Reading, Writing and Eating as Radical Acts
By Sangamithra Iyer
On June 4, 1903, the International Printing Press began publishing a weekly paper in South Africa, which launched a movement for non-violent social change. “We need offer no apology for making an appearance,” wrote Mohandas K. Gandhi in the introductory column of Indian Opinion. “[A] newspaper, voicing [the community’s] feelings, and specially devoted to its cause, would hardly be considered out of place; indeed, we think, it would supply a longfelt want.”
Indian Opinion provided a platform for this struggle and was also responsible for its name. Not wanting to come across as weak, Gandhi desired a better phrase than “passive resistance,” so he announced a contest in the paper. Gandhi’s nephew first suggested sadagraha, which meant firmness in cause. Gandhi tweaked it to satyagraha—firmness in truth.
Satyagraha was implemented first in South Africa to disobey racial discriminatory laws and later in India as part of the struggle for independence. While swaraj—home rule—was the ultimate goal, satyagraha was applied both outwardly to rid India of the British, and inwardly, attempting to address Hindu-Muslim unity, eradicate the caste system and untouchability, promote ahimsa (non-injury) and revitalize rural villages.
In June 1994, a different experiment with truth began in the village of New York City. Inspired by satyagraha, publisher Beth Gould and editor Martin Rowe, decided to start a community paper focused on the issues of animal advocacy, vegetarianism and environmentalism. It’s coverage expanded further into social justice after 1999 under the editorship of Catherine Clyne.
Like Indian Opinion, Satya was more than just a publication. What unfolded in these pages over the years was an evolving conversation around ethics, justice and activism. These issues were both local and universally bound. Satya built a community that took root in NYC and expanded nationally and globally with subscribers in Australia, Belgium, Chile, England, France, Iran, Japan, Mexico and Turkey.
In that first year of publication, the expression “an idea whose time has come,” frequented the pages of Satya. It came up in reference to the creation of a vegetarian resource center in NYC, advocacy for the ideas of animal rights and environmentalism in general, and to the magazine itself, which took an intersectional approach to addressing these issues. There was nothing quite like Satya.
“This is your newspaper,” an appeal to subscribers read. “Support a community that you care about.” Letters poured in, and readers were encouraged to contribute articles. Who better to write about activism than those engaged in it?
Satya provided a forum for questions held by many of us who wanted to be active in the issues we cared about, but didn’t yet know how to be. What does it mean to be an activist? In the early years, there was even a periodic column titled “How to be an activist,” where you would find Henry Spira giving pointers on penning letters to the editor of newspapers, Alyssa Bonilla with insight on how Brooklyn’s first dog run in Carroll Gardens was created, or Anne Earle on how to help homeless animals in NYC. In the later years, the column disappeared formally, but the question was implicit throughout the pages. The voice was not so much prescriptive but inquisitive. What do we do with what we know? How do we invoke change in our society and in ourselves? And how do we deal with that most pernicious and dangerous question: What’s the point?
Uncertain of the outcomes, activists, nevertheless, commit to change. “What might happen is what happened to me,” Martin wrote in an editorial in 1996 reflecting on his transition to veganism:
“[P]rogressively, an everyday sense of cynical powerlessness in the face of violence on the street and the abattoir, in the war zone and in the forest, is transformed into a sense that at all times, I can choose not to be powerless by removing as much violence as possible from my life and leaving myself open to the absurd possibility of actually making a difference.”
A Chance Encounter
In 1888, the yet-to-be Mahatma traveled from his home in India to London to study law. He arrived carrying a promise to his mother that he would not eat meat while in Europe. At the age of 19, Gandhi was both a reluctant vegetarian and a reluctant meat eater. Like many of his young peers, he thought it was the Indian’s duty to eat meat to conquer the oppressor. He had come to believe that meat was the source of strength for the British, and vegetarianism was India’s weakness. (A concept that manifests in modern India where rising meat consumption can be viewed as marker of wealth or a rejection of dogma). Gandhi described his early attempts at meat eating as a teenager in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. This carnivorous experiment left him with nightmares of a live goat bleating inside him. But perhaps what kept Gandhi vegetarian as a young man was the fear of disappointing his parents.
