Of Peas and War: Sajan Venniyoor

This is a Guest post by Sajan Venniyoor


“How you can sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can’t make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.” “Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs.” – Oscar Wilde, ‘The Importance of being Earnest’

When Vijay Patil (49) was detained by the Mumbai police for drinking tea in a suspicious manner, the accused moved the High Court challenging his detention and seeking damages. The Court expressed bewilderment at the arrest. Their Lordships Patel and Dharmadhikari – for whom I have only the greatest respect and admiration – observed with unbecoming levity,

“We were unaware that the law required anyone to give an explanation for having tea, whether in the morning, noon or night. One might take tea in a variety of ways, not all of them always elegant or delicate, some of them perhaps even noisy. But we know of no way to drink tea ‘suspiciously’.”

More worldly men than the Mumbai HC bench have known it is perfectly possible to drink tea in a suspicious manner. It was said of the poet Alexander Pope, as the Mumbai Police said of Mr. Vijay Patil, that he hardly drank tea without a stratagem.


The judicial put-down of Mumbai’s finest, who no doubt have encountered many a suspicious tea drinker in their time, was questionable. There is no innate virtue in tea. The regrettable Boston Tea Party was, as many historians have pointed out, primarily caused by tea. Gandhi was so influenced by the Boston Tea Party (he said so himself) that he attempted a repeat performance in Dandi where, in the absence of tea – he never drank the damned stuff – he made do with salt.


As PG Wodehouse’s Mr. Mulliner asked, thoughtfully sipping his hot Scotch and lemon.

“Why is there unrest in India? Because its inhabitants eat only an occasional handful of rice. The day when Mahatma Gandhi sits down to a good juicy steak and follows it up with roly-poly pudding and a spot of Stilton you will see the end of all this nonsense of Civil Disobedience.”

There is little doubt that Gandhi’s refusal to ingest animal proteins was at the root of civil disobedience and, as Mr. Mulliner observes, “Trouble, Disorder … in a word, Chaos”. A most ill-advised vegetarianism informed Gandhi’s formative years.

As that prolific historian, Ramachandra Guha, says in yet another book on Gandhi and India, vegetarianism made Gandhi what he was. Gandhi’s earliest struggles were not against Sex and the Empire, but against meat eating. As Guha points out, the very first articles in the monumental Collected Works of Gandhi are six rants in an obscure British publication called The Vegetarian, where the future Mahatma waxes eloquent on peas and haricot beans, pausing only take a side-swipe at alcohol (“that enemy of mankind, that curse of civilization”). And tea. This, mind you, at age 22 when similarly placed young men in London were experimenting with girls, drugs and the can-can.

As Guha observes regretfully, vegetarianism made Gandhi a writer, journalist, public speaker and all-round troublemaker. Taking the Indian shepherd as a random example of muscular vegetarianism, Gandhi notes that despite a frugal diet of cakes, rice, ghee, vegetables, pulses, and milk directly taken from the cow, “he’s a finely built man of Herculean constitution” and a match for any ordinary European with his sword. Still, says young Gandhi, “it must at the outset be admitted that the Hindus as a rule are notoriously weak”. Even that idyllic creature, the sturdy vegetarian shepherd, is enfeebled by child marriage, early sex and a paucity of baths, not to mention the ready willingness of the European to trade in his sword for a machine gun at the slightest provocation.

A fellow Gujarati has subsequently clarified that excessive dieting is the cause of malnourishment in his state. “Gujarat is by and large a vegetarian state,” Mr. Narendra Modi informed the Wall Street Journal last year,

“And secondly, Gujarat is also a middle-class state. The middle-class is more beauty conscious than health conscious – that is a challenge. If a mother tells her daughter to have milk, they’ll have a fight. She’ll tell her mother, “I won’t drink milk. I’ll get fat.”

To our more cynical readers, who might argue that the notoriously weak Hindoo acquitted himself pretty well in the riots of 2002, I once again quote that perceptive observer of human nature, Mr. Mulliner:

“Women, of course, are chiefly responsible. They go in for these slimming systems, their sunny natures become warped, and they work off the resultant venom on their men-folk. These, looking about them for someone they can take it out of, pick on the males of the neighbouring country, who themselves are spoiling for a fight because their own wives are on a diet, and before you know where you are war has broken out with all its attendant horrors.”

Their sunny natures become warped’. Science has long established the link between the lack (or the wrong kind) of food and violence. Yet, when Mr. Jitender Chhatar, khap panchayat leader of Jind’s Chhatar village stated that the consumption of chowmein was behind the growing incidents of rapes in Haryana, he was severely critiqued for offering a notionally scientific explanation with insufficient empirical evidence. “To my understanding, consumption of fast food contributes to such incidents,” observed Mr. Chhatar, no doubt after years of scientific observation in rural Haryana. “Chowmein leads to hormonal imbalance evoking an urge to indulge in such acts.”

