In the first part of the interview series, we got to know the mountaineer, Kuntal Joisher, who summited Everest as the first Vegan. In part 2 let’s know about Kuntal Joisher, Vegan on how he started the journey towards veganism and how it changed his life.
Kuntal Joisher, a Vegan climber
Image Courtesy: Kuntal Joisher
A vegetarian is a person who would not eat meat and eggs etc, in addition to this a vegan is a person who completely abstains from food which is produced from animals like dairy products, or any by product. A vegan is also someone who will not only abstain from diet derived from animals, but will also be against the use of animal products like fur, leather etc in their day to day life. Being Vegan is a personal choice. It is a way of living where in you do not consider animals as commodity. Yet there are some Vegans who follow the vegan diet but wear animal products and those who do not are called ‘Ethical Vegans’. Veganism today is still a new and emerging way of lifestyle in India. But Veganism traces back its roots to Donald Watson who first coined the word ‘Vegan’ in the year 1994. In the same year he co-founded the first ever ‘Vegan Society’ in England. The society’s concept of Veganism first catered to abstinence from non-dairy products and later it evolved to the doctrine “that man should live without exploiting animals”.
The Vegan diet includes grains, beans, legumes, vegetables and fruits. Its really interesting to see how Kuntal Joisher, Vegan, survived on this kind of diet on Everest. While you are on Everest you need to a have diet which has variety of food. Let’s hear from Kuntal Joisher, Vegan himself about how he started the journey of transforming himself into a out and out vegan.
I was born in a Vegetarian family, and consequently raised a Vegetarian. However, I was a Vegetarian-by-religion, rather than Vegetarian-by-choice. I would not eat eggs if I had to eat them in a more direct form, such as an omelet, or boiled eggs etc. At the same time, if I had to eat a chocolate which had eggs as an ingredient, I would happily have it. I think this was a combination of convenience, taste, and above all apathy towards the animal rights cause. When he moved to Los Angeles and got to know about it It was not until I moved to Los Angeles in 2001 to pursue my further studies that I got exposed to Veganism. One of my room-mates at university was an ethical vegetarian, and he exposed me to the horrors of dairy and leather industry. This is for the first time I connected the dots that Milk is Meat, and to a certain extent far worse than Meat. The entire dairy industry is just a vicious cycle of some serious animal-cruelty. I could not reconcile my thoughts with my action. As a Vegetarian I always thought I was taking care of animal world. However once I realized the cruelty in my actions I quickly went Vegan. He donated all the Non Vegan stuff he had in Los Angeles
I pretty much stopped eating all non Vegan food. For the next few months my life was a bit of a struggle, however compared to the cruelty and killing of billions of animals every year, my struggle was not even struggle – it was just an adjustment phase. And the Journey Began I was able to get rid of some seriously shitty issues from my life. In next few years, I was able to get rid of homophobia, racism, sexism etc stuff from my life. Those introspection years were some of the most fruitful years of my life, and made me the person I am today, and it all started with taking a stand for Animals! The most important thing that happened to me was – “I was at complete ease with myself. I didn’t give a fuck what anyone else thought about me, I did what I loved and was passionate about, I stood up for what I believed in, my mind opened up to new ideas and new learning’s, and above all I became very positive about life, in general.”
So in short, that’s my Vegan story. It’s been close to 14 years (late 2002 is when I went Vegan) now that I’ve been a Vegan, and it has been an awesome journey, and standing on top of the world with a Vegan flag in hand was a great way to give back to this cause that changed my entire life.
My nutrition plan when I'm training is very simple – “Whole foods plant based”. Low fat, High carb. I love eating fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds and this diet has done wonders for me. I recover much quicker even when I do some of the most excruciating workouts. On the other side, everytime I eat unhealthy food such as deep fried stuff, or white refined flour, or white sugar, I've realized that my recovery becomes much slower. One's body tells it what it likes. And my body likes a whole foods vegan diet. Regarding my diet while I'm climbing - a lot depends on where I'm climbing. If it's the Himalaya, then most of the local food tends to be Vegetarian, and it's easier to Veganize. The food typically comprises of Vegetable stews / curries, fruits, lentils, soups, wheat bread/roti, rice, potatoes, pasta, noodles etc. So on my climbs in the Himalaya, I stick to eating the local cuisine. At the same time I do carry comfort food from home which tends to be trail mix of dried fruits and nuts, nutrition bars made out of dates and nuts, and a few local snacks even if they are unhealthy (after all on the mountain - calories are calories - you need them!). For the Everest climb, at Base camp I ate pretty much everything from Poha, Upma, Puri bhaji, Parathas, Vegan Tibetan bread, pancakes, dal-rice, vegan pasta and burgers, and my favourite dish, pav bhaji. Our awesome cooks Ngima Tamang and Anup Rai even baked us a Vegan cake! So truly speaking - I don't think I missed out on anything. Beyond Camp two I survived on mainly few things: Unived RRUNN gels, Outdoor Herbivore freeze dried meals, Oreo cookies, Dried Kiwi fruit pieces, and some Green tea flavored sugar water.
The concept of a Vegetarian India is a myth which is prevalent in the West. According to a recent study about 75% of India’s population is non Vegetarian. At the same time the population of India is 1.3 billion people. So India has roughly 300 million vegetarians, which I think makes India the largest Vegetarian country in the world. So in that sense yes India has a long tradition of Vegetarianism. Dairy and Dairy products are ingrained deeply into the daily of life of Indians - whether Vegetarians or Not. Even the followers of Jainism, a religion and philosophy based on Non violence, have no problems consuming dairy or dairy products inspite of knowing the enormous amount of cruelty involved. When I first told my friends and family about my Veganism, for majority of them they had never heard of the word Vegan. And when I moved back to India after 6 years of living in US it was a bit of struggle for first few years. For example, sometimes I would go for a dinner at a family member's place. They would happily feed me non Vegan food and say that it’s Vegan. Their reasoning was a little bit of dairy here and there should not be a problem. They didn’t understand my Veganism. Eventually over the years I was able to explain them why I am Vegan, and why it’s important for me. As a Vegan, I have never told anyone of them to become a Vegan, instead my idea is to do spectacular things and inspire them to ask me a question -- “What do you eat that you can pull off such feats?”.
Image Courtesy: Kuntal Joisher
Today Veganism as a movement is picking up across India. We have Vegan restaurants, soy milk and Tofu are readily available in grocery stores, Vegan cakes and ice creams are easily available, cosmetics and daily use products such as toothpaste, soaps, shampoos etc all have Vegan alternatives. The Vegan industry is growing and that is evident from the number of startups coming up related to Veganism. India is where United States was about 15-16 years ago, and just imagine if even 1% of India goes Vegan that is around 15 million people making conscious choices! That’s huge! As mentioned earlier today Soy milk is readily available in stores across India, however I make my own plant based milk at home. I have a Nut milk maker, and I make my own milk from Soy and Peanuts. I then use this milk to make curd and buttermilk out of it and sometimes even Shrikhand. So it's super easy to replace animal milk and curd with far healthier and nutritious plant milk and by products.
The delicious Shrikhand from Soy Milk
So this is how Kuntal became a Vegan. In the end it’s a way of living and a way of showing empathy towards animal cruelty. Next up in the series is an upclose account of the man himself, his love for Nepal and it’s Sherpas and many other things which make Kuntal the man he is.