Abstaining from meat in the colder climate of England proved to be challenging. The young Gandhi subsisted on porridge and too few slices of bread (he was too shy to ask for more bread than what was offered to him). One evening he stumbled upon the Central Vegetarian Restaurant on Farrington Street. “The sight of it filled me with the same joy that a child feels on getting a thing after his own heart,” Gandhi wrote in his autobiography. There, he consumed his “first hearty meal” since his arrival in England, and discovered an essay that would change his life.
In the display case of the restaurant was a copy of animal rights pioneer Henry Salt’s pamphlet A Plea for Vegetarianism, which Gandhi then purchased for a shilling and devoured with as much delight as his meal. It was in this moment that Gandhi recommitted to vegetarianism by choice and not out of familial duty. He will later come to believe ahimsa and vegetarianism are key strengths—not weaknesses—in the effort to fight for Indian independence.
Vegetarian restaurants have often provided a space for radical thinking. Beth and Martin first plotted Satya together at a now-defunct vegetarian restaurant in New York. Copies of Satya were distributed free of charge in vegetarian restaurants and other community places throughout the city. This was a beautiful leap of faith—sending papers out into the world imagining they will find their way to willing readers.
The idea for this special edition was also proposed in a vegan restaurant (thank you Amy Trakinski), and further discussed over many meals at others. Indeed, I spent many lunches reading and editing submissions at my local veg joint on Queens Blvd.
Recently, during one such meal, I read Salt’s A Plea for Vegetarianism also with much delight, remarking on Salt’s brilliance and how his writings remain relevant today.
His essay begins with a confession—that he is a vegetarian and that “this is rather a formidable admission to make, for a Vegetarian is still regarded, in ordinary society, as little better than a madman, and may consider himself lucky if he has no worse epithets applied to him than humanitarian, sentimentalist, crotchet-monger, fanatic, and the like.”
He shares how most people don’t understand how one could not eat meat, while others admit the possibility of a meat-free existence, “but profess themselves, with a pitying smile of superior intelligence, utterly unable to imagine any reason for such abstinence.”
At the time of Salt’s writing, the global human population was less than a billion people, and animals were not yet killed on the scale or the manner they are today. Yet Salt still references and complicates the notion of his era’s “humane slaughter” efforts:
“[T]hose good people are mistaken who imagine that the slaughter of animals is painless and merciful. A society has lately been instituted (not by Vegetarians) with the object of introducing into our slaughter-houses more humane and sanitary methods of procedure. The mere existence of such a society is a proof that the system is not free from cruelty;”
Salt lays out the arguments for vegetarianism (economic, scientific and ethical), but also laments the pushback from skeptics, often lodged in the form of a never-ending list of dismissive questions. “[I]n truth, it is but a thankless task to answer them at any time for they are hydra-headed monsters, and spring up as fast as one can cut them down,” Salt wrote.
He leaves the reader, one in particular, with a lesson on the challenges of embarking on reform:
“It is a mournful fact that when people have no wish to understand a thing, they can generally contrive to misunderstand it; and the hopelessness of pleading with those who will not or cannot comprehend is one of the first lessons learnt by Food Reformers, as indeed, by reformers of all kinds.”
By laying out the deep set of challenges associated with advocating for animals where cruelty was the norm, Salt’s writings offered solidarity to those questioning this kind of societal violence, and became a call for action, for at least one significant reader, rather than an excuse to retreat.
I love imagining Gandhi discovering Salt in a vegetarian restaurant in London, similar to how readers found Satya in New York—that chance encounter with words on the page, which sparks a connection, nurtures compassion and spurs action.
Such a moment inspired the soon-to-be activist Gandhi to cut his teeth in writing and organizing for the London Vegetarian Society. There, his colleagues introduced him to other works that continued to shape his thinking and provided a foundation for future activism.
Coming across animal rights essay at a vegetarian restaurant can indeed change the world. It already has.
As the principles of satyagraha were evolving in South Africa, they were slowly being applied to the publishing of the paper itself. “Satyagraha would probably have been impossible without Indian Opinion,” Gandhi later reflected.
