’d try and be kinder to the animal from now on. Maybe it would lose its suspiciousness and maybe it would even become his friend.

The smell of rain was in the air, and it would not be long in coming, Kien thought. He would have to hurry with the planting.  Today, though, he was too tired to work further and still in pain. He’d bathe in the pond and then try and rest as much as he could before the evening.

In the evening, his squad leader would come, to ask what had happened in the fire base and to debrief Kien completely. Kien would be able to tell him all about the defences of the fire base from this side, the nearest approach to the village, the layout of the trench and the barbed wire. He could even give a fair description of the number of vehicles the fire base had, and the types. The squad leader, a hard-bitten veteran of the war, would be pleased.

It was almost worth being arrested and nearly getting killed to win the squad leader’s praise, Kien thought. It was almost worth all that.

By the time he reached his hut, he was humming.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Wednesday 19 June 2013

On Vegetarian Hypocrisy

Back when I was a kid, aeons ago, there was a series of comics books called the Amar Chitra Katha, which had, as one of their self-proclaimed goals, educating Indian kids about “spirituality” and a (highly fictionalised, not to say mythologised) version of history.

Well, in one of the stories I recall from those days, there was this Hindu Brahmin monk who thought he was very spiritual and pure. He never, he said, harmed a living thing, nor did he ever pollute himself with meat. Now he wanted to learn even higher spirituality from the most knowledgeable in the land, and he set out on a journey to find such a teacher.

In the course of his wanderings, he was told by someone to go to a certain village and ask for a certain person. Sure that he was about to meet a great and revered teacher, the monk set out excitedly for the village, and once he arrived  there, he asked to meet the great teacher by that name.

The people he asked were nonplussed. “We know of only one person of that name,” they said. “But he isn’t a teacher of any sort. You’ll find him in that shop over there.”

The monk looked at the shop, and recoiled. It was a butcher’s.

Seething with anger, he stormed forward and began upbraiding the butcher for his evil and cruel profession. The butcher, who’d been expecting him, calmly informed him that he earned his own and his family’s living by the profession, and that he didn’t see anything objectionable or shameful in it.

Then he launched an attack on the monk’s own pretensions to venerating life. “Every day, as you walk,” he said, “beneath your feet, you crush thousands of animals which have done you no harm. Don’t you think you’re in no position to accuse others of cruelty?”

To make a long and predictable story short, the monk left, as they say, a sadder and a wiser man, with the knowledge that one doesn’t necessarily have to be a sanctimonious prig in order to be “good”.

I remembered this, basically, because it was so out of character for Amar Chitra Katha, which routinely passed off myth as fact and gave everything it could a Hindu twist. I also remember it because it was one of the very few mainstream examples of vegetarian hypocrisy getting roasted that I could find.

Yes, I do mean “vegetarian hypocrisy”. In this blog I seldom to never mention food, and for good reason – I’m not particularly interested in gourmet dishes; anything vaguely palatable and properly digestible is fine with me. But I do mention hypocrisy, a lot; and when it comes to food, hypocrisy abounds.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: while I follow a mostly vegetarian diet (lacto-ovo-vegetarian, actually), I am emphatically not a vegetarian. In the part of the country in which I live, vegetarianism is culturally alien, and vegetarianism treated like something akin to an affliction. So not only am I not a vegetarian, I have never been a vegetarian. Fine, so I’ve declared my bias and got it out of the way.

I would, actually, be fine with a live-and-let-live attitude towards vegetarians and their dietary preferences, but for three things.

The first is the hypocrisy of “moral vegetarianism”, which I’ll discuss in detail – the idea that vegetarianism is somehow more “moral” than non-vegetarianism; that meat-eating is “cruel” or “unnatural”. The second is militant vegetarianism, where vegetarians are not content with maintaining their so-called moral superiority over the rest of us, but attempt to bully, blackmail, or compel us to adapt to their food habits. The third is the claim that vegetarianism is healthier than non-vegetarianism.

In the following text, unless specifically mentioned, I will use the term “vegetarian” to refer both to vegetarians and vegans. Veganism is more extreme than vegetarianism, and also more hypocritical, but most of the arguments will be applicable to both of them equally.

