Our correspondent’s experiment with the Gandhian menu
Lhendup G Bhutia | 27 Sep, 2019
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
THE ITEMS ON MY BREAKFAST LINE themselves neatly on a bare wooden table. At the extreme left, in a small steel bowl, lie grains of uncooked rice and raw green peas; next, in another bowl, a smattering of shrivelled raisins over precisely 20 fat almond nuts. There is a mug of hot chocolate next, and beside it, at the end of the line of my meal, two small bananas that curl like two incomplete pairs of brackets.
Over 125 years ago, on August 22nd, 1893, to be precise, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, not yet 24 and just a couple of months into South Africa, sat before an uncooked meal not unlike this. He wrote in his diary, later reproduced in an article for The Vegetarian (a publication of the London Vegetarian Society, of which he had once been a part), ‘Began the vital food experiment… Had two tablespoons of wheat, one of peas, one of rice, two of sultanas, about twenty small nuts, two oranges, and a cup of cocoa for breakfast.’
What he calls vital foods are really raw foods. Meals where nothing has been cooked (or as Gandhi would describe, ‘not touched by fire’ except for water) and as a result, as its champions would like us to believe, have lost none of their nutritional values.
I have however made a few adjustments to that meal. Not having been able to bring myself to consume uncooked wheat, I have instead increased the amount of peas (two tablespoons or, when I look closer, 15 of them) and rice (two tablespoonfuls, still such a small amount that I’m certain I can, if I wish, count each grain); translated the unspecified term ‘nuts’ as almonds, a favourite of his; and replaced oranges with another favourite, bananas. To soften the toughness of the peas and more specifically rice, like Gandhi, I have soaked them overnight in water.
I draw my chair now to the table and observe my meal with suspicion. The only thing reassuring here is the cup of chocolate that blows a familiar gentle vapour on my face. The Gandhi of 1893 hadn’t yet—gratefully—banished all forms of chocolate, seeing, as he once told an acquaintance, ‘death in chocolates’ for being products of slave labour. I take my eyes off the food now and take comfort in how he had described the immediate aftermaths of such a breakfast in his diary: ‘Was very bright in the morning’. I ignore the rest of that very line: ‘depression came on in the evening, with a slight headache’. Across me, the window is beginning to come alive with the brightness of a warm day.
The raisins, almonds and bananas go down with no trouble. The peas provide a little discomfort. But the rice, even though damp, has lost little of its hardness. My molars work like pestles on them. The grains disintegrate, crumble and fill my mouth with a sandy quality. Each gulp—always with a lot of coercion—fills my throat with a kind of lumpy quality.
Gandhi, a great proponent of what he called ‘thorough mastication’, took 45 minutes to get through what in reality is actually a very small meal. Thirty minutes have passed in my case, and I have managed to finish everything, except for the rice.
Most have viewed Gandhi’s obsession with food as an eccentricity or fetish. But, some argue, his dietary philosophy stands at the core of his being, through whose lens one can understand him and his politics. The first satyagraha may not have taken place at Champaran in 1917. It might have played out earlier (and continued for the rest of his life) on his body
For the rest of the day, even though I have consumed only half my quota of rice, that lumpy quality, something between nausea and a grainy heaviness, remains lodged in my throat. I would never try anything like this again, I promise.
In comparison, Gandhi, even though he wrote in his diary that the raw food ‘does not seem to agree well’, soldiered on. He survived on such a diet for a total of 12 days. He would try this experiment again later in life, going for months without cooking his food.
His attempts with raw food were not his only experiments in the kitchen. Gandhi was obsessed with food. He was constantly tweaking his diet, figuring out what he should (or rather should not) eat, how much and in what way. His meals were, of course, very simple. But even in its simplicity, he would go to great extremes from consuming only raw meals to going on salt-free diets, banishing sugar and sweets, chocolates and dairy products. At some point, unlike most vegetarians who stress on consuming a wide variety of vegetables, he would consume meals from any five ingredients on a single day. Whenever he failed, he would be racked with guilt.
Many found his ideas around food to be eccentric, while some like BR Ambedkar called it the ‘argument of a mad man’. Others have wondered if he suffered from an eating disorder. Could the Mahatma have been suffering from anorexia, although his obsession with dietary restriction did not extend to an obsessive concern with weight and body image issues, the other hallmarks of anorexia?