In the beginning, Gandhi poured his personal savings from his law practice in Johannesburg into the paper he was publishing in Durban and was troubled by the finances of keeping independent media afloat.
Gandhi befriended Henry Polak, a local journalist in Johannesburg who frequented the same vegetarian restaurant. The two bonded over their mutual admiration of Leo Tolstoy. Polak gave Gandhi a copy of John Ruskin’s Unto the Last before Gandhi departed on an overnight train ride to Durban to sort out the affairs of the paper. Once again, an encounter related to a vegetarian restaurant and the act of reading fostered the next experiment with truth.
Ruskin’s essays on labor and economy immediately inspired Gandhi to move his press from Durban to a rural self-sustaining ashram called Phoenix Settlement, about 20 kilometers north. All workers were paid equal wages, and the settlement consisted of both Indians and sympathetic Europeans like Polak. Biographer Joseph Lelyveld documented this eureka moment in his book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India. “Workers on the farm were expected to double as pressmen and simultaneously feed themselves,” Lelyveld wrote. “Hand labor, thereafter, would be the reflexive Gandhi answer to various problems, from colonial exploitation to rural underemployment and poverty.”
In her book, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading, Isabel Hofmeyr provides more context and insight into how radical the publishing of Indian Opinion was at the time. In addition to being a platform for social justice, Gandhi’s experiments in publishing were an attempt to slow reading and writing down to the rhythms of the body. At the turn of the 20th century, there had been rapid improvements in transportation and communication. Although smart phones, Facebook and Twitter were not yet available, Gandhi was already wary of the speed in which information was transmitted and concerned about how the brain would respond to the bombardment of messages. Gandhi wrote the following in 1911:
“I believe that the mind can be profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality. Our very intellect shall be macadamized, as it were—its foundation broken into fragments for the wheels of travel to roll over; and if you shall know what makes the most durable pavement surpassing rolled stones, spruce blocks, and asphaltum, you have only to look into some of our minds which have been the subjected to this treatment so long,”
Gandhi’s fears seem prescient, especially in our modern age of listicles, vitriolic comment threads and what journalist Waseem Zakir calls “churnalism.” We keep on clicking rather than thinking. Hofmeyr contends Indian Opinion offered a kind of ethical anthology. “He interspersed news reports with philosophical extracts, and he encouraged readers to contemplate what they read rather than to hurtle forward.” She further explains, “In a Gandhian world, such slow reading became one way of pausing industrial speed, and in so doing it created small moments of intellectual independence.”
Satya honors this kind of slow reading and writing. Activists often have a hard time with the word slow, especially when what we are working for is urgent—the animals and the planet certainly can’t wait. In this case, slowness is about care and deliberation. Taking a deep breath will sustain us more than several shallow ones.
Writing and editing are also exercises in self-restraint. “It is a terrible ordeal but a fine exercise to remove these weeds,” Gandhi wrote about the process of editing Indian Opinion columns down to the barest of prose. This kind of self-discipline proved to be an essential skill for being either a satyagrahi or a prisoner. Soon the latter became the fate of the former.
When satyagrahis became imprisoned in South Africa for refusing to register and carry identity certificates as was required by new discriminatory laws, Indian Opinion encouraged readers to memorize sections of the paper to relay passages to prisoners when they went to visit them.
While a jailed satyagrahi himself, Gandhi read Henry David Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,” and this work further shaped his thinking on satyagraha. Excerpts of Thoreau would be sprinkled throughout Indian Opinion, and his name invoked to inspire action.
In a summary of a community meeting in 1907, Gandhi discussed the question of whether the Indian community would remain united “to end and disobey the law.” He added, “For, this is a new kind of step for us in the present age. There is a deep-rooted superstition that a law cannot be disobeyed.” [The criminalization of activism, and the fear it created, indeed became a significant theme in the pages of Satya as well.]
“When we shall have resisted the law to the last, we shall be regarded as so many Thoreaus in miniature,” Gandhi wrote.
