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01. My Faith in Vegetarianism

The Gandhis were Vaishnavas. My parents were particularly staunch Vaishnavas.... Jainism was strong in Gujarat, and its influence was felt everywhere and on all occasions. The opposition to and abhorrence of meat-eating that existed in Gujarat among the Jains and Vaishnavas were to be seen nowhere else in India or outside in such strength. These were the traditions in which I was born and bred.

A wave of "reform" was sweeping over Rajkot at the time when I first came across this friend.... It began to grow on me that meat-eating was good, that it would make me strong and daring, and that, if the whole country took to meat-eating, the English could be overcome.... It was not a question of pleasing the palate. I did not know that it had a particularly good relish.... We went in search of a lonely spot by the river, and there I saw, for the first time in my life - meat. There was baker's bread also. I relished neither. The goat's meat was as tough as leather. I simply could not eat it. I was sick and had to leave off eating. I had a very bad night afterwards. A horrible nightmare haunted me. Every time I dropped of to sleep it would seem as though a live goat were bleating inside me, and I would jump up full of remorse. But then I would remind myself that meat-eating was a duty and so become more cheerful. My friend was not a man to give up easily. He now began to cook various delicacies with meat, and dress them neatly.... This went on for about a year. But not more than half a dozen meat feasts were enjoyed in all.... If my mother and father came to know of my having become a meat-eater, they would be deeply shocked. This knowledge was gnawing at my heart. Therefore I said to myself: "Though it is essential to eat meat, and also essential to take up food 'reform' in the country, yet deceiving and lying to one's father and mother is worse than not eating meat. In their lifetime, therefore, meat-eating must be out of the question. When they are no more and I have found my freedom, I will eat meat openly, but until that moment arrives I will abstain from it." This decision I communicated to my friend, and I have never since gone back to meat.

I was yet a stripling of eighteen without any experience of the world.... I sailed at last from Bombay.... An English passenger, taking kindly to me, drew me into conversation.... He laughed at my insistence on abjuring meat, and said in a friendly way when we were in the Red Sea: "It is all very well so far but you will have to revise your decision in the Bay of Biscay. And it is so cold in England that one cannot possibly live there without meat." "But I have heard that people can live there without eating meat," I said. "Rest assured it is a fib," said he. "No one, to my knowledge, lives there without being a meat- eater.... You cannot live without meat." "I thank you for your kind advice, but I have solemnly promised to my mother not to touch meat, and therefore I cannot think of taking it. If it be found impossible to get on without it, I will far rather go back to India than eat meat in order to remain there."

I could not relish boiled vegetables cooked without salt or condiments. The landlady was at a loss to know what to prepare for me. We had oatmeal porridge for breakfast, which was fairly filling, but I always starved at lunch and dinner. The friend continually reasoned with me to eat meat, but I always pleaded my vow and then remained silent. Both for luncheon and dinner we had spinach and bread and jam too...there was no milk either for lunch or dinner.... One day the friend began to read to me Bentham's Theory of Utility. I was at my wits' end. The language was too difficult for me to understand. He began to expound it. I said: "Pray excuse me. These abstruse things are beyond me. I admit it is necessary to eat meat. But 1 cannot break my vow. I cannot argue about it.... A vow is a vow. It cannot be broken." The friend looked at me in surprise. He closed the book and said: "All right. I will not argue any more."

I launched out in search of a vegetarian restaurant. The landlady had told me that there were such places in the city. I would trot ten or twelve miles each day, go into a cheap restaurant and eat my fill of bread, but would never be satisfied. During these wanderings I once hit on a vegetarian restaurant in Farringdon Street. The sight of it filled me with the same joy that a child feels on getting a thing after its own heart. Before I entered I noticed books for sale exhibited under glass window near the door. I saw among them Salt's Plea for Vegetarianism. This I purchased for a shilling and went straight to the dining room. This was my first hearty meal since my arrival in England. God had come to my aid. I read Salt's book from cover to cover and was very much impressed by it. From the date of reading this book, I may claim to have become a vegetarian by choice. I blessed the day on which I had taken the vow before my mother. I had all along abstained from meat in the interests of truth and of the vow I had taken, but had wished at the same time that every Indian should be a meat-eater, and had looked for­ward to being one myself freely and openly some day, and to enlisting others in the cause. The choice was now made in favour of vegetarianism, the spread of which henceforward became my mission.