GANDHI’S FOOD HABITS WERE DRIVEN not just by concerns for animal and plant life, how it affected other humans, religious beliefs, the latest scientific findings on nutrition, but also by bizarre ideas such as the need to cut out items that he believed threatened his vow of celibacy. He liked the idea of raw meals because it was so simple and could free women from ‘the prison-house of kitchen’. He wanted to cut out salt and sugar because he believed they fuelled bodily passions. He renounced milk and dairy products because he believed, again, that they aroused similar passions and deprived another creature of its food. After a persistent illness though, he began to consume goat’s milk calling this failure the ‘greatest tragedy of his life’. He saw, concerned about the ethics of eating roots, ‘souls in these pieces of ginger’. He also came up with something of an ethical scale, where—recognising that consuming fruit and vegetables also involved some kind of violence—eating wheat (‘since every grain… will yield a plant’) was more violent than eating dates (since the ‘part of the date fruit which we eat will not grow if planted’). His ideas about how much one should eat were also severe. ‘Food was to be eaten to satiate hunger,’ he once wrote. ‘Anything more than that was stolen food.’ At one point, he described what he thought of the act of eating by saying, ‘Taking food is as dirty an act as answering the call of nature. The only difference is that after answering the call of nature we get peace while after eating food we get discomfort.’
Gandhi also could not stop talking about food. He wrote about his experiments in his diaries and books, articles and correspondence. He would often also wade into the burning nutritional topics of the day. Was white bread (a recent invention then) good? Was rice inferior to wheat nutritionally, making wheat-eating communities, like north Indians, more martial than rice-eaters in Bengal and south India?
So far, unlike other aspects of his life, his obsession with food has attracted less attention. Most have viewed it as an eccentricity or fetish. But increasingly now, this is beginning to change. In fact, some argue that his dietary philosophy stands at the core of his being, through whose lens one can understand him and his politics.
The first satyagraha may not have taken place at Champaran in 1917. It might have played out earlier (and continued for the rest of his life) on his body.
According to the historian and food critic Pushpesh Pant, who is writing what he calls a culinary biography of Gandhi, My Dinner With Gandhi (expected in January 2020 from Roli Books), early in his life, Gandhi had set the goal to encounter God. Everything in his life—even his food experiments—was geared towards achieving that end. ‘Abstinence is the common theme, both in culinary and sexual realms. Gandhi’s life and work remind us that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,’ he writes in an early excerpt shared from the book’s manuscript. ‘Superficially, it may appear that there are contradictions but at a deeper level there is always an effort at assimilation and synthesis.’
The idea of such a culinary biography came to Pant last year, when he was asked to curate a Gandhi-inspired meal at the Asian Heritage Foundation on Gandhi’s birth anniversary. Such a meal would have appeared daunting, since Gandhi’s meals were known more for their austerity than taste. But Pant’s dishes (available online) didn’t attempt to stick to Gandhi’s extreme ideas, tracing instead the different stages in his life, from the dal dhokli of his childhood years in Gujarat to a shikanji made primarily of two ingredients (one from Bihar, where he had held his famous Champaran satyagraha and the other from West Bengal, where he had held his last fast).
Gandhi’s ideas around food evolved over time. And Pant’s book, conceived in the form of interrelated essays, somewhat traces that journey. It moves from the early part of his life in Rajkot, England and South Africa, where some of his culinary ideas began to crystallise, then to his incorporation of coarse grains, the giving up of sugar and salt and the gradual movement to uncooked or minimally cooked vegetables as he goes on his discovery of India in a year-long train journey, and finally to the period when he truly became the Mahatma, establishing ashrams and generating a large following.
Gandhi, a great proponent of what he called ‘thorough mastication’, took 45 minutes to get through what in reality is actually a very small meal. Thirty minutes have passed in my case, and I have managed to finish everything, except for the rice
Gandhi was born into a vegetarian family. But, as Pant points out, under the influence of an older boy, Gandhi began to consume meat in his teenage years. He also broke other taboos, such as smoking, and even accompanied his older friend to a brothel.
Gandhi was miserable when he moved to London. Having promised his mother to stay away from ‘wine, women and meat’ (he made this vow, it is said, in front of a Jain priest), he lived off bread and bland vegetables. His misery ended when he became part of the London Vegetarian Society, a radical group of activist English vegetarians. This encounter with vegetarians also led to another significant development in Gandhi’s personality. ‘Gandhi arrived in London a painfully shy young man, terrified of speaking in public,’ the historian Nico Slate writes in Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind, ‘and left a committed activist, with new confidence as a writer and a public speaker.’
