By Bala Sai:
Connoisseurs of food, tears and drama, rejoice! MasterChef India, the colourful desi cousin of the hit competitive-cooking reality show featuring the world’s largest assortment of cooks, will be back on TV soon. And this time, the show isn’t just desi, but absolute, immaculate, ‘shuddh’ desi. For the uninitiated, that reads ‘pure vegetarian’.
Promoters of the show expect this announcement to prematurely well-up the eyes of the gastronomically downtrodden and oppressed – the hardcore vegetarian cooks of the country who have been bidding their time, waiting for their justice to be served in those glittering plates.
Ordinarily, an announcement of such gravity would be rightfully greeted with a grunt and a gentle shrug, but not this time. This time, it has cooked up a spicy debate. India happens to be one of the only places in the world where you can whip up communal tension by merely discussing food. And vegetarianism sits right at the altar when it comes to controversial culinary subjects.
For a little perspective, the last time vegetarianism was in the news, it was when the HRD ministry decided to support the noble and completely pointless exercise of re-organizing IIT and IIM canteens, by providing separate spaces for vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, thereby helping preserve the sanctity of the holy vegetarians, who apparently are the true practitioners of ‘Indian culture’. Obviously, the move attracted widespread scorn and frustration, with accusers pointing fingers at the Modi government for endorsing such discriminatory practices. What has that got to do with MasterChef? As I said – perspective.
A decision as ground-breaking as this is normally dictated by either of two the factors: the market, or the stake-holder. Here is a smattering of statistics: According to the Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the nation survey taken in 2006, more than 60% of our population is non-vegetarian. The number is bound to have increased now, given that today, India is the fourth fastest growing market for chicken, and the seventh fastest for fish in the world, with number of consumers rising by the day. In the history of its run, only 20% of all dishes portrayed in the MasterChef shows have been vegetarian. Invariably, all winning dishes have been meat-based. With such overwhelming arguments against a totally vegetarian cooking show, the only comprehensible reason for this decision would be the interest of the sponsors.
According to the Economic Times, “Executives, who spoke on the condition they not be identified, said at least one sponsor was ‘in favour’ of a MasterChef that keeps non-vegetarian food out.” There are two big-ticket sponsors for the show, and both happen to be Gujarat-based, one of which, Amul, has been with the show since its inception.
The other, a very recent entrant, is a joint venture between a Singapore based company named Wilmer International Ltd., and our very own Adani group. The Adanis, if you have been listening to at least every third word uttered by Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, are known for their cosy relationship with our PM. Yes. In a country where every business is also everybody else’s business, one can rest assured that wherever there are dots to be connected, they will be connected.
An un-nameable Adani executive has further gone on to share such wisdom to the world about how they were “always in favour of bringing down the non-veg content in the show and have been in talks with the channel for a while now” and that the Adani Group has conducted mythical studies that show “customers moving towards healthy, nutritious alternatives to fat-heavy meat products.”
Take a moment for that to sink in. MasterChef India is looking to endorse vegetarianism because apparently, meat and fish don’t have adequate nutritional value. The world is moving towards a low-cholesterol diet, and MasterChef India will champion the movement, sporting vegetarian food because cholesterol is a purely meat-related concept. Perhaps we should be thinking of raw, natural, oil-free vegetable dishes when they say vegetarian. One can’t help but wonder about the magic it would do to their TRP ratings, because evidently, who wouldn’t love to watch a TV show about people making salads.
The reason that vegetarianism is such a delicate issue is that it is most extensively practiced among India’s upper castes. Modi’s stand on the issue is a common knowledge. He has done an effective job of linking vegetarianism with the Indian identity, when in reality, it signifies only a small proportion, mostly consisting of ‘privileged’ Indians.
Maybe we are reading too much into this potentially suicidal vegetarian obsession of the show-runners, or maybe we aren’t and this is a conscious attempt to impose vegetarianism on the masses. We can only guess. But if it is the latter, well, one can only say that a television reality show is a funny place to start.