The Moral Quandary

How do you give up age-old values and still remain the same person?


Have you ever been in Moral Quandary, USA?

No, it’s not a town or city. It’s more a state of mind, a searing mental space that immigrants often discover themselves in as they acclimatize to the landscape of a new, bold and dramatically different culture, a place where many of their traditional morals and cultural traditions simply don’t exist and rules are made only to be broken.

Simon Gomez, Chef Of Amma Restaurant owned by Devendra Sharma

For immigrants, America has many names — land of opportunity, gold mountain, the promised land, the land of milk and honey. To them add another, land of moral quandaries, of hard choices.

In ways both big and small, from their names, clothing and cuisine to sacred, religious taboos, immigrants learn to bargain and barter and negotiate deeply ingrained beliefs for survival or for success in Moral Quandry, USA.

Many Indians, who are vegetarian since birth, encounter their gravest moral quandary when they are called upon to touch or slice animal flesh, cook it — or worse still, ingest it. Unlike Western vegetarians, the deeply ingrained vegetarian culture in India is not a health choice, but rooted in deeply held religious and moral beliefs, passed down over generations.

Devendra Sharma who is from a strict Brahmin family. His father, a practicing priest, has visited the restaurant, but not the kitchen and is not aware that his son’s restaurant serves meat products.

So perhaps the hardest thing for a devout Hindu is to dig into a steak. After all, wasn’t Lord Krishna the Celestial Cowherd and aren’t cows called Gau Mata (mother cow), because they are the givers of sustenance? For Hindus, the cow symbolizes the sanctity of all life and is part of the ahimsa tradition. For a devout Hindus, eating something so sacred to the faith is the equivalent of defiling their bodies and taking on bad karma.

But America often forces a hard choice between one’s job and one’s convictions — and a man does what he has to do, often in the most innovative of ways.

Suvir Saran, the noted chef at Devi, the chic new Indian restaurant in New York, cooks the most intricate biryanis, haleem and tandoor grilled beef — without ever having tasted them! Saran is a lifetime vegetarian, whose family are followers of Radhasoami.

He recalls, “All my cousins grew up eating meat. But in our family there was no meat, and no alcohol came into the house; it still doesn’t in Delhi. I was so rigid about being vegetarian that when I visited my cousins I would never eat in their homes, because I knew meat had been cooked in those utensils. My parents would eat there, but I as a little boy was the one person who would never touch the food.”

He cooked without tasting his food, because, Saran says, he grew up learning cooking that way from the family cook, Panditji, who never tasted anything: “It was about navaidyam — about cooking for God. We had to rely on our experience, on our ability to know from past, by looking, by touching, by smelling. With every meal, a little plate was prepared for the gods. First you offer to God, then mix it back into the main container and then eat it.”

Even in his career in America as a well-regarded chef, Saran never tasted what he was cooking and relied completely on his sense of touch and smell and sight. But there came a time for some negotiation with his beliefs: “There was a point when I was doing recipes for my cookbook and I realized it was very important for me to taste, because I couldn’t teach people if I don’t know exactly what I was doing.”

Suvir Saran, the noted chef at Devi, the chic new Indian restaurant in New York, cooks the most intricate “biryanis, haleem” and tandoor grilled beef — without ever having tasted them!

So now does he eat meat? “It’s a very tough call and I’m often asked this. If a famous chef is cooking a six-course meal for me, then I will taste everything they send out, but literally the size of a cube of paneer. And I’ll taste that much just to know what that person is doing with the meat. That’s it. I won’t eat to finish. I’ll just try it.”

When he first had to handle the meat, did it upset him? He says, “The first time I remember that inside I was ready to cry as I had to handle the chicken and clean it. It was very difficult. But then I realized that food is all about entertaining, about feeding other people, about being generous of yourself. So I quietly do it and don’t get into moral issues. I just freeze in that moment in time.”

Nor is his family upset with him, because they recognize it’s part of his job, to perfect and hone his skills. Some people tell him that if he’s tasting meat, he’s not vegetarian anymore: “They don’t get it that I’m taking one bite in three months and am really not a meat eater. But they make it a very moral black and white issue, that you’re either vegetarian or you’re not.”

