“Oh my God, Tagore was definitely a tyrant,” said my friend Mitun in amused response to my reading out a passage to her about Rabindranath Tagore and his relationship with food. To put it in context, I was fantasising out loud on what I would have cooked for the Nobel Laureate had he been alive on his 155th birthday that, if you were to go by the Bengali calendar, falls on the 25th day of Baisakh, or May 9 this year.
The word ‘tyrant’ made me sit up and think. Lately, there have been some efforts at discovering the foodie in Tagore with restaurants offering menus that include his favourite dishes. Interestingly enough, Rabindra Jayanti, or the celebration of Tagore’s birth anniversary is perhaps the only festival in Bengal where food has never been the Bengali’s primary focus – rather, there is much food for thought. Was it really possible to get a definite fix on the tastes of a multifaceted genius whose mind and imagination knew no bounds? Where would I start?
Neem-leaf Juice & Castor Oil
Let’s start with the anecdote that elicited that remark from my friend. It is well-known that Tagore did not enjoy staying in the same house for extended periods of time (he built several cottages in Santiniketan) and shifted residence frequently. Similarly, he did not enjoy the same foods for too long. His rather peculiar, bordering on the eccentric, tastes often threw the household into a state of panic. He would move from believing hobishyanna or plain boiled rice and vegetables cooked in a clay vessel and essentially mourning food, to be the best for hot climates to making a meal out of multiple raw eggs flavoured with just salt and pepper for both lunch and dinner.
Things got worse for the family because he insisted on sharing his food with whoever was present during his meal times. And there indeed was worse to follow. A gentleman visiting Santiniketan from Sewagram happened to mention that garlic was very good for the constitution. Done! Garlic paste vadas it was, deep-fried in oil for both meals. Then there was a phase when he decided that the healthiest food was raw vegetables, and it was anyway a waste of time cooking 15 different dishes. How could he eat potatoes, pumpkin, gourds et al raw, asked the shocked family. He could. That then was his meal with a twist of lime.
Slowly the crowd of affectionate and swooning disciples and family members around his table began to thin. Till one day there were none. That was the day he decided that a tall glass of unadulterated neem leaf juice and parathas fried in castor oil were the best for the body, mind and soul!
In short, Tagore was a spare eater, barely eating a few spoonfuls at each meal. This is not to say that he expected a sparse table. He liked his food laid out in style on a marble thaali, the various dishes arranged neatly around it in marble bowls. He would then examine each bowl, and if one of his dining companions happened to like it, it would be instantly despatched to him or her. One by one the bowls would disappear, till he was left with just a couple for himself. What I gather from here is that while he was interested in food and in sharing it with one and all, he wasn’t really interested in the eating part.
Can Luchis be Fried in Water?
His curiosity about food stemmed from the rather eclectic tastes the Tagore family had, and the creativity of the extremely talented Tagore women that has been game-changing for Bengal’s culinary repertoire. For instance, till late in life, Tagore never tired of repeating an anecdote about his eldest brother Dwijendranath Tagore. Bor-dada, as he was referred to, often pleaded with his daughter-in-law Hemlata to see if the famed Bengal luchi could be fried in water. Why not, Bor-dada would ask, if it could be fried in ghee, why not water?
So it’s not surprising that when Tagore set up the Khamkheyali Sabha (Assembly of the Whimsical) in 1896 with like-minded members such as poet and humourist D L Roy, classical vocalist Radhikanath Goswami, Jagadindranath, the Maharaja of Natore, scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, author Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and others, food was an important part of the gatherings. He would tell his wife Mrinalini Debi that nothing that was served at the Sabha could be the usual or humdrum. It all had to have character.
Mrinalini never disappointed him even when he made preposterous demands. Later, after her death, when people would tell him what a good cook she was, he would smile and say, “Of course she was. If not, how do you think she ever executed my menus?” Perhaps it’s through such high expectations that innovative Tagore dishes such as Jackfruit Yogurt Fish Curry, which had no fish in it, Mutton cooked with Mustard Paste, Parwal and Prawn raita, Cauliflower Sandesh, Jimmikand Jalebi and Dahi Malpua were born.
Eat, Coat, Eat
It is on record that he had a collection of menus from all over the world, from the various banquets held in his honour. This brings me to a story recounted by Sandip Tagore, grandson of Raja Prafulla Nath Tagore of Pathuriaghata and descendant of Tagore’s sister Soudamini, from the Hindu branch of the Tagore family. He says: “I have heard from many senior family members that he used to carry a leak-proof tholay (satchel) under his jobba (robe) whenever he was to attend a formal meal in order to conceal the items he was reluctant to eat. And, by the way, he always used western cutlery even while eating Indian dishes.”
