The story of the Mahatma’s experiments with food

- By 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 a fixed time was a kind of self-purification for him.

It also meant that what one ate mattered, which was why Gandhi vowed not drink cow’s milk after he learned how they were ill-treated to produce it. But his body rebelled. Gandhi had few other source of protein — he was suspicious of pulses for forming gas — and needed dairy to survive. So, at Kasturba’s suggestion, he agreed to drink goat’s milk since he reasoned he was not thinking of goats when he made the vow. But Gandhi always felt guilty about such a hair-splitting reasoning — and procuring 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.

Courtesy: The Times of India, October 2, 2021.