Many Hindu immigrants can empathize with Saran’s plight, since thousands of South Indians and Gujaratis — who are predominantly vegetarian — tend to own and operate many of the major hotel and motel chains, liquor stores and fast food franchises like Blimpies, Burger King and Subway.

Hasmukh P. Rama, founder and CEO of JHM Group, headquartered in Greenville, South Carolina, along with his brothers and extended family, owns over 30 hotels spread over several states, including Georgia, Florida, North and South Carolina, 10 of which are full service hotels with restaurants. The Ramas grew up in Sarona (Pera) in Gujarat as strict vegetarians and have never even tasted an egg. They are all teetotalers, but own many cocktail lounges where liquor is routinely served. Was it ever an issue serving meat and alcohol in their restaurants?

“No, otherwise we’d not buy the hotels,” Rama says. “If that becomes a hurdle then you don’t go into the business. You know non-vegetarian food is going to be served here.”

The brothers, who have lived in the United States for decades, say being vegetarian in the workplace was a problem. Rama says, “Many times I would go hungry, because people don’t know how to serve a vegetarian meal in this country. If you go to a formal dinner they will not know what to serve. The definition of vegetarian here is very narrow — salad and boiled vegetables. Even vegetarian soup or rice will have chicken stock in it.”

Asked if he had ever felt conflicted on the drinks and meat compromises he had to make in business, Rama says, “I don’t have moral tensions. All individuals make individual choices and we have to respect that. We don’t have to do something if we believe otherwise — we have to stick to our own values. One of the most important things in life for individuals is food. We cannot legislate food, which is very personal to everybody. People would like to eat the foods they grew up eating and I have found people do respect your personal choices.”

Today the 40 members of the Rama family in the United States have stuck to their vegetarian their principles, including the second generation who were born and grew up here. Most of the children were schooled in India, which served to underscore the family’s vegetarian way of life.

Jyoti Biligiri grew up in Bangalore as a vegetarian, but owns a Quiznos franchise in San Diego, Calif., where she handles beef, chicken and turkey every day. In fact, Prime Rib and Black Angus Steak are some of the popular choices at the chain. Bilgiri says: “When the meat comes to the store it comes pre-packaged. All you need to do is cut it on the slicer, so it really doesn’t feel like meat. If it was raw and I had to cook it, that might have been a problem. It looked almost like a big block of cheese so I didn’t really think about it.”

Carving the steak was harder, as it came soaked in beef blood. She had her employees slice that. “Since you’re going to be the boss of a franchise and have employees under you, in the training you have to undergo everything from cleaning the bathrooms to doing the cooking. You can’t say I don’t want to do it,” she recalls. “It was during the training that I was having a hard time, because when you cut the meat, the juices and blood splash on you. Even if I came home at 10 pm, I would come and wash my hair because it would gross me out. But when I opened my own store, 99 percent of the time I’d avoid cutting beef.”

Chanting slokas as you cut beef may sound shocking, but this was the solution one vegetarian adopted to appease her soul and her conscience. A Gujarati employee at Bilgiri’s restaurant told her that she would pray along her work to atone for the sin she was committing by serving meat at earlier jobs she held in fast food restaurants. An orthodox and religious woman, she had no choice and needed the job. She would not slice meat on days she fasted, requesting other employees do so. Says Biligiri, “Being a vegetarian myself, I was able to make those adjustments for her.”

Gurminder Singh discovers himself handling, chopping and even cooking lamb and chicken daily

Gurminder Singh, who is from Navanshar, Punjab, is another staunch vegetarian, who discovers himself handling, chopping and even cooking lamb and chicken daily in the kitchen of New York’s Amma restaurant. “In the beginning I was hesitant, but I have stopped thinking about everything,” Singh says. Singh’s family is non-vegetarian, but he had a change of heart while growing up in Dubai, where he constantly saw chickens being slaughtered in butchers’ shops. When he goes out with friends, he is often pestered to eat non-vegetarian and he is constantly surrounded by gourmet meat dishes at work. “Nobody’s stopping me, but it’s just me. There’s something in me that does not allow me to eat meat,” he says. He cuts and marinades the meat, but says, “I look at it as a job. I didn’t have an option of doing anything else. In the beginning I didn’t like it, but after touching and handling I said, ‘This is nothing, no problem, I’ll just learn more.’ Now I have learnt to make different gravies, but I taste them before I add the meat in.”

