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Boiled spinach, stewed fruit, haricot soup — Gandhi’s experiments with vegetarianism

In ‘Restless as Mercury’, Gopalkrishna Gandhi reconstructs Gandhi’s own words about the struggles, experiences, and philosophies that influenced his younger self.

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I came in contact with those who were regarded as pillars of vegetarianism and began my own experiments in dietetics. I stopped taking the sweets and condiments I had got from home. The mind having taken a different turn, the fondness for condiments wore away, and the boiled spinach that in Richmond I had found tasteless, I now relished, cooked without condiments. Many such experiments taught me that the real seat of taste was not the tongue but the mind.

Brighton is a seaside resort I visited. I was told that there was a vegetarian restaurant in Brighton. On reaching Brighton, it was after some difficulty that I could get a good room. The landladies could not be persuaded to believe that the room would not be spoiled by my cooking in my room. One of them said: ‘No, I cannot give the room even for 20 shillings. The whole carpet would be spoiled by stain of grease and no one else after you leave would take my room.’ I however assured her that her ideas were associated with mutton and that by allowing me to cook, her room would not be spoiled as I simply wanted to prepare porridge or boil the milk and I told her also that, if her carpet was spoiled, I would pay for the spoiling. She after some hesitation accepted my proposal and I took her room for 8 shillings per week. After leaving my luggage in the room, I went out in search of a vegetarian restaurant. I could not find it. And I thought my experiment would fail.

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This gloomy outlook was rendered gloomier still when I found that no restaurant-keeper would arrange to provide me a dinner consisting of vegetable soup, and bread and butter for one shilling. All thought they could not undergo the bother for one man. I thought the task was hopeless and that I would be obliged to pay 2 or 3 shillings merely for a dinner. I was quite tired by this time and very hungry, but I did not give up. I knew that I was to take rest and was not to read much during my stay in Brighton. So I said to myself that if I should cook two meals, why not cook three? As soon as the idea flashed in my mind, I caught hold of it, went to a grocer and bought the necessary things and went to my place. On reaching the house, I told the landlady that, although the arrangement was to allow me to cook only two meals, I would have to cook three. She was angry and would have driven me out of the house, had I not offered to raise the rent from 8 to 10 shillings. I then set about to work. The first evening I prepared porridge and stewed fruit and I liked it very much. The next morning I had the same. For dinner I had haricot soup which proved to be very nourishing and nice. I thus arranged my meals for the [four] weeks. For breakfast I had bread and milk and stewed fruit and bread and butter (3 d), for dinner I had soup (11/2), strawberries (2 d) and bread (1d). For supper I had porridge (1 1/2 ), bread and butter and fruit (2). Thus I spent only 11d or 1 shilling per day at the most for food in Brighton. With the 10s rent, 3 shillings for washing, the whole expenses for board and lodging for four weeks amounted to £3-10-0. And it cost me £4-8-5 for fares to and from Brighton.

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Thus I was able for four pounds to go to live for four weeks in and return from Brighton. I found out during the last week of my stay in Brighton that there was a vegetarian home where I could have got board and lodging for 14s per week. The house is situated near the Preston Park. The weekly rent was 5s, breakfast 4d, dinner 9d, and supper 4d. Had I found the house a little earlier, I could have lived in Brighton yet more cheaply and more comfortably; but I would not have learnt how to cook with facility.

But there is one experience from Brighton that needs to be set down.

In a restaurant in Brighton, I was struggling with the menu card that was in French. A kindly lady, who I found later was a London- based widow, took pity on me and helped me out with the search for things I could eat. We got talking and she invited me to visit her in London every Sunday for a vegetarian meal. I took up the kindly offer only to find that the good lady had got into her head that I could do with some appropriate female company. There was a lady who lodged with her and I was introduced to her and I must say over a few visits I began to enjoy the company and conversation.