My faith in vegetarianism grew on me from day to day. Salt's book whetted my appetite for dietetic studies. I went in for all books available on vegetarianism and read them. One of these, Howard Williams' The Ethics of Diet, was a "biographical history of the literature of humane dietetics from the earliest period to the present day."... Dr. Anna Kingsford's The Perfect Way in Diet was also an attractive book. Dr. Allinson's writings on health and hygiene were likewise very helpful. He advocated a curative system based on regulation of the dietary of patients. Himself a vegetarian, he prescribed for his patients also a strictly vegetarian diet. The result of reading all this literature was that dietetic experiments came to take an important place in my life. Health was the principal consideration of these experiments to begin with. But later on religion became the supreme motive.

Meanwhile my friend had not ceased to worry about me.... When he came to know that I had begun to interest myself in books on vegetarianism, he was afraid lest these studies should muddle my head; that I should fritter my life away in experiments, forgetting my own work, and become a crank. He therefore made one last effort to reform me. He one day invited me to go to the theatre. Before the play we were to dine together at the Holborn Restaurant, to me a palatial place and the first big restau­rant I had been to since leaving the Victoria Hotel.... The friend had planned to take me to this restaurant evidently imagining that modesty would forbid any questions. And it was a very big company of diners in the midst of which my friend and I sat sharing a table between us. The first course was soup. I wondered what it might be made of, but durst not ask the friend about it. I therefore summoned the waiter. My friend saw the movement and sternly asked across the table what was the matter. With considerable hesitation I told him that I wanted to inquire if the soup was vegetable soup. "You are too clumsy for decent society," he passionately exclaimed. "If you cannot behave yourself, you had better go. Feed in some other restaurant and await me outside." This delighted me. Out I went. There was a vegetarian restaurant close by, but it was closed. So I went without food that night. I accompanied my friend to the theatre, but he never said a word about the scene I had created. On my part, of course, there was nothing to say.

There was a Vegetarian Society in England with a weekly journal of its own (the London Vegetarian Society and its paper The Vegetarian - R.W.). I subscribed to the weekly, joined the society and very shortly found contact with those who were regarded as pillars of vegetarianism, and began my own experiments in dietetics. I stopped taking the sweets and condiments.... I gave up tea and coffee as a rule, and substituted cocoa.... There were many minor experiments going on along with the main one; as for example, giving up starch foods at one time, living on bread and fruit alone at another, and once living on cheese, milk and eggs. This last experiment is worth noting. It lasted not even a fortnight.... I gave up eggs and the experiment alike.... This was a hardship inasmuch as inquiry showed that even in vegetarian restaurants many courses used to contain eggs. Full of the neophyte's zeal for vegetarianism, I decided to start a vegetarian club in my locality, Bayswater. I invited Sir Edwin Arnold, who lived there, to be Vice-President. Dr. Oldfield who was Editor of The Vegetarian became President. I myself became the Secretary. The club went well for a while, but came to an end in the course of a few months. For I left the locality....

On the eve of my departure for home ... I invited my vegetarian friends to dinner in the Holborn Restaurant referred to in these chapters. "A vegetarian dinner could be had," I said to myself, "in vegetarian restaurants as a matter of course. But why should it not be possible in a non-vegetarian restaurant too?" And I arranged with the manager of the Holborn Restaurant to provide a strictly vegetarian meal. The vegetarians hailed the new experi­ment with delight.
An Autobiography