The hypocrisy of “moral vegetarianism”:

It’s the oldest vegetarian argument, the one every single non-vegetarian has been confronted with at some time or other – that vegetarians are “moral” and non-vegetarians are “cruel”, and that vegetarians have greater “respect for life”. Even at first glance, this seems to be an argument with major flaws somewhere in the structure.

Now, I freely admit that killing animals for food isn’t something that can be called kind – but exactly how are vegetarians better? Let’s take it argument by vegetarian argument:

1.     Vegetarian claim: Non-vegetarians destroy life. Vegetarians don’t.

Now, unless one’s almost incredibly ignorant of basic science, one knows that plants are as alive as animals are. In fact, even if one is wholly ignorant of basic science, one can see for oneself that plants are born, grow up, and die, just like animals. So, by accusing non-vegetarians of destroying life, what vegetarians mean is destroying advanced, relatively intelligent animal life, of the order of fishes, birds and mammals – and a lot of self-styled “vegetarians” are actually piscivores, who restrict their respect for life to birds and mammals. [One explanation I’ve heard for this behaviour is, apparently, that fish “have no brains”, so aren’t really animals. That’s news to me.]

Then, plants aren’t just alive, there’s enough evidence to clearly indicate that they are, in some manner, aware. They respond to stimuli, conduct slow-motion chemical warfare among themselves and against browsing animals, and react to damage. Therefore it’s perfectly possible that they feel pain, in their own fashion, and if they can’t scream and writhe in agony in a manner we can easily distinguish, it’s certainly not their fault. Yet vegetarians see no moral quandary in condemning non-vegetarians’ alleged disrespect for life while themselves killing life.

Who’s the real hypocrite here?

Then, as the Amar Chitra Katha pointed out, vegetarians are far from innocent of killing animal life. It’s not just the accidental murder of tiny animals they tread on – just how many vegetarians are willing to let mosquitoes feast undisturbed on their blood? If they’re infested with lice or roundworms, will they refuse to have these parasites eradicated? Of course not.

At least non-vegetarians have the honesty to admit that they kill animals.

2.     Vegetarian claim: Non-vegetarians kill animals for food (or, to be quite accurate, the majority have animals killed for them for food). Perfectly true. Vegetarians don’t have animals killed for them for food. Completely and absolutely false.

I don’t know whether vegetarians have an idea that their food appears on their greengrocers’ shelves by a process of immaculate conception, but in reality that food has to be, you know, planted in soil, watered, and grown to harvest. Now, as anyone can see for themselves by taking a walk in a garden sometime, plants have pests. In fact, plants have one hell of a lot of pests, including a lot of animals of different types, from caterpillars to aphids to beetle larvae. Plants have pests from root to stem to leaf to fruit; they’re riddled with pests. And do you think those pests will politely stand aside to allow vegetarians their food? Of course not.

So what do you think happens to those pests, exactly? They’re poisoned out of existence, that’s what. Modern vegetable farming is exactly as much factory-farming as the much-derided meat industry, and if anything far more chemical-intensive. In any but the most basic subsistence-level vegetable-farming, the crops are dosed routinely and with massive doses of pesticides, designed to murder all manner of animals, quite indiscriminately, including those which not only don’t harm the crops but would normally help the farmer by eating the pests – such as centipedes, spiders and praying mantises, to name a few. But modern factory-farming has no time to spare them.

Even if the chemicals aren’t used, what are the alternatives? Suppose, now, a particular vegetarian person decided to grow, say, something like cabbage. Now, cabbages are also eaten by a particular kind of caterpillar, which would, of course, dramatically reduce the value of the harvest, or even eliminate it altogether. Now let’s assume that our vegetarian farmer was too tender hearted to poison the caterpillars to death – and also had a lot of time on his hands, enough to remove the insects one by one from the leaves and put them on something else, a mulberry bush, let’s say. Now, these cabbage caterpillars can only eat cabbage leaves. They aren’t silkworms, and can’t eat mulberry leaves. Therefore, by putting them on a mulberry bush, the compassionate, vegetarian farmer is merely condemning them to death by slow starvation. Right?

Then, what happens to the food after harvest? It has to be stored on the way to market, hasn’t it? And there are a whole lot of other pests which attack stored grain, not just primitive creatures like weevils, but quite advanced and intelligent animals like mice and rats. So, you know, they’re gassed, and poisoned, and trapped out of existence – just so those grains can actually survive to appear on market shelves. So, just how, exactly, does vegetarian food not involve killing animals?