Now, it is to be noted that Indian students coming to England to study are often married men. Mostly, these Indian students, out of shyness but perhaps also out of opportunism, conceal the fact of their being married. If they do not, how are they going to get the pleasing chance of female company?

I thought about my situation with the old lady and her friend. And though I had established very comely relations with them, I decided to write to the lady the factual situation and to say that, with this knowledge, if she wished to cut me out of her consideration, I would understand. Prompt came a letter from her saying she and her friend had had a hearty laugh over the matter and that the revelation had made no difference to their warm feelings for me and that I was expected the next Sunday to their place when they would want me to tell them more about my child marriage and that as to our friendship, as far as they were concerned, remained as strong as ever.

Also read: Here’s how Indian films of the 1930s and 1940s used Gandhi in their ads

Thus did the poison of untruth in me get purged and after that I never hesitated to speak about my marriage, being a father, and so on, to anyone.

In 1890, there was a Vegetarian Conference at Portsmouth to which an Indian friend* and I were invited. Portsmouth, a seaport, has many houses with women not exactly prostitutes but, at the same time, not very scrupulous about morals. We were put up in one of these houses. After dinner we sat down to play a rubber of bridge, in which our landlady joined. Every player indulges in innocent jokes as a matter of course but here my companion and our hostess began to make indecent ones as well. It captured me and I also joined in. Just as I was about to go beyond the limit, leaving the cards and the games to themselves, my good companion uttered the warning, ‘Whence this devil in you, my boy? Be off, quick!’ I fled from the scene. To my room I went quaking and trembling and with beating heart like a quarry escaped from the pursuer. I recall this as the first occasion in which a woman, other than my wife, moved me to lust.
I did not then know the essence of religion or of God.

‘Why not accept Christianity?’ Dr Josiah Oldfield† once asked me. ‘I would not care to study Christianity,’ I said, ‘without having studied my own religion first.’

During the last nine months of my stay in England I enjoyed the best of health. I used to walk about 8 miles every day and in all I had three walks daily, one in the evening at 5.30 p.m. for an hour and the other for 30 or 45 minutes before going to bed. I never suffered from ill-health except once when I suffered from bronchitis. I got rid of it without having to take any medicine. The good health I enjoyed in England is attributable only to vegetable diet and exercise in the open air. Even the coldest weather or the densest fog did not prevent me from having my usual walks. And under the advice of Dr Allinson, the champion of open air, I used to keep my bedroom windows open about 4 inches in all weathers.

And when there were only 5 months left for the final examination, I had to work very hard if not the hardest.

I passed my examination*, was called to the Bar on 10 June 1891, and enrolled in the High Court on the 11th. On the 12th I sailed for home.

Who, I have been asked, should go to England?

All, I have said, who can afford should go to England. Next to India, I would rather live in London than in any other place in the world.

This excerpt from Restless as Mercury: My Life As a Young Man has been published with special permission from Aleph Book Company.

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  1. Not sure what the point of this article is.

    However I will use this platform to ask the author few questions

    1. Why did m k Gandhi discriminate between blacks, Indians and whites
    2. Why did m k Gandhi support establishment of caliphate in India by mawali maskins
    3. Why did m k Gandhi condone the mooplah genocide
    4. Why did m k Gandhi stand shoulder to shoulder with murderer of shradhanand
    5. Why did m k Gandhi condone the direct action resulting in loss of Hindu lives
    6. Will it fair to put the blood of 2 million Indians on m k Gandhi as a result of partition.

    Actions and decisions of m k Gandhi has resulted in net loss of lives, home, dignity of Indians.

    Unfortunately we don’t question m k Gandhi and his deplorable actions and decisions nor do we dissect let alone mention in passing.

    Obviously he is bigger than Ram and Sita.

    With history in hindsight and witness he is just one of the leaders of Indian independence but surely not bapu. A bapu would have protected lives of his children not give his children as a fodder to jihadi wahabi tribal fundamentalism.

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