The Story Of The Ma­hatma’s Ex­per­i­ments With Food

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - Times Special | [email protected] 150 - Vikram Doc­tor

In late 1888 a hun­gry young In­dian man could be found roam­ing the streets of Lon­don. Mo­han­das Gandhi was there to be­come a bar­ris­ter, but his more ur­gent need was to find food to eat. He had promised his mother never to eat non-veg­e­tar­ian food, but in his lodg­ings that meant a dreary diet of oat­meal por­ridge and bread.

Gandhi was search­ing for the few veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants in the city and fi­nally found the Cen­tral Veg­e­tar­ian Restau­rant quite close to Fleet Street. “The sight of it filled me with the same joy that a child feels on get­ting a thing af­ter its own heart,” he wrote in My Ex­per­i­ments with Truth. He en­tered and had his first proper meal in the UK.

Gandhi also bought a book at the restau­rant: Henry Salt’s A Plea for Veg­e­tar­i­an­ism. Salt was a pi­o­neer ad­vo­cate for an­i­mal rights and his book made a deep im­pres­sion on Gandhi. Veg­e­tar­i­an­ism in the UK then was not just about food, but brought to­gether many al­ter­nate causes, like fem­i­nism, na­ture ther­apy, sex­ual lib­er­a­tion, theos­o­phy, an­i­mal rights and, cru­cially for Gandhi, anti-colo­nial­ism.

Gandhi went to the restau­rants (there was an­other called The Por­ridge Bowl) to eat but started get­ting in­ter­ested in the ideas he found there. He made a friend in Dr Josiah Oldfield, the ed­i­tor of the jour­nal of the Lon­don Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety who en­cour­aged the shy young In­dian to meet peo­ple through veg­e­tar­i­an­ism — one was Sir Ed­win Arnold, the trans­la­tor of the Gita, which Gandhi had just started read­ing — and also to con­trib­ute his first pub­lished works, on In­dian veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, to the jour­nal.

An­other veg­e­tar­ian con­tact in Lon­don was the Gu­jarati writer Narayan Hem­chan­dra. He had ar­rived in the UK re­cently, but spoke no English and sought out Gandhi to help him com­mu­ni­cate — and find food. But when Gandhi of­fered him Western­ised food like car­rot soup Hem­chan­dra turned up his nose. He in­sisted he needed dal and “once he some­how hunted out moong, cooked it and brought it to my place. I ate it with de­light.” Hem­chan­dra was un­apolo­get­i­cally In­dian, even wear­ing a dhoti in the street, de­spite be­ing jeered at, and his self-con­fi­dence in his own iden­tity was to have a pro­found in­flu­ence on Gandhi.

Gandhi’s link with the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety con­tin­ued in South Africa. He be­came their agent to pro­mote veg­e­tar­i­an­ism there and, while con­verts were few, peo­ple were gen­er­ally in­ter­ested enough to hear the young In­dian talk pas­sion­ately the sub­ject, and this helped Gandhi over­come his shy­ness. And it was at a veg­e­tar­ian restau­rant in Jo­han­nes­burg that he met Henry Po­lak and Her­mann Kal­len­bach who would both be­come vi­tal early sup­port­ers of his work.

Look­ing back on those years, while writ­ing Satya­graha in South Africa in 1926, Gandhi wrote: “I have been fond for about the last 35 years of mak­ing ex­per­i­ments in di­etet­ics from the re­li­gious, eco­nomic and hy­gienic stand­points. This predilec­tion for food re­form still per­sists.” South Africa was where Gandhi started liv­ing in a com­mune, and for the rest of his life would live in a re­volv­ing com­mu­nity of peo­ple, many of whose di­ets he su­per­vised in an ex­tended ex­per­i­ment on eat­ing.

It is star­tling how much food fea­tures in Gandhi’s col­lected works. He can be writ­ing to the Viceroy or Congress politi­cians, and the next let­ters might be in­struc­tions to a fol­lower on what to eat, re­quests to pro­cure the fruit and leafy greens that formed a large part of his diet or sug­ges­tions on how to pro­mote vil­lage foods, like oil crushed in tra­di­tional gha­nis. Gandhi was keenly in­ter­ested in British at­tempts to im­prove In­dian agri­cul­ture and also cor­re­sponded with Dr Robert McCar­ri­son, Direc­tor of Nu­tri­tional Re­search in In­dia who was do­ing pi­o­neer­ing work on nu­tri­tional de­fi­cien­cies in di­ets.

Vis­i­tors of­ten ended up talk­ing about food, like Parama­hansa Yo­gananda, au­thor of Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of a Yogi, who rec­om­mended av­o­ca­dos to Gandhi (and sent him seedlings from Cal­i­for­nia, but they all died on the way). All this in­ter­est was strictly on food as fuel for a healthy body, and most vis­i­tors also noted how dire the food served in Gandhi’s ashrams tasted. One of the few to say this was his grand-daugh­ter Ela who once told him in ex­as­per­a­tion that Se­va­gram should be called Kadugram since all they seemed to eat was pump­kins. Gandhi laughed and gave in­struc­tions for dif­fer­ent veg­eta­bles to be cooked.

This fas­ci­na­tion with food might make it seem odd that Gandhi is fa­mous for his ex­tended fasts. But these ex­tended pe­ri­ods of food de­nial are ex­ten­sions of his ba­sic in­ter­est in feed­ing. Gandhi knew that food, like cloth­ing, was one of the few essen­tials for humans and that gave any­thing to do with it power. Wil­fully re­fus­ing to eat af­firmed that power, and even just fast­ing for cur­ing lac­tat­ing goats wher­ever he went would be­come a ma­jor headache for his as­sis­tants like Mirabehn.

To­day, Gandhi would be ve­gan. He in­quired about the po­ten­tial for plant-based milks and soy pro­teins, but these were not widely de­vel­oped in In­dia at that time. Sev­eral times in his life he tried raw food di­ets and tried other foods like caf­feine-free tea made from roasted wheat or wheat-free bread made from banana flour that are pop­u­lar diet op­tions to­day. But Gandhi also had a larger per­spec­tive on di­ets that might be worth re­call­ing for those who might as food fo­cused as he was.

Gandhi spelled this out in a speech he gave in 1931 when he was back in Lon­don for the Se­cond Round Ta­ble Meet­ing. He was given a re­cep­tion by Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety, where his jour­ney had be­gun, and he sat on stage next to Henry Salt, whose book had pro­vided a cat­a­lyst. It was a mo­ment to savour yet he used it to rec­om­mend his veg­e­tar­ian friends re­mem­ber the value of hu­mil­ity. In his ex­pe­ri­ence, he said, “I found also that health was by no means the mo­nop­oly of veg­e­tar­i­ans… and that non­veg­e­tar­i­ans were able to show, gen­er­ally speak­ing, good health.”

Gandhi re­called de­bates from his early days at the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety where peo­ple ar­gued fu­ri­ously, even di­vi­sively, for the ben­e­fit of one diet ver­sus an­other. He felt this was a prob­lem since one didn’t nec­es­sar­ily be­come a bet­ter per­son be­cause of what one ate. Be­liev­ing some­one was in­fe­rior for eat­ing meat was wrong — and also a tac­ti­cal mis­take since it would made it harder to con­vince them to be­come veg­e­tar­ian some­day. Gandhi felt what was needed with food was both mind­ful­ness and mod­er­a­tion, which is a mes­sage that is still rel­e­vant to­day.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.