One hundred and twenty years back this year a young Indian student arrived in London to be traumatised by his landlady. She didn’t mean to do this, but she had never had a strictly vegetarian boarder before Mohandas Gandhi arrived in London in October 1888. Breakfast was bearable with bread, butter, jam and porridge, but lunch and dinner could be gruesome. As Pyarelal notes in his mammoth biography: “Vegetarian cookery in those early days... was an infliction. Salads were practically unknown. Vegetables were boiled by lowering them, tied in handkerchief, into a cauldron of boiling water, the same water being used again and again for the purpose.” One option was to eat a lot of bread, perhaps with cheese, but the young Gandhi was too shy to ask for more than the few slices he was served with. Like any good Gujarati he had brought a stock of sweets and farsans — in an unpublished guide for Indian students he recommended taking gathias (chickpea flour chips) for the ship journey — but they were soon over. Gandhi’s salvation came in the form of the few vegetarian restaurants that had started to open in London around that time. The sight of the Central Restaurant in Farringdon Street filled him with joy and inside he had his first really hearty meal in Britain. (Geoffrey Ashe, the most happily imaginative of Gandhi’s biographers notes that one of these restaurants is mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes story The Red-Headed League, and imagines the great detective walking past as Gandhi was walking in). Even more importantly, he bought a pamphlet on sale inside, Henry Salt’s A Plea for Vegetarianism. Gandhi had been a vegetarian by tradition and because he had made a promise to his mother, and he had had to defend these reasons against the many people, both Indian and British, who told him he would have to eat meat to survive in Britain. But how through Salt’s pamphlet he discovered a rational basis for his choice, and a whole group of people who believed the way he did.
It is little surprise then that this rather lonely Indian boy became fascinated with vegetarianism as a cause and started reading their weekly newspaper The Vegetarian. He got in touch with the editor, Josiah Oldfield who befriended him and invited him to the Second International Vegetarian Congress held in London in 1890. The next year he was elected to the executive committee of the London Vegetarian Society, and he was writing articles and giving talks on Indian food. It helped that many vegetarians were radical thinkers who were not likely to be overtly racist. They embraced many progressive causes, like feminism, natural healing, abortion rights, homosexual rights, anti-vivisection, anti-imperialism, socialism and theosophy. There has been much debate recently, by writers like Kathryn Tidrick and Leela Gandhi, on the extent to which such thinking affected Gandhi. But much of this is speculative, and Gandhi was instinctively conservative, so it’s probably safest to say that through vegetarianism he got his first exposure to progressive thinking from which he would later, in South Africa (where he would describe himself as agent of the Vegetarian Society), take the aspects that suited him like anti-imperialism and naturopathy, and ignore the rest. Dr Ambedkar’s initial food experiences as a student were different. For him, in New York, it was liberation to be able to eat without all the humiliations he suffered as an Untouchable in India. “Meals at regular hours, eating on a table cloth and napkin! To him life at Columbia University was a revelation,” writes Dhananjay Keer in his biography. But his problem was poverty, dependent as he was on stingy grants, and this hurt during a later stint in London to finish his Ph.D.
He suffered from a landlady too, this time an evidently malign one who gave her boarders just minimum food of the worst kind. Years later Ambedkar would say that he was always praying for her soul, but she was possibly past redemption. Dinner would be just Bovril (beef tea) and biscuits, and to sustain himself in his all-night study sessions he was occasionally forced to make papads from a packet he’d been given, roasting them on a thin tin plate: “A cup of tea and four pieces of papad would partly appease the intensity of his hunger. Then again, the endless reading....” Whether through vegetarianism, poverty or landladies, the food experiences of Indian students abroad have rarely been good. In most accounts of studying abroad, the struggle to find decent food looms large. In perhaps the most famous case of all, the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, food problems probably helped hasten his early death. Ironically, his was the one case where, initially at least, because of his celebrity, efforts were made to get him food he could eat. Since Ramanujan refused to eat even vegetarian food made in the Trinity college kitchen, after a friend joked that the fried potatoes could have been cooked with lard, he was given ingredients which he cooked in his room. Friends who dropped in recall that he always seemed to be stirring vegetables in a saucepan. But this also ran into problems during World War I when German torpedoing of ships stopped supplies of Indian ingredients, or the fresh fruits he depended on. He switched to canned vegetables, cooking them in their cans, but there is speculation that this may have caused lead from the cans to leach into his food, slowly poisoning him. The sicker he became, the more obdurate he was about food, refusing even regular vegetarian food, and wanting only the South Indian food of his youth (Robert Kanigel, in his biography, The Man who Knew Infinity, writes that one of his favourite foods was his mother’s recipe of raw brinjals marinated in tamarind and masala. Raw brinjals? Are any readers familiar with a recipe like this?). Between sickness and semi-starvation, the tuberculosis that was already in him found it easy to take over, and soon it was too late to do more than let him go back to India to die. Living his last years in Chennai, one of the few things that gave him great pleasure was when someone got him rasam from the canteen of the college in Kumbakonam he had studied in 10 years before.
I thought of Ramanujan when I recently read about Thiru Kumar, a dosa vendor who had become famous for his stall outside New York University. Because this is the latest twist in saga of Indian student food saga, specifically in the US. After years of IIT students packing pressure cookers in their luggage, of suffering terrible tandoori and one-sauce-for-all-curries in generic ‘Indian’ restaurants, of driving across states for the one shop in a large city where Bombay bhel or Bengali sweets can be got, of, when all else fails, having to mix yoghurt and rice for impromptu thayirsadam, to be eaten with Mexican hot sauce, genuine Indian food is increasingly available for Indian students abroad. How it got there shows how academic environments can be a vector for the transmission of foods. It requires more than just enough Indian students — after all, they’ve hardly been in short supply in the past, and also their own food traditions would have been diverse. I also don't think it's happening with just any college, but in academic centres whether small university dominated towns like Austin, Texas or Madison, Wisconsin, or in large cities like New York or Chicago with more than one institution. This typically ensures a large enough population of the wives of academics (or not necessarily academics, in large cities) who have the free time to cook at home, as Mrs Sen does, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story of the same name. Sitting at home, nominally babysitting for an American boy, she cooks vast amounts of food to remind her of the home she has left and misses so much. Rather more enterprising wives put this desire to practical use, making dabbas or food to be sold as takeaway in local shops. They find a ready market in the Indian students, and increasingly the many cosmopolitan (and foodie) students who have enough experience not to want the generic restaurant Indian food. But the real springboard, as so often in the US, has been health fads. The move towards not just vegetarian, but newer obsessions like vegan, gluten and lactose free food which find fertile ground in academic lives. This has been a boon for Indian foods, more particularly South Indian with its use of rice instead of wheat and coconut milk instead of dairy milk. All these fit admirably into the latest food fads, and Thiru Kumar promotes his NYU stall for its vegan dosas. Academic eating is doing for regional Indian food what Indian restaurateurs found hard, and it makes one think of how easy things would be for a Gandhi or Ramanujan today. Easy or insulating, as the student, secure in his known food world of Indian food, would find no need, as Gandhi did, to explore a wider world through food?
6 months ago