Then, what about the animals vegetarians eat along with their food? Not all animals are large and easily discernible. The vast majority are very, very small – some too tiny to be seen except by the microscope. And I am not talking about bacteria, or fungi, neither of which are plants, either – I am talking about animals, creatures comprised of eukaryotic cells without cell walls. Do vegetarians assume they can rid themselves of all of these while washing and chopping their food? Dream on.

At least non-vegetarians openly admit to eating animals. Who is the hypocrite here?

3.     The hypocrisy of many vegetarians (not all, that’s true), who will refuse to eat meat, but have no problem wearing leather or silk products. Do they imagine, you know, that all those fancy leather items and those shimmering silk dresses come from cows which have died of old age, or moths which have broken out of their cocoons? Because if they do, they need a little education.

Opposed to them are those vegetarians who do not use leather or silk, but prefer, say, wool or cotton garments – wool being, of course, sheared from sheep who are raised for the purpose and slaughtered when no longer productive. I’m not even going to go into the uglinss of practices like “mulesing” which are inflicted on these unfortunate animals. As for the cotton crowd, they can congratulate themselves on having a perfectly humane, non-violent fabric – so long as they don’t admit to themselves that cotton is one of the most pesticide-dependent crops on the planet. Ever heard of the boll-weevil? If not, rest assured, the cotton farmers have.

4.     The so-called “moral superiority” becomes particularly hollow when it comes to criticism of the meat industry. Of course the meat industry has bad practices – show me any industry which doesn’t. So, do we, you know, try and reform those other industries, compel them to adopt environmental safeguards – or do we shut them down altogether? Show me a vegetarian who is willing to do without clothes rather than reform the textile industry, for example, with its horrible slave-labour sweatshops and exploitation of the poor. Right. Yes, the meat industry inflicts unnecessary suffering on animals. Perfectly true, and completely reprehensible, as well as subject to correction, with sufficient pressure – if anyone is willing to bring it to bear. Also, of course, the vegetable industry is no better than the meat industry. It’s not just the pesticides; there are a lot of other sharp practices, like applying chemicals on produce to keep it appearing fresh longer, something which is extremely common. And, of course, we’ve all heard about Monsanto. Should we then demand the closing down of the big vegetable farms, across the board? Are we then prepared to deal with the inevitable famines?

      Yet, when it comes to the meat industry, and only the meat industry, the vegetarian crusaders demand the baby be unceremoniously thrown out with the bath water.

5.     The vegetarian denial of our meat-eating heritage. We are omnivorous creatures – capable of eating both meat and vegetables. Vegetarians often mention this as “proof” that we are perfectly capable of living on vegetables. But we aren’t herbivores – and this simple fact has had profound effects on who we are today.

Simply put, human society is a result of human evolution as pack-hunting animals. All pack hunting animals, from driver ants to orcas to hyenas and wolves, have had to evolve a complex interactive social structure. Only by cooperating can they be successful. Without our ancestors’ hunting behaviour, we’d have at best loosely connected social units with little cooperative coherence, like our purely vegetarian relatives the gorillas. Also, as a general rule, carnivores and omnivores have larger brains than herbivores – any dog or pig is more intelligent than a cow or a rabbit – since a large brain is necessary to track down and capture active prey.  

Therefore, it’s only because our ancestors hunted meat in cooperation that vegetarians have the intellectual ability to, you know, condemn meat-eating. How’s that?

6.     The claim that “non-vegetarians are cruel”; in fact, the word “butcher” being used as a synonym for cruelty. Actually, there are many ways of killing animals humanely, and the meat industry actually uses some of them – like the captive bolt pistol used by organised meat factories to stun cattle prior to slaughter. (The informal meat industry is actually far more cruel in its slaughter methods, to say nothing of the traditional Muslim or Jewish slaughter techniques.)

       Vegetarians, of course, are fine with ripping up plants and poisoning pests, but will always be careful to point to the worst of the meat-production practices as representative of all. Like all generalisations, this is not true.

Going by this logic, in fact, vegetarians should have no problem eating roadkill or animals which have died of old age. No cruelty of any kind, whatsoever, is involved in this.