This book (published earlier this year) by Slate, a professor of history at the Carnegie Mellon University in the US, argues that food played a far more central role in Gandhi’s life than it has so far been credited with. “When you talk of Gandhi, you cannot distinguish between food and politics. Food was politics for him,” Slate says over the phone. His diet, he explains, wasn’t just a product of his politics. It could have been the other way round, his ideas around food, from non-violence to humility and tolerance, shaping and clarifying his political ideas. “The idea of Swaraj was not just about politics. It was a form of self-rule and self-control,” Slate says, and this control, he explains, extended to one’s body and diet. Gandhi’s idea of Swadeshi, he says, also extended to an embrace of local food and a rejection of processed food. Slate points to Gandhi’s rejection of vegetable ghee. “You would think Gandhi would be happy with vegetable ghee given his desire to find a vegan alternative to anything made from cow’s milk. But Gandhi completely rejects that,” he says.
Slate originally conceived of his book as a series of practical insights gleamed from Gandhi’s approach to food. But he realised, he says, that would be wrong. ‘The more I studied Gandhi’s relationship to food, the more I realized my approach to that relationship was fundamentally wrong,’ he writes in the book. ‘I was probing a man’s life for lessons about what to eat, rather than studying what he ate for lessons about how to live…. If I ignored the social, the political, and the religious, I would obscure all that was most essential to Gandhi’s life with food.’
Despite his militant opposition to anything sweet or his philosophy against seeking any pleasure in food, one fruit in particular troubled Gandhi—the mango. He loved the fruit. And although he once called it a ‘cursed fruit’ which must not be treated ‘with so much affection’, he often succumbed to it
Gandhi ate, he says, with the world in mind. ‘His dietary transgressions inspired Gandhi to challenge other limitations in his thinking and his life. As he became a more expansive eater, he also became a more thoughtful and compassionate human being and a more effective advocate for justice. His diet fueled his purpose and his power,’ Slate writes. Food, he suggests, helped turn a man into a mahatma.
BUT WHILE GANDHI DID NOT LET HIS ideas on food come in the way of his acceptance of others—willing to accept non-vegetarians, or the fact that unlike him, others required items such as salt and milk for nourishment—he could be very harsh towards his family.
Slate points out how in South Africa when his wife Kasturba became gravely ill and was hospitalised and a doctor secretly had her consume a beef broth, Gandhi grew livid and, removing her from the hospital, claimed, “I would never allow my wife to be given meat or beef, even if the denial meant her death, unless of course she desired to take it.” In another instance, when one of Gandhi’s sons, then 10 years old, came down with typhoid and pneumonia and was suggested to consume eggs and chicken broth, Gandhi not only rejected that solution, he gave the boy cold baths and fed him orange juice mixed with water for three days. The fever persisted and the boy became delirious, but Gandhi remained firm.
I ask Slate how Gandhi viewed food. Did he take any pleasure in food? Or was food something entirely utilitarian for him, an unavoidable means to an end? “Gandhi is not very consistent in rejecting flavour,” Slate says. “Not eating for pleasure—this does seem important to him. But in later years, it does appear that he takes joy in some flavour, like how delicious fruit can be.”
Despite his militant opposition to anything sweet or his philosophy against seeking any pleasure in food, one fruit in particular troubled Gandhi—the mango. He loved the fruit. And although he once called it a ‘cursed fruit’ which must not be treated ‘with so much affection’, he often succumbed to it.
Towards the end of his book, Slate shares some of the correspondence between Gandhi and the activist, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, in 1920. The two, both by then married to different partners, were rumoured to be in love with each other, although neither acted upon it. In one letter, Gandhi writes, ‘R. came in this morning. He brought some luscious mangoes. I fretted to find that you were not here to share them.’ In another, he talks about sharing a sunrise with her. Using these instances—pining to share a sunrise or a case of mangoes—Slate points out that there is tension inherent in Gandhi’s struggle with desire. But ‘by attending to his longing, Gandhi found pleasure in desire itself.’
Many of Gandhi’s goals with his experiments with food were indeed noble. But his attention always appeared to be turned inward, away from the larger goals he proclaimed as the purpose of his diet. Slate ponders about that too. ‘[W]as it the food he savored, or the act of self-control?’ he writes.
At home, my little satyagraha at the breakfast table has failed. For the rest of the day, that strange grainy lumpiness continues to draw my attention. I first look for Gandhian solutions: drinking water, then sipping almond milk (Gandhi, who spent a lifetime trying to find a vegan alternative to milk, would no doubt appreciate this, although he would be less pleased that it came out of a packet); and then, breaking all Gandhian food principles, hogging a large cooked lunch filled with meat and spice. My condition, however, doesn’t improve.