A young man told Sylvia Karpagam he had seen a video of hers and thanked her for her insights on nutrition and caste. “My teacher kept saying the tongue gets thick if you eat meat and that’s why you can’t talk as articulately as Brahmin children, but I challenged him thanks to you,” he told her. It is moments like this that make her work worthwhile, Karpagam says. “Especially with nutrition, people don’t have the vocabulary to fight back.”
When we meet at her home in Bengaluru’s Vivek Nagar, Karpagam, 51, throws a volley of such truths my way in a laconic fashion, alternating between smiling and shrugging. Her relaxed demeanour belies the enormity of the task she’s undertaken — to combat dominant caste ideas of the perfect Indian diet. In a country that’s increasingly criminalising meat eating, Karpagam, the product of an intercaste, interfaith, inter-linguistic marriage between an ISRO pharmacist and an aircraft accident investigation officer, challenges the belief that India is a ‘vegetarian nation’. In reality, less than a quarter of Indians eat only vegetarian food.
She argues against the removal of eggs from midday meal menus in government-run schools and believes that the state shouldn’t allow organisations such as Akshaya Patra Foundation, an initiative of ISKCON and the largest supplier of these meals (millions across the country), to situate nutrition within the structure of their larger Vedic ideology, ignoring Indians who have traditionally eaten nutrient-dense foods such as organ meat, beef and dry fish. Along with other experts who work with the Karnataka-based Ahara Namma Hakku (Our food, our right), Karpagam lobbies for the ‘right to nutrition’ rather than just the ‘right to food’. They’re up against the National Education Policy that says giving schoolchildren eggs will be discriminatory to those who don’t eat eggs and also those who believe that eggs are the menstrual discharge of hens.
Erasing the vegetarian bias
“The idea of satvik food for poor children is a way of homogenising food… one food, one nation, one language,” says Karpagam, who routinely uses data and science to combat ideas such as meat is tamasic food that allows ‘destructive qualities’ to flourish.
“In the health system, the messages are all about fruits, vegetables and supplements,” she says, adding that most government programmes are cereal and grain focused, and inadequate to tackle childhood malnutrition. “Even doctors tell their patients to give up meat. The belief that vegetarian is better is deeply ingrained.” When she asked a group of principals of Catholic institutions what the best source of iron was, even they said spinach. The correct answer? Liver, among other meats.
Karpagam got interested in the social determinants of health as a medical relief worker at a Bengaluru slum after it was demolished in 2013, where she observed that the health of those displaced worsened within a week. Before that, she wanted to be a paediatrician but couldn’t handle the emotional toll that the job would likely extract. So instead, she opted for community medicine. Now, a decade on, she’s one of the most plain-speaking public health doctors/researchers on social media. She even brushed up on her rusty Tamil when she was featured on director Pa Ranjith’s popular YouTube channel Neelam Social.
Taking on the trolls
Though Karpagam focuses on nutrition, she often talks/writes about a range of issues. She is awaiting edits on a piece she’s written for a medical journal on the open casteism and Islamophobia among doctors on Twitter. She’s also working on the role of the healthcare system in enabling custodial violence and torture.
“You end up being thrown into things only because nobody else is talking about it… the silence is shocking,” she says, referring to the fact that most experts prefer to side-step or avoid seeing issues through the lens of caste. At one rights organisation where she documented undertrials and the death penalty, the words Dalit and Muslim were replaced by ‘economically poor’, she says.
“When people ask me why I engage with trolls, I tell them it is like street theatre. Unless you have an audience you can’t put your points out. Once someone criticises you, you can say, ‘here’s all the data’.” The real audience though, is the one that is tracking the discussion she is having with trolls, she adds. These days though, with the upsurge of Ambedkarite voices on Indian social media, Karpagam invariably comes back to her posts to see that someone articulate has already taken on the trolls. She is glad she is helping them find the words.
Priya Ramani is a journalist on the editorial board of Article 14. She is the co-founder of India Love Project.