Years ago, I posited that meat would be grown from laboratory cells, which again would not involve any kind of cruelty. Nor would it affect the environment, as I’ll mention next. Well, guess what? They have actually grown such meat in the lab. Will vegetarians eat said meat, as they should, since it involves no cruelty? Don’t bet on it.

7.     Meat-eating is environmentally destructive”. Now, any food cycle is roughly pyramidal – in other words, a certain base, say grass, goes to feed and nurture a smaller number (in terms of weight) of herbivores, which in turn go to nurture a still smaller number of carnivorous predators, which then feed a still smaller number of apex predators, until these die and are broken down by scavengers and bacteria to the base nutrients which go to feed the grass again. Therefore, the higher you rise in the food pyramid, the lesser the sum total of energy, packed as it is into fewer organisms. Ergo, to produce say one kilogram of meat, several kilograms of feed are required – feed which could otherwise have fed humans directly. Therefore, vegetarians – who stick to the base of the food chain – are more environmentally friendly than meat eaters. Is that right?

Well, even if we ignore all the aforesaid pesticide use, this is a hollow argument. Vegetarians typically base their arguments on eating large animals, like cows or pigs, which are actually highly energy-inefficient. It takes much more feed to produce a kilogram of beef, for instance, than it takes to produce a kilogram of, say, chicken or rabbit – and the latter require far lesser facilities, in terms of housing and labour, than large animals. Just as not all vegetarian food is the same, not all meat is the same.

In fact, one of the most environmentally-friendly meats is also right at the bottom of the totem pole – insects like grasshoppers and crickets, which a staggering number of people already eat. A lot of people, worldwide, depend on insects for their protein, and there’s absolutely no reason why food that’s good enough for poor Africans shouldn’t be good enough for rich Westerners. Entomophagy is the diet of the future – or should be.

The hypocrisy of militant vegetarianism:

As I said earlier in this article, I’m not particularly concerned about vegetarians who keep their vegetarianism to themselves. I am, however, very, very strongly against the vegetarian crusaders who will lie, invent “facts”, and otherwise bully and blackmail people to try and get them to renounce meat or all animal products.

Some of this is quite remarkably crude. I recall one Indian restaurant which was compelled to close because vegetarians in the locality began to abuse and pelt patrons with rotting – what else? – vegetables. There are entire Indian residential societies which prohibit denizens from eating meat (or, more correctly, from eating it within the premises, thus directly compelling those who want a taste to eat it outside) – and the courts have upheld their “right” to do so.

There is the right-wing Indian politician called Maneka Gandhi, whom I prefer to call Maneek!a Gundhi. This female, who was once environment minister, has been known for her “animal rights” campaigns. Once, for instance, she raided a government laboratory with her cohorts, forcibly took the experimental monkeys away, and released them into the wild. The monkeys had all been hand-reared and never had to fend for themselves; within a week, of course, every single one was dead of starvation. On another occasion, she had jungle mynahs released from captivity – in the centre of the city of Guwahati. Apparently, being “pro-animal rights” means not actually having to know anything about animals.

Well, this same Maneek!a Gundhi used to write a weekly column which the local paper used to reprint. One of her pet claims was that eggs were a “chicken’s menstrual blood” – a term not only misleading but actively meant to make people swear off eating eggs, which is actually one of the most complete foods known to humans. Eggs contain just about everything, except Vitamin C, that humans need, and are available in one package – instead of having to eat multiple different items to get the same food nutrients. In fact, trying to stop people from eating eggs (which doesn’t involve killing anything, since virtually all eggs in the market are unfertilised) is anti-humanity; a fairly typical instance of, in this case, vegan hypocrisy. Like a lot of other hypocritical things, it seems to me, that this is something only the rich can afford.

A lot of vegetarians gravitate to groups like PETA, which is, as a lot of us know, a malevolent anti-animal association which actually kills massive numbers of animals while claiming to be fighting for their rights – for details see this site, for instance. It’s no surprise that the same organisation which massacres animals at its shelter specialises in in-your-face vegan propaganda. I haven’t personally ever seen a PETA demonstration, but if I ever do so, I will have some questions to ask.