Singh’s boss at Amma, Devendra Sharma, is also a diehard vegetarian. Sharma is from a strict Brahmin family and his father in India is a practicing priest. So how did he decide to start a restaurant serving non-vegetarian food? He says with a laugh, “Ghora agar ghas se dosti karega to kahe ga kya?”(If the horse makes friends with the grass, then what will he eat?) His father has visited the restaurant, but not the kitchen and is not aware that his son’s restaurant serves meat products.

The dilemma of eating meat, especially beef, is not limited to work, but is also playing out in many vegetarian households. Indian grocery stores, which previously did not carry meat products, are increasingly beginning to do so. Indian grocer chains, such as Patel Brothers, began introducing frozen chicken meals and samosas some time ago, and beef patties are beginning to appear on the Indian grocery racks.

While eating or working with meat is the biggest dilemma confronting many Hindu immigrants, liquor is no less nettlesome. It’s not that people don’t drink in India, but the broader social culture frowns on it, especially among some communities where drinking has been forbidden for generations. Prohibition is still in force in Gujarat and nearly 200,000 people are charged annually for its violations in the state.

So there are fresh quandaries: should a teetotaler run a liquor store? Is profiting from this forbidden pleasure kosher? Amazingly enough, a large chunk of New Jersey’s liquor stores are owned by Indians, many of them South Indian and Gujarati, with a long teetotaler family tradition.

Rajesh Patel (his first name has been changed) owns a 3,000 square foot liquor store in New Jersey and says that while there are many Indian-owned liquor stores, most of their owners drink. He himself does not drink now, having given it up after finding the temptation of constant wine and liquor tastings too strong. He says: “Now I don’t even taste it and use the guidelines from the sales persons and feedback from the distributors for my buying decisions.”

Yet another Patel, Dinesh, who owns some 7-11 stores that sell beer and non-vegetarian sandwiches, is himself a teetotaler and vegetarian. He says there is no conflict. In fact it makes him feel better that he is not indulging in either vice. As he points out, without selling liquor or meat, what food business could one be in? “In America, find me one store that is not selling beer or meat or cigarettes. You have to be very strong to be in a liquor store and not drink. Everybody is different. It’s a mind thing.”

Growing up in India, most Indians were told that sex was a four-letter word. Even innocent pleasures like dating or dancing were frowned upon. Only movie stars on the silver screen could cuddle and fool around, and even they stopped short of the kiss as the camera zoomed on amorous bees and blossoms and twittering birds.

“No Sex please, we’re South Asian” might well an axiom for immigrants from the countries of the subcontinent where overt displays of affection and sexuality are still taboo. So it is surprising to find Raj (not his real name), a young Indian immigrant from Mumbai, cheerfully manning the cash register at one of the sex shops in Times Square. All around him are flashing neon signs promoting peep shows and sexy lingerie and male boxes on the upper floor for gay clients, but he seems sunny, quite unperturbed .

Is he troubled by the environment he works day in and day out? He shrugged, “It’s a job. People ask me why I am working in a sex shop, but it’s a good job and I’m paid well.” Yet he didn’t want his name used and didn’t want to talk about what his family thought of his job. He pleaded, “Why are you asking me all this, didi? Do you want me to lose my job?”

Sri Lankan immigrants are major players in the adult videos and sex shop industry. Walk down Times Square into the video stores advertising peep shows and sex toys and you will find many Sri Lankans manning the door, the cash register and the floor. So how did this come about?

Such is the stigma and ambivalence that most workers did not want to talk or have their wares photographed. Kumar (not his real name) is the manager at one of the adult video stores on Eight Avenue and has been in the business for three years. He says 80-100 of the sex stores owned by Sri-Lankans or in partnership with other owners are spread across Manhattan. These stores are open 24 hours a day, 365 days of the week, almost like emergency clinics. Some, though not all, have strip shows with live girls, peep shows and video booths with male shows.

Kumar says the earliest Sri Lankan workers in the sex shops were sailors from ships that docked in Manhattan and when they came ashore looking for jobs these stores absorbed them. At the time, he says, nearly 90 percent of the stores were Jewish or Italian-owned and they found the South Asian workers smart, honest, hard working, loyal and vigilant about shoplifting. Many more found jobs through word of mouth and gradually some began investing in the business and became partners and owners.