Change takes time, as Gandhi learned over and over again. In 1921, Gandhi thought swaraj could be achieved in one year. When, twenty-six years later, Indian independence brought the bloody division of his homeland, it was heartbreaking. Gandhi called Partition “vivisection.” It tested his faith, but he stayed committed in his remaining days to soldiering on nonviolently.
Are you willing?
I moved to the East Village in 1995 to study engineering at The Cooper Union, located a few blocks north of Satya’s office on Bleecker Street. But our paths had yet to cross.
On my walk to school, I’d pass the “Mean People Suck” guy, the man who pushed stickers with that phrase to all the passersby in Cooper Square. I’d hear another woman roar: “ANIMAL RIGHTS. Sign the Pe-TI-tion.” There was an odd cadence to this. A syllable wrongly accented. I recognized the loneliness in her voice.
In high school, I was head of our student animal rights club—Students Against Animal Violations and Exploitation (SAAVE). We hosted an annual fur protest, stenciled storm drains and showed a few movies with disturbing footage.
I grew up in a vegetarian household in the suburbs of New York City. My father, who exhibited extraordinary empathy for all beings, supported my first attempts at protesting animal cruelty.
In biology class, I boycotted the fetal pig dissections, seeing no value in teenagers slicing open unborn animals to study life.
“Where do you think your breakfast comes from?” My teacher asked.
“Not from a dead pig,” I said.
While I got out of dissection, I had to stay for the genetics lesson. I didn’t intend to become an advocate for fruit flies, it just happened. That drosophila experiment seemed so messed up to me—mating winged and wingless fruit flies to see how their offspring would turn out—if they matched our Punnet Square predictions. After the experiment the flies were sent to “the morgue,” a sealed glass jar where they would suffocate to death.
I wrote an elegy for them and placed it next to the jar.
Epithets like sensitive, naïve, ridiculous or worse, I imagine, were lashed at me, but I just questioned how we devalued and discarded lives so easily.
When I moved from the suburbs to New York City for college, it was liberating for many reasons, but especially when it came to eating. I could easily find vegan and vegetarian food, and I never had to explain what these words meant. I said good-bye to meals of iceberg lettuce salads and fries when I ate out, and began a series of adventures on my student budget based on two lovely words: “Lunch Special.”
My engineering coursework did not involve animal research, and there wasn’t even an animal lab in the college, so that was a huge relief. But I was soon confronted with ethical dilemmas again during an engineering summer fellowship at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in 1997. While my assignment was animal-free, I was surrounded by animal research. Dogs had their limbs broken for the sake of practicing new surgical techniques. Rabbits were killed for cartilage research. All of this was horrifying to me, but what was equally upsetting was that it was accepted as the norm for everyone else. Ethics and compassion were also so easily discarded in the name of science.
I would have loved to have discovered Satya at this time and not felt so alone. If I read Satya back then, I would have felt a different pulse of my city—the struggle to preserve community gardens, the call for shelter reform and the fight to free the carriage horses and liberate laboratory animals. I would have been inspired by this energy of those challenging the status quo.
A few months later, one of my humanities professors mentioned a recently published book about chimpanzees who learned American Sign Language. It was Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me about Who We Are by Roger Fouts. (Fouts’ book and work were covered in the pages of Satya at this time as well). Reading this book had a profound influence on me, and it inspired the series of reading and traveling adventures that ultimately lead me to Satya.
Next of Kin detailed the history of language experiments on apes. What we’ve learned from them clearly demonstrates their intelligence and personalities, but what I found most moving was the last part of the book, which explored the ethical implications of animal research. Fouts lays out the tragedy of this whole enterprise—how we’ve robbed these beautiful beings of their families and their wildness in order to subject them to experiments of dubious utility. Scientists were jailers at best. It was so reassuring to find someone in the science community speaking up for animals.
I signed up for a course in American Sign Language right after I finished the book, and applied for and was accepted into to a summer program at Chimpanzee and Human Communication institute in Ellensburg Washington. There I met and helped care for Fouts’ chimpanzee family—Washoe, Moja, Tatu, Dar, and Loulis—and learned more about the challenges chimpanzees face in captivity and in the wild.