The “vegetarianism is healthier” argument:

There can be little doubt that a potato is healthier than a fat-streaked chunk of beef or pork; but again, this is selective argument. For one thing, as I said, not all meat is the same, and rabbits or chickens – or insects, or lab meat – are far less fat-laden than beef or mutton or pork.

Then, nutrients are much easier to assimilate from animal tissue than plant tissue, for the simple reason that plant cells are surrounded by cellulose cell walls. Vegetables are actually a poor source of nutrition. It’s for this reason that herbivorous animals are either huge, with enormously long intestines, like hippos or elephants, or have elaborate stomachs like bovines, or have to “reprocess” food by swallowing their own dung, like rabbits, or have to eat almost constantly, like mice. Carnivores, who digest more concentrated nutrients in the form of animal tissue, have shorter digestive systems and typically have to eat much less frequently than herbivores of their own size. Omnivores fall in between the two, and are a compromise in body plans; but omnivores are far more able to digest animal than plant tissue.

While, of course, this is partly negated by the act of cooking, which softens and breaks down cell walls, it still means that a much larger amount of vegetable tissue is required to produce the same amount of nutrient as a given amount of animal tissue. Especially when it comes to poor people, such large amounts of vegetable tissue can be simply unaffordable. If the choice is between eating termites or locusts, which one can trap for oneself, or buying – possibly multinational-marketed – vegetables, what do you think is the right thing to do? And trying to stop people from exercising the logical choice in such a case is morally reprehensible, don’t you think?

Then, some of the nutrients in vegetables can simply be impossible for some of us to utilise. I, for instance, can’t digest gram or beans, which means that vegetable protein is to a large extent nonexistent as far as I’m concerned. What would someone in my position do then? The choices are either eat animal products (mostly egg in my case; as I said, I fairly rarely eat meat), or buy extremely expensive protein supplements, or suffer from protein starvation. What would a vegetarian or vegan suggest I do?

Again, I have no quarrel whatsoever with those who are vegetarian from personal preference, cultural or religious reasons, or just because they feel queasy at the thought of killing animals. You have your reasons, and I’m prepared to respect them.

Just don’t pretend you’re better than the rest of us.

Further reading:

Monday 17 June 2013


Hans was flying a Junkers 88 night fighter over the Ruhr, tracking down a British Lancaster bomber, when he met the alien.

To be truthful, Hans’ name was really Vicky, and he wasn’t flying a Ju 88, and it certainly wasn’t night over western Germany in 1944, and there wasn’t a Lancaster in the air anywhere. But Vicky was always a romantic, daydreaming more than was good for anybody.

“That Vicky,” his teachers used to complain to each other in school. “His head’s in the clouds, always.” They said so to his parents, too, when they came for PTA meetings.

“Vicky,” his father would admonish him afterwards. “Your teachers say your head’s always in the clouds. You’d better do something about it.”

So Vicky did something about it. He made sure the rest of him was in the clouds as well, and – when a relative gave him a bit of money – decided to spend it on flying lessons.

It didn’t impress anybody. “That Vicky,” everybody said. “He’ll never amount to anything.”

Vicky didn’t care about what they thought. He’d wanted to learn to fly, and he’d learnt to fly, and by whatever god might or might not exist, that made him better than the rest of them, who even struggled to drive cars. Flying was glamorous.

Well, actually, there was absolutely nothing at all glamorous about flying a Cessna over endless stretches of featureless plain in the middle of nowhere, so Vicky began to look around for something interesting. It would have to be something really interesting, because though he’d just got his private pilot’s licence, this was the last flight. After this there was no money left for any more. (His father had been happy: “Time to get your head out of the clouds, boy.”) Tomorrow, he’d have to try and get back to what people called the real world. He tried not to think about that. There was still an hour’s flight to go.

Some way ahead, he saw a patch of blackish cloud, hanging like a stain in the otherwise clear air. It wasn’t even directly in his path, and he’d been told over and over by his instructors not to fly into clouds if he could avoid it. So, of course, he automatically moved the control column and the rudders to line up the shimmering propeller with the cloud, almost without thinking. It wasn’t that big a cloud, anyway. He’d be out of it in a minute or two.

Seconds later, daylight faded as the cloud closed around him. It was a surprisingly dark cloud for one that wasn’t very big, since there was no towering mass of vapour to throw a shadow, but that never occurred to Vicky. Instead, he took one contented look around, blinked twice, and there he was, Oberleutnant Hans von Neunhof, behind the controls of a Junkers 88, the heavy radar aerials just visible in the darkness ahead.