Standing in the store surrounded by adult videos, love jellies and lubricants and sex toys, one had to wonder whether this was at all disturbing on a daily basis to him and his colleagues in the business, since so many of them are Hindus and Buddhists, with a strict moral codes. Kumar said: “It’s just a job. They are not proud of it, but it’s a free country, free state and it’s just another job. It doesn’t change them either.” He points out that they have independent lives away from their job, have families, visit temples and do charity work.

Kumar added philosophically: “These things have existed before our coming and they will continue to exist.”

Ask Diditi Mitra, a sociology professor at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J., about the negotiations immigrants have to make, and she points out that moral conundrums are negotiated not just by immigrants, but also by people in India. Many vegetarian families allow members to eat meat outside the home, even though it is not cooked at home. Young men may drink and smoke outside, but not near their parents or elders. They may dress in western outfits for the office, but don an Indian kurta at home. They eat with a knife and fork and talk in English with their international clients, but revert to eating with their hands and talking Bengali or Gujarati at home. It’s all about negotiation.

She says, “But another interesting dimension is added with immigrant and minority status, since these often present barriers in the labor market and leave one with few choices. One is always trying to negotiate the outsider status to be able to belong, and hope for cultural and social inclusion as one moves up the ladder.”

The process often starts with the mutilation of their most beloved and basic possession — their name.

Names are a big deal in India and children are frequently bequeathed the names of gods, goddesses, kings and queens in the hopes that their special qualities will rub off on the newborns. Some of the most popular names are the 108 iterations of Lord Krishna. These names are bestowed in auspicious ceremonies invoking heavenly powers, culled from their horoscopes, amidst the chanting of priests.

In America, in a lightning flash, the names of the Almighty, like Krishna, Mahesh, Vishnu and Shankar mutate into Chris, Mike, Vic and Sandy. All fine names, to be sure, but without the history and resonance of their real names. Similarly Ashok (a great emperor) becomes Ash and Prakash (light) transforms into Pete.

Many Indians perceive their unpronounceable names as an impediment to getting ahead in the American workplace. Thus you have a surfeit of Larrys, Garrys and Bobs who revert to Lachman, Ghanshyam and Bhagwan at home. Indeed, many Indians have learnt to compartmentalize and maintain two identities — the real Indian identity at home and the jocular, business-oriented, more informal American identity at work. The two rarely collide, just as the two selves of call center workers in India are kept separate: they can be Amy from Arkansas or Ray from Richmond on the phone with fully mapped out American lives, and then they put the receiver down and transform into Annapurna or Raghunath with real Indian lives in Bangalore or Hyderabad.

Is a white lie still a lie? Is a harmless fabrication still a deception? They learn to don a new name, a new identity as easily as they would put on a tie or jacket for the workplace, but surely it still diminishes the self to have to alter it to suit others’ perceptions.

All in the name of the mighty dollar.

For immigrant Indian women who came to America a few decades ago there was the added tension of adapting to western clothes in the workplace. Many had never worn skirts or dresses and the bindi, which is considered the auspicious sign of a woman’s married status, had to be rubbed off for the 9 to 5 mainstream job. Indeed, many of these women had never exposed their legs and now had to make new adjustments as saris may be exotic and charming to the western eye, but just were not acceptable for the business environment where the idea was to fit in and not stand apart.

Anju Bhargava, a banker and managing consultant in Livingstone, N.J., recalls being conflicted about giving up the sari for dresses and skirts in the workplace. A new bride fresh off the boat in the 1980s, she recalls: “When I came here I came with my 20 kilos and most of it was saris. I needed to work right away and I wore one of the pants I had for the interview for a clerical job, which I got. The next day I wore a sari and put on my kaajal and went to work. The woman looked at me and said, ‘Are you the same girl that I hired?’ She asked me to go home and change. I had to wait till the mall opened at 10 a.m. and I went and bought myself a wrap-around skirt and then I returned to work. I was so used to wearing saris, it came as a shock to me that a sari could be considered inappropriate.”