He was roundly damned as an idiot.

Mr. Chhatar has since been vindicated by research conducted by nutritionist Nicolette Pace and others, who have identified the connection between anger and food. “Deficiencies in nutrients, magnesium or manganese, vitamin C, or some B vitamins may make a person hyperactive towards a stressor,” explains Prof. Pace, “A short fuse so to speak.” Pace and other nutritionists recommend that you eat plenty of fish, eggs, beans, fruits and green leafy vegetables.

“However, people who tend to eat a diet loaded with processed or packaged foods could find themselves more easily irritated”, a view strongly endorsed by Mr. Chhatar.

Gandhi’s preceptor, Henry Salt (Plea for Vegetarianism) has said that the logic of vegetarianism “is not chemical, but moral, social, hygienic”. In our time, a CBSE textbook for Class 6 students observed of non-vegetarians that “they easily cheat, tell lies, they forget promises, they are dishonest and tell bad words, steal, fight and turn to violence and commit sex crimes.” Without going into the morality of meats and veggies, let’s assume that the logic of nutrition is partly chemical. Imagine the condition of one whose diet is lacking in proteins, vitamins and essential micronutrients. U.S prison trials have shown that when young prisoners were fed multivitamins, minerals and fatty acids, the number of violent offences they committed in prison fell by 37%. Omega-3 fatty acids evidently have a better impact on human behavior than tougher laws and DAVP advertisements. (Or even the Food Security Act, which is based solely on carbohydrates. “Carbs can make you feel good, but it doesn’t last,” says Prof. Pace, the nutritionist).

When journalists visited the Dec 16 juvenile’s mother in her village in Uttar Pradesh, she said she had eaten half a roti with tea the previous day, and nothing since. The family’s BPL ration of wheat and rice is exhausted within a fortnight, she said, leaving them to struggle for a meal for the rest of the month.

Does poverty breed violence? Can a poor diet, or outright hunger, account for complex social problems?

“A dog starvd at his Masters Gate / Predicts the ruin of the State”, warned the poet. Many of us, secure in our gated colonies, object to the high cost of the Food Security Act. We should consider instead the cost of not having it, and of not thinking beyond wheat and rice. From vitamin deficiency to starvation, there is continuum of rage that we neglect at our own peril.

Gandhi understood the value of food in shaping human consciousness. And, despite his food fads and odd-ball notions about lentils, he placed the highest value on removing hunger: “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”

We have condemned entire generations of Indians to a life on the edge of starvation, with malnourishment as the norm. How, then, can we look upon our fellow citizen as he sips his road-side tea and, like the Mumbai policeman, not wonder? * * *

6 thoughts on “Of Peas and War: Sajan Venniyoor”

  1. Argument of pro and anti-vegans in “modern, urbanised, developing India ” is really a shame when every one out of eight Indian is starving for a meal a day. We think of extra burden due to Food Security Act and its economic consequences. But, not about the thousand starving fellow beings in our country. Think beyond this pro/anti vegetarianism, beyond wheat and rice and try to help our poverty stricken half million poor brothers and sisters!! At least, it is our responsibility or rather duty.

  2. This is a wonderfully well argued piece which begins, seductively by taking us into the wodehousian world — where unfortunately several ministers in our union cabinet continue to live — but then brings us down with a crunch and thud to the reality of hunger and deprivation, where most of India subsists. It kind of sums up an existential reality for several of us who drive to work in vehicles sealed against the elements, along super smooth expressways, but then run into a traffic intersection where the low-life surfaces. That is a dose of reality that even a retreat into the idyllic wodehousian world cannot guard you against.

  3. Delightfully written and addressing a range of issues around hunger and food. Wonderful piece!

  4. I like the article for its style! I remember the reply I got from someone when asked if he was a veg or a non-veg. He replied “both”!! Well, I am half-veg.I take 120 grams of fish every day. A nation-state has the duty and obligation to provide minimum nutritional requirements to its citizens, veg or non-veg, with tea and sympathy.

  5. Hmmm…what would an “Indian” Shepherd’s Pie taste like, one wonders? Copious amounts of paneer masquerading as meat would not quite cut it. Maybe they have a Gujarati version? Food for thought, Jefe.

    1. :-) Here’s chef Sanjeev Kapoor’s recipe for vegetarian shepherd’s pie: http://bit.ly/GGitvW.

      No paneer, but I doubt if the pastoralists of Kathiawar would have bothered with such refinements as mushrooms, shallots, corn niblets and extra virgin olive oil. Incidentally, Gandhi had an adult height of 5′ 4″, and he must have seen these shepherds of “commanding stature” when he was very young. I wonder if time and distance didn’t lend enchantment to Gandhi’s memory of tall, symmetrical shepherds. (Then again, herding sheep across the arid plains of western India is no job for the weak and wimpish).

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