Somewhere in front of him, he knew, would be the Lancaster he was looking for, the one his radar operator had vectored him on. He looked up and ahead, fingering the firing buttons on his control stick, because one more kill and he’d be in line for the Knight’s Cross. He was the best damned night fighter pilot in the world, and when he tracked a target, by all that was holy he tracked it down and destroyed it. Yes, tomorrow the name of Hans von Neunhof would be in all the papers, the hero of the Reich.   

He looked over to his right, to see if his observer was looking for the target as intently as he was supposed to be, and there was the alien sitting in the right-hand seat.

The alien saw Vicky at the exact same moment. It didn’t reach out to rend him limb from limb. It didn’t burn him to death with a laser. It didn’t even stick some kind of probe into a body orifice. It did what Vicky did.

In other words, the alien screamed. They both reared away from each other and screamed as loudly as they could. The joint scream was so loud, in fact, that they screamed in shock again at the first scream, and then, because the two screams had so deafened them that they weren’t sure they’d screamed at all, they screamed a third time.

Then Vicky’s throat was too sore to scream any more – or talk, for that matter – so he turned resolutely away from the alien and stared dead ahead through the windscreen into the murk. The murk seemed to go on for a remarkably long time – surely the cloud hadn’t been this large when he’d entered it? He thought about this for some time, and then experimentally cleared his throat. It seemed to be working again. Cautiously, from the corner of his eye, he glanced towards the right seat.

The alien was still there, and it chose the exact same moment to glance at Vicky from out of the corner of one of its triangular eyes. They both hurriedly looked away again, and then, after a few moments, stole another glance at each other.

The alien looked horrible. Even Vicky, who had never seen an alien before, and was thus in no position to judge, was constrained to admit that it looked horrible, with its telescoping neck and its triangular eyes, its beaked bony face and its leathery skin. It was so horrible looking, in fact, that Vicky felt obscurely sorry for it. Then it opened its beak and displayed a terrifying array of needle teeth, and Vicky stopped feeling sorry for it and went right back to being petrified with fear.

“Please don’t hurt me,” the alien said.

“Hurt you?” Vicky was so astounded at the idea that he forgot to be surprised at its speaking English. “Hurt you? I was going to ask you not to hurt me.”

“In that case,” the alien asked, “why have you invaded my stratocraft?”

“Invaded your...” Vicky lost his fear in a burst of indignation. “I like that. It’s you who’s invaded my aeroplane. I was just flying along and there you are, without as much as a by-your-leave.”

The alien looked at Vicky and blinked. This blinking was rather unsettling because its eyelids slid over the triangular eyes from the corners, like unfolding translucent wings. “I see,” it said at length. “Now, if you don’t mind, could you please tell me exactly where you think you are.”

“I’m at the controls of my Cessna,” Vicky said, still indignantly. “Well, to be accurate it’s the flying club’s Cessna, but I’m flying it, and I don’t have to land it for a while yet, so –“

The alien had been listening with what seemed to be great concentration. “If I get your meaning,” it said, “this...Cessna...of yours is some kind of atmospheric transport device. Right?”

“It’s an aeroplane, as you know perfectly well.”

“Well, there’s a bit of a problem.” The alien scratched its beak with a huge hooked claw. “Because – you see – I don’t know. And I don’t know because as far as I’m concerned, I’m sitting behind the controls of my stratoship, and you’re the one who appeared suddenly out of nowhere. You see the problem?”

Vicky tried to see the problem. It made him dizzy. It made him so dizzy that he began to feel as if the plane was lurching erratically through the air. So he thought of another problem.
“How come you can speak English?” he asked suspiciously.

“English?” the alien blinked again, rapidly. “What in the name of Aldebaran is English?

“The...” Vicky was struck speechless for a moment. “The...language...we’re both speaking.”

“I,” said the alien with as much dignity as a triangular-eyed, beak-faced, needle-toothed, leather-skinned, telescope-necked clawed monster could have, “am speaking...” it made a noise which sounded like a cat spitting and clawing a laughing hyena, while a cow mood in the background. “And so are you.”