I continued to pursue engineering, but was always looking for opportunities to volunteer for animals on the side. Soon these two worlds collided. I applied to be a volunteer at a sanctuary for chimpanzees orphaned by the bushmeat trade in Cameroon.
It was my engineering background that caught the sanctuary’s interest. At that time, they had to travel 20 miles to the nearest tap to fill up on water. They had unsuccessfully drilled two wells. They asked me for assistance in creating a rainwater collection system and advice on site drainage.
I started interviewing staff and former volunteers about site descriptions. I looked up geology maps of the country in the library. I learned about seasonal climate patterns. I compiled these correspondences, maps and tidbits in a big white binder.
There were many things this binder did not prepare me for: Forests cut to lay down an oil pipeline, children orphaned by HIV/AIDS with lesions on their tiny bodies, and the tight grasp of a baby chimpanzee who lost her mother.
When I returned to New York from Cameroon, I was still processing what I had experienced, and wanted to connect with others grappling with issues of environmental destruction and habitat loss and how these were also linked to social inequities. I decided to go to my first Animal Rights Conference in Washington D.C. in June of 2003 to volunteer at a table for the chimpanzee sanctuary.
As luck would have it, my table was right next to Satya’s table, and there I met editors Catherine Clyne and Rachel Cernansky. My discovery of Satya was like Gandhi’s discovery of a vegetarian restaurant in London—getting a thing after my own heart. How amazing to find such thoughtful writing that uncovered the connections between people, animals and the planet.
One month later, my father died suddenly. In the weeks and months that followed, I searched more and more for meaning, purpose, anything. It came in bursts in unexpected places. There was the pounding of the pile-driving hammer on a construction project I was monitoring in Queens. With each hammer blow, the earth shook and my heart skipped a beat. I could still hear the sounds of the chickens at the neighboring live market—bodies expressing themselves until their very last moments. I knew in that split-second drop of the pile-driving hammer, their lives could end.
I hadn’t been able to do anything for those birds. I used to walk by quickly and look away, but I could no longer avert my gaze. Around that time, my new friend Rachel from Satya asked me to write a story about my experience with orphaned chimpanzees in Cameroon.
I wrote that story for my father because I shared his respect for animals and love of words. It was the first story I published, one he would never have a chance to read.
Satya came to me at a time of great loss. I felt lucky finding Satya and the community of activists it inspired when I did. It was a privilege to later work at the magazine, in what was in many ways my dream job. We profiled global and local activists and hosted debates and discussions over tactics and approaches. How does a small group of individuals create change? Every month, Satya tackled new topics: modern slavery, the use of children in combat, and the fate of our oceans. Some days, violence and injustice on the planet seemed limitless. We continued to open our minds and our hearts. Why put a quota on compassion?
Last year, my friend Lisa Freedman invited me as a guest to a writing class she taught related to food studies. Lisa began her class with a ritual—breathe, read, write. We started with a short meditation, followed by reading the poem by Mary Oliver called “Lead,” and then engaged in a free writing exercise in response.
“Here is a story to break your heart,” Oliver’s poem begins, “Are you willing?” Oliver tells a tragic tale of dying loons. She concludes with “I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.”
In preparing The Long View, Beth Gould and I revisited this poem often. Satya indeed had stories that broke many hearts. Singer/songwriter Nellie McKaye once referred to Satya as a “terrific little magazine full of depressing shit.” The aim though was to make people feel empowered and not defeated. Satya’s community—both real and imagined—were all willing to listen, to break their hearts wide open.
“The road to Mandalay is not a road but a river,” Professor Khin Ni Ni Thein, told me, as she drew the Irrawaddy River in her notebook. We were sitting in Feel Myanmar, an outdoor café located near the National Archives in Rangoon, where I had spent the afternoon retrieving historical records. NiNi, as she likes to be called, and I are both civil engineers focused on water issues, and we sat together with our notebooks open, sketching our respective water systems and water bodies.
The outdoor section of the restaurant was covered in a tarp, which was sagging due the weight of the afternoon rain. A waiter poked the plastic roof to direct the water to the sides of the tarp, where it cascaded down.