Bhargava got a western wardrobe, and over the years got herself an MBA and adapted to the changing corporate dress code, be it skirt suits or pantsuits. She says, “It’s not just for the dollar that you do it. Everyone wants to fit in and make life easier. The more you are different it becomes a barrier. Before they see you, the sari comes in the way and puts layers between you and the others.”

Now she and many of her Indian colleagues compromise by adding some Indian touch like a scarf or pashmina shawl. She adds, “In the beginning you thought you had to give it all up, but now most of us are bringing something Indian back to work. It is part of our identity. That’s a shift that has taken place and now of course you see Indian touches even in the mainstream.”

Another quandary Indian immigrants faced in the workplace is celebrating Indian festivals, such as Diwali. “We felt uncomfortable thinking we’d stick out by taking a day off for Diwali, but now we feel much more comfortable with our own selves, celebrating our Indianness in a much more open way. Earlier, trying to fit in, we were hesitant to share our heritage, now we openly share it,” says Bhargava.

Ravi Amin, associate chairman of the department of psychiatry at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, sees a fair number of South Asians as patients. He is familiar with the moral trade-offs that immigrants make as they adjust and assimilate to a place which is so different, and he himself has undergone the common, ubiquitous experiences: growing up in Baroda, he had never eaten meat or drunk alcohol.

“By the time I was 26, I had had alcohol only three times and endured these guilt feelings about having done something one was not supposed to do. Having now lived here since 1985, I would happily go into any restaurant and eat anything that’s edible and comfortably select a good wine to go with the meal.” But arriving at this place did not come easy as it was all about compromises and frequent conflicts within the family even to bring a beer into the house, or negotiate to cook chicken at home, but not beef.

He says that the conflicts are inevitable in adjusting to a new culture, but the factors that mainly shape one’s behavior in the end are individual values. A person should be at peace with the cultural values of the past versus the new culture one is adjusting to. “In each of these areas, it’s about how one individual charts his journey and where does it settle. I don’t think it necessarily settles at any one given point in time. It’s probably a journey that remains a life long journey, that often goes on for generations, with negotiations about the evolution of their lifestyle.”

Even immigrants who feel they have successfully negotiated their quandaries often harbor at different times the feeling that they don’t really belong in America. And visiting India, they often get the sense they don’t belong there either. Says Amin: “So there is that risk, but there is also the greater reward of a much more exhilarating experience of having taken the challenge, and been able to assimilate the two cultures, and often they have created their own way of living.”

The negotiations can sometimes be harder when factors like class and education kick in. As Mitra points out, “There’s a class element to it as well, which makes the negotiations, especially for the working class, even harder because they are unable to ignore the prejudice and discrimination, which middle class South Asians are able to. There are class, culture and market barriers. It’s a complex picture, because there’s no one uniform South Asian American story.”

Roshan (he requested his name not be used), like thousands of other immigrants, works long hours in a busy newsstand in Manhattan. All day he stands in the kiosk, handing out magazines, cigarettes, candy and lotto tickets as the world goes by. He barely has time to look up or talk. Ask him about his life here and there, across the oceans, and he says, “Gade ke tare kam kar rahe hai par paise bana rahe hai, bas. Yahan ki life mein aur waha ki life mein zameen asmaan ka farq hai. Yaha kisse se baat karne ka be time nahin” (We work like donkeys here, but we are making money, that’s it. Between the life here and the life there, there is an earth-sky difference. Here you don’t have time to even talk to anyone.”

Roshan hails from the pilgrimage city of Haridwar where the holy Ganges flows. He is a non-smoker and a moral man who is all day handling cigarettes and often, explicit magazines. Indeed, some of these bold covers with women in various stages of undress would have caused an uproar in his hometown.

Does he feel any pangs about his work? He says simply and forthrightly, “Dekhiye, agar admi idhar aya hai to paise ke liye. Kam nahin karna tha to kyo aya? Zada suchoge to phir ji nahin paho ge. Humne to sochna chor diya hai. Khao, piyo, mast raho. Hum to ein cheezo main jada vishwas karte hein.”

Roughly translated, this could be the philosophy of many immigrants facing their inborn quandaries, especially those who have few alternatives — ” See, if a man has come here, it is to make money. If he didn’t want to work, then why did he come here? If you think too much, then you will not be able to survive. I have stopped thinking. Eat, drink, and be blissful. I believe in these things!”

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