There was nothing to say to that, so Vicky said nothing.

“I think,” the alien said after a while, “that we’re talking a little at cross-purposes. It seems that we’re both convinced that the other is the invader. Could you tell me just how you came to find me in your craft?”

“Well,” Vicky began, “I was just flying along, when I saw this cloud...” He considered talking of the night-fighter and the Ritterkreuz, and quickly decided against it. “So I was flying through the cloud,” he concluded, “and all of a sudden you were there. That’s all.” A fresh idea came to him. “Where’s your mother-ship?”

“Mother-ship? I don’t understand.”

“The ship which brought you to this planet,” Vicky said impatiently. “The one, you know, you used to fly through space. Is it hiding on the other side of the moon? Is it...” he searched his memory for whatever he’d read in popular science articles. “Is it shielded by dark matter or something?”

“Dark matter?” the alien shuddered so that its leathery skin flapped as noisily as an old umbrella. “Horrid stuff. I never touch it myself. But what makes you think I’m flying over your planet? You’re flying over mine!”

Vicky gulped. He didn’t even think of challenging this pronouncement. Somehow, it was too true to be denied. “So,” he said in a small voice, “we’re each flying in the other’s craft, over the other’s planet, speaking the other’s language, is that it?”

“That,” said the alien, “would seem to be the case.” It brooded for a moment. “What’s your world like?”

“Awful,” Vicky said promptly. “Not a moment of excitement anywhere. What about yours?”

“Terrible,” the alien said. “No peace, not for an instant.” It shook its head. “But enough of that. Time’s wasting.  Any ideas on how we could get back to our own realities, such as they are?”

“Well,” Vicky said unhappily, “if we keep flying like this, I’ll run out of fuel and crash eventually, I suppose.”

“And I’ll get beyond the reach of...” the alien said something which sounded like a rattlesnake fighting a gorilla in the middle of a rainstorm. “I don’t see that this is much of a positive outlook, do you?”

“No,” Vicky admitted. He suddenly sat up straight, struck by an idea so sharp that it felt like a needle to the base of his skull. “Listen,” he gasped. “Suppose we change places?”

“What?” the alien asked, “are you going on about?”

“I’m sitting in the pilot’s seat of my craft,” Vicky said. “You, I take it, are sitting in the control seat of yours. Suppose we change places, we might be able to get things back as they were.”

“That sounds crazy,” the alien told him. “There’s not even any logic in it.”

“Do you have a better idea?” Vicky asked, bristling.

“Um, no,” the alien admitted. “It might even be insane enough to work. Let’s try it then. Be careful getting up – there’s a wall right behind you and a ledge over your head.”

“Thanks,” Vicky said, and pressed himself as far back as he could to give the alien room to pass. It smelt vaguely of musk aftershave lotion. He manoeuvred himself toward the right hand seat, and began to sit down. As he did, suddenly everything around him began to waver and change.

From a great distance, he heard the alien asking, “What’s your name, by the way?”

“Vicky,” said Vicky.

“Why,” the alien said, “that’s odd. My name’s Vicky too.”

Vicky looked quizzically at the alien. It really was a very ugly beast, he thought, with its round blunt head, its flattened features, its oval eyes and its smooth skin. It was so ugly he felt sorry for it, and clacked his beak contentedly. The alien opened its mouth, and Vicky, seeing the flat yellow teeth, felt again a fleeting moment of terror. But it passed.

“I think I’m leaving now,” he said. “Bon voyage.”

“You too,” the alien said. “Have a good...” and then it was gone.

Sighing contentedly, Vicky swung the stratocraft round and down, his claws pressing at the controls, lining it up along the energy beam pointing homewards. Things flapped around him in the black-and-orange sky, things that screeched and snapped and shot bolts of plasma in an attempt to incinerate him. Gleefully, he jinked and twisted to avoid their attacks, and sent back a burst of tracer fire to keep them at bay. Something rushed at him, trailing fire, and he shot it out of the air with a counter-missile.

“I feel sorry for that alien,” he thought, the tracers spitting again. “Poor thing, he’ll never have fun like this.”

Meanwhile, on Earth, the Cessna landed. Heaving a sigh of relief, and scarcely looking over his shoulder, Vicky climbed out and walked away.

In the end, some were happy. And that's the best there is.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013