The three basic carnivorous reactions to encounters with the Other Kind all begin with blank stares.
For some, this is followed by a mild flush of excitement, and then, "Oh really? My cousin is a vegetarian too!" And then a pregnant pause, as they wait for you to jump with joy, declare your eternal bond of solidarity with this unknown cousin, and/or demand immediate details of names, addresses and International Vegetarian Association membership numbers.
For others, the awkward blank moment lasts longer, until the person, obviously uncomfortable, mumbles, "Oh. I really admire you, but I don't think I could do that." And then you're regarded with immense suspicion, as if you're about to produce leaflets or the Vegetarian Bible or a sack of eggplants and start immediate emergency indoctrination.
The most honest reaction comes from devoted masu-eaters and small children, who follow the blank stare with some very obvious cerebral struggle and expressions of vague horror. And then a blunt, "But. why?"
Why indeed. It's easiest to murmur evasive explanations about animal cruelty, health concerns, family beliefs, the benefits of veggies or the terrors of tainted meat. But if your real aim is to cause the maximum sensation and disbelief possible, then try convincing someone who dreads meatless ekadashis that your are, in fact, vegetarian because you want to be. Because you don't like meat, and you'd rather eat carrot sticks than chicken wings and it has nothing to do with your arteries.
Most vegetarians agree that, no matter what your original reason for turning veggie, after a while it becomes a non-issue. Rather than remaining a statement on humane slaughter issues or bird-flu fears, you gradually just are vegetarian.
Still, there are constant reminders that you're in a social minority. Last week's Himalmedia poll of Valley residents revealed only 11.11 percent were vegetarians. Restaurants can prove a hurdle for suddha sakaharis, with suspicious nuggets often making guest appearances in your vegetable fried rice. Being vegan is even more of a challenge in Kathmandu, where dietary substitutes are rarely available and so food options are quickly narrowed down to dal bhat tarkari, fruit, french fries and iron tablets. In certain seasons and Valley blockades, the selection of fresh fruit and vegetables shrinks, and any diet variety with it.
Nutritionists and doctors are still debating the benefits or hazards of vegetarianism, but it definitely has the undisputed advantage as a conversational gambit, especially as Dasain approaches. As the air fills with the bleats of doomed goats, food tops the agenda in most households. While visiting friends or relatives, and confronted with the inevitable offer of something to eat, there will be that moment of blank, uneasy silence. Then someone will whisper in the tones of one talking of a terminal illness or terrible family scandal, "Vegetarian, remember? Doesn't eat meat."