By Sumit Paul
May 6, 2019
Stereotyping countries and their people is common and when it comes to Pakistan, fixed opinions are all the more difficult to be dislodged. That Pakistan has a large number of vegetarians (Khushwant Singh, 2012) is a statement that doesn’t find many takers in India, until you visit the country and see it for yourself. Even I doubted the veracity of this claim. But I saw this on my innumerable visits to Pakistan as an advanced research scholar of Islamic theology, Hadith and Persian mysticism. Non-vegetarian and vegetarian restaurants are almost in equal numbers.
Visit Karachi’s posh Clifton Road or Airport Road, Islamabad, pure vegetarian eateries are juxtaposed with non-vegetarian restaurants. Benazir Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari has always been a strict vegetarian. So was Benazir Bhutto's dad Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Despite being born into a Sindhi-Muslim household and having been educated at Oxford and Berkeley, ZA Bhutto turned a complete vegetarian at the age of 16. He surprised Indira Gandhi during his visit to India in 1972 for the Simla Agreement. Imran Khan’s cousin and stylish batsman Majid Khan was a vegetarian and had not even tried eggs in his entire life.
I remember interviewing legendary Ghazal maestro Mehdi Hassan for a British Urdu daily in 2009. I knew that he was a vegetarian. I asked him, ‘Janaab Ke Gosht Na Khaane Ka Koi Khaas Sabab?’ (Is there any specific reason for not eating non-veg)? His calm reply has stayed with me: ‘Mausiqi Ibadat-E-Parvardigaar Se Kam Nahin Aur Bandagi-E-Sadiq Mein Khoon-Kharaba Humein Gavara Nahin’ (Music is no less than worshipping the Almighty and true worship doesn’t allow any sort of bloodshed).
Many male vocalists of India and Pakistan have been vegetarians and that should be a matter of serious research. Ustad Amir Khan, composer-vocalist Firoz Nizami, Ustad Rahmatullah Khan, Talat Mahmood, Mohammed Rafi and many more didn’t eat non-veg food, though Rafi relished it till the age of 25. Meat supposedly roughens vocal chords. Even Frank Sinatra turned a vegetarian when spiritual guru Jiddu Krishnamurti hinted that non-veg food might interfere with the realisation of his full potential. He stopped and after a month, recorded the great hit, ‘My Way’.
Coming back to Pakistan, popular Urdu poet Parvin Shakir was an avowed vegetarian. So were Pakistani Air Chief Marshal Noor Khan and Air Marshal Asghar Khan.
A vegetarian myself, I relished the best fare at the eateries there. I can never forget the mouth-watering dishes at Sargodha in Pakistan’s Punjab. My teacher and mentor, Dr Zaifa Ashraf, who hailed originally from Karachi, never had non-veg food in her entire life, for it would make her nauseous!
It’s time to get our ingrained perceptions right in this age of increasing hatred and bad blood.