The ‘non-meter’ variety

Col K Thammayya Udupa (retd)

If I am given an option to describe us vegetarians, I would simply say, ‘vegetarians are those who are made fun of because of what they don’t eat’. In the early 1960s, as a child growing up in a steel city, I remember my father’s colleagues making fun of him as the only man who survived on ghaas-phoos during their year-long training in the Soviet Union. In our colony ours was amongst the first households to buy a refrigerator, a novelty in those days. I remember a few of Appa’s friends dropping in to see the new refrigerator. They opened its door and guffawed loudly, ‘Let us see why does Udupa the grass-eater require a refrigerator?’

When I joined the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun, we had a lecture demonstration on living off the land as part of jungle warfare. Amongst other methods of finding food in the jungle, we were shown how to catch snakes and cook them for food. In one of the stalls put up for us cadets to visit, snake meat was also on offer. While many of my course-mates were relishing it, I gave it a pass. The keen eye of my instructor, who knew that I was a vegetarian — and an activist at that — did not miss this. Not one to miss an opportunity to pull my leg, he said, ‘KT, why didn’t you have this?’ I reminded him about my food choices. He was well-prepared for it. With a mischievous smile he said, ‘Don’t worry, even the snake was a vegetarian!’ to all round raucous laughter.

As a newly commissioned officer when I went to the Officers’ Mess of my regiment for the first time, I was taken by surprise when our Mess Havildar asked me, ‘Sir, are you a meter or a non-meter?’ He was quick to realise that I had not understood his question. He then asked me if I ate meat or not. Then I understood his question, was I a ‘meat-eater’ or ‘non-meat-eater’. In true military style it had been shortened to ‘meter’ and ‘non-meter’. When I told him that I was a vegetarian, he was satisfied only after he had double-checked with me, ‘You don’t eat fish and meat?’

Many of my friends and acquaintances in civil wonder how I — a staunch vegetarian — survived in the Army. There is a notion that one is forced to be a non-vegetarian in the armed forces. It is difficult for them to visualise that our Army has its fair share of vegetarians, and that nobody is forced to adopt any particular type of food habit. I have often found it difficult to get good vegetarian food in many places in civil. But, walk into any armed forces unit, be it their Officers’ Mess, or the troops’ cookhouse, one is assured of a piping hot, nutritious vegetarian meal, always.

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