NEW DELHI — What is fun, tasty, resembles Pope John Paul II's balding pate and won't cause boils no matter what the legend says? An egg, say those who want India's millions of vegetarians to eat more of them.
"You can call it a crusade, a sort of holy war against the vegetarian Indian tradition of not eating eggs," said Surinder Singh Rekhi, local chairman of the National Egg Coordination Committee.
The committee presents puppet shows in remote villages, depicting tales from Hindu mythology while a singer extols the virtues of eggs.
"Eggs! Eggs for taste! Eggs for fun! Eggs are good for everyone!" goes a merry jingle heard by millions of Indians over the radio every day.
'A Good Egg'
In a recent issue of the committee's journal was a photograph of John Paul, showing him without his skullcap during his 1986 visit to India. "Pope's pate is a good egg," the caption said.
At the root of much Indian resistance to eating eggs is a belief among traditional Hindus that an egg is a living being and a "sort of flesh."
Among other common beliefs: Eating eggs causes pimples, boils and jaundice, and increases the sex drive to a dangerous level, especially in hot weather.
Hoping to change the image, members of the committee have chased after marathon runners with baskets of hard-boiled eggs and carried them as gifts to such varied sites as swimming pools, remote villages, schools and vegetarian homes.
Carrot and Stick
"Some places we get the carrot, some places we get the stick," said Rekhi, a former engineer with an American oil company who now is a full-time poultry farmer.
A group of vegetarians sued the committee for claiming that eggs were vegetarian. The committee argued that eating eggs does not violate Hindu religious beliefs, and the case was thrown out of court.
The committee, to which 15,000 poultry farmers belong, spends about $140,000 a year advertising its product.
India is the world's fifth-largest producer of eggs, outranked only by China, the Soviet Union, United States and Japan. The committee and government say the poultry industry, which provides 1 million jobs, has great potential if more of India's 780 million people can be persuaded to eat eggs.
Low Price and Demand
Prices are low because demand seldom exceeds the supply of 15.9 billion eggs produced in this country every year. A dozen eggs sell for about 46 cents in New Delhi, less than half the price in New York.
"It is a hard battle, but worth fighting," said Ramesh Thapar, managing editor of Poultry Reporter, New Delhi's only egg magazine. "One day when more and more Indians turn to eggs, the egg producers can make solid profit."
Rekhi is a Sikh, and members of the sect generally eat eggs.
To counter the arguments that eggs are alive and that they play fast and loose with the libido, "we are telling people that nowadays 99% of the eggs are non-fertile," he said.
"They are what we call mechanical eggs," he said. "I have 80,000 birds, but not a single male bird."
Tough to Crack
Resistance from vegetarians also is tough to crack.
"All this talk about egg being vegetarian is just a trick," said Rita Mohan, a New Delhi housewife. "I am not going to fall into it."
Customers boycotted a Bombay grocer who stocked eggs, in the belief that other food in the store was being contaminated, the egg committee reported. The grocer soon got rid of the eggs.