It was early June 2013, and the monsoon season had just begun. A monsoon is caused by a shift in wind. I came to Burma to better understand various shifts. It was in Burma that my grandfather, also a civil engineer, underwent a radical change and decided to quit his post with the British Public Works Department and become a satyagrahi in India. I came in part to research that time and moment.
But I was also interested in the major shifts occurring in Burma today. How does a country undo decades of fear and repression? I wanted to speak to NiNi about water. She grew up in Burma but studied abroad and worked internationally for over 25 years. She decided to return to her home country in 2011, when “The lady,” Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. NiNi came back to make sure water and environmental issues would not be excluded from the political and economic reforms that were initiated as the country transitioned away from military rule.
NiNi has hopes of bringing water governance to Burma. It used to be if you said the words research or environment, you’d get thrown in jail, she told me, but she now is carving out a role for these issues.
As she sketched the Irrawaddy River basin in her notebook, she told me that land erosion, illegal logging, gold mining and electro fishing are the major threats to this area, home to 24 million people. There are only 56 river dolphins left, all found in a small protected area along the river. NiNi is working to provide a voice to those in this basin. “All you need is understanding and participation,” she told me, for water governance to thrive.
On the table in front of us were various vegetable side dishes. I had learned the Burmese phrase thek that lut, to order vegan food. I assumed the translation meant something related to vegetables, so I always confirmed that food had no fish sauce or other animal ingredients. The response was always confusion, something like, “Of course not! It’s thek that lut!” I later learned that the actual translation is closer to “free from killing life.” It is linguistically perfect, capturing the ethics rather than the logistics of eating.
The following spring, NiNi introduced me to another beautiful phrase. She had come to New York for a United Nations meeting on water and the role of women. We shared another meal with our notebooks open, sketching.
There is a Buddhist phrase, she told me, called kalyanamitra. It means spiritual friend or coworker. How when two people meditate together and sit side by side, it is more productive than each of them doing it by themselves. We feel strength and support in knowing someone else is there with us on our journey.
NiNi is my own kalyanamitra grappling with issues of water, equity, animals and governance in Burma as I do the same in New York. Once introduced to this concept, I began to ponder it and see it everywhere.
Kalyanamitra is also my writing community—each of us engaged in the solitary act of writing, but not going at it alone. Kalyanamitra was with me on a recent bike tour led by Transportation Alternatives in my new borough of Queens. As a single rider, I am often nervous and afraid. But biking with this pack, we weaved in and out of busy streets as one big bus, even crossing formidable Woodhaven Boulevard—routes I would be too scared to bike alone—with a confidence I never experienced before. (Whose streets? Our streets!)
And of course, kalyanamitra brings me back to Satya. When Satya stopped publishing as a monthly magazine in 2007, we all mourned this loss, but as readers and contributors we carry what we’ve learned from Satya with us. All of us who are engaged in a struggle for a just and kinder world are supported by knowing there are others. We learn from each other and ride together.
Some of my most memorable moments working at Satya were the ones we spent proofing the layout right before the issue was sent to the printer. We’d munch on Brooklyn bagels with tofu cream cheese and see how all the individual pieces worked together as a whole. Several days later, the papers arrived.
Beth would come down the stairs of her Brooklyn home, where the office was then located, to let us know, “Ed’s here!” Our local distributor came with his van to drop off copies for mailings before he went to distribute the magazine at different spots in Manhattan. The entire Satya staff came out and relayed stacks of the magazine back into the office. Once they were all in, we all quickly rushed to grab a copy of the latest issue. We flipped through each page—fearful of finding any mistakes but also proud of what was in our hands. At that moment, Satya became something larger than any of our individual efforts, just as this special edition is now.
The Long View is the result of a slow process of reading and discussion, and is now in the world, eager to be read and discussed with care and deliberation. To our gentle readers, are you willing?
Sangamithra Iyer is the editor of The Long View and served as Assistant Editor of Satya from 2004-2007. She is the author of The Lines We Draw (Hen Press) and her writing has been published by n+1, Creative Nonfiction, Waging Nonviolence, Hippocampus and others. She received a Literature Travel Grant from the Jerome Foundation to travel to Burma. For more information visit www.sangamithraiyer.com.