Smita Sinha, great-granddaughter of ‘Bor-dada’ Dwijendranath, adds some interesting tidbits. Tagore, even while constantly firing the imagination of the Tagore ladies, did not really appreciate fusion cuisine. Sinha’s mother, Amita Tagore, cooked for him when he came to stay at Jorasanko, the ancestral home of the Tagores in Calcutta. True to the family style of innovation, any time she attempted some Indian or regional Bengali with a touch of the western or oriental, he would reject it saying: “Don’t give me foreign smells in indigenous cuisine”.
He was mortally scared of chillies, says Sinha (the Tagores are credited with having introduced the heavy use of sugar in West Bengal cuisine). Amita hailed from East Bengal, known for its fiery food. Even a single chilli used as garnish to make the food pretty would put him off, and he would refuse to touch the dish. Sinha remembers one of Tagore’s last real meals at Jorasanko, a couple of years before he passed away in 1941. He had arrived from Kalimpong, tired and listless, with little interest in food. No one could make him eat. It was then that her mother made him a thin, colourless urad dal with asafoetida, fennel and ginger paste enhanced with a twist of the king of Bengal limes, the Gondhoraj. This was served along with a Tagore family speciality – Pathar Bangla (Bengal goat curry). This dish is hardly known in Bengal today, used as we are to masala-heavy oily meat curries. Tagore finished all his food that day.
What those close to him say with conviction is that he loved bamboo shoots. A popular vegetable in many parts of East Bengal and the entire North-east, it had not quite reached Calcutta yet. Knowing his fondness for this shoot, people from across the Padma would send it for him. The late writer, dancer and painter Rani Chanda in one of her essays on Tagore wrote that, “While bamboo shoots seemed rather tasteless to us, these are the few rare moments that I have actually seen him being enthusiastic about food.”
Sanatogen, Horlicks & a cup of milky Jasmine Tea
As a routine, lunch for Tagore was Bengali while dinner was usually western style with soups and fish, meats and puddings. I have already elaborated on his style of eating, but there was, however, something he never failed to have everyday: a glass of the then popular Sanatogen (a milk concentrate), or the still popular Horlicks.
That he hardly cared about being a connoisseur of fine foods and beverages is borne out by the way he drank his tea or coffee. Favouring Chinese teas such as jasmine and chrysanthemum, he would drop a few leaves into hot water and hardly wait for it to brew, pouring half a cup immediately. He would fill the rest of the cup with milk and add two spoons of sugar. Was he drinking tea, or hot water and milk? He enjoyed a cup of coffee, brewed similarly, at 2pm in the afternoon, when, after a short nap, he would sit down to work. He had explained once his penchant for such brews: “I drink coffee at this time to actually have some milk. Therefore, I add as much milk as I can. I have promised Mahatma Gandhi that I will get adequate sleep. And I have promised Bou-ma (daughter-in-law) that I will drink coffee. But see the fun – if you drink coffee you cannot sleep, and if you want to sleep, you shouldn’t drink coffee!”
Do bring some rosy mangoes in a cane basket covered with a silken kerchief
He might have been a globetrotter, but his essays and travelogues have not yielded much on his encounters with food. However, his novels have at times thrown up some interesting insights into how he tried to share with his readers his discovery of new food items. For instance, in the highly acclaimed Gora, he describes exotic mangosteen fruit from Burma, and the narrative proceeds to elaborate on how to eat them. In Jogajog (Connections), we can suddenly picture what probably was Tagore’s comfort meal. A central character Madhusudan, who represents new money, arrogance and attitude, proudly shows off his silver dinner service, but he cannot do without his coarse parboiled rice, simple urad dal and the ubiquitous ‘ghyant’ (vegetable mishmash). It is said that Tagore was very fond of chorchori. His great love for mangoes is captured in his poem Nimantran (The Invitation), an ode to an anonymous woman. Writer Buddhadev Bose translates it as follows:
“No golden lamps or lutes are available now,
But do bring some rosy mangoes in a cane-basket covered with a silken kerchief,
And some prosaic food as well — sandesh and pantua prepared by lovely hands,
Also pilau cooked with fish and meat,
For all these things become ineffable when imbued with loving devotion.
I can see amusement in your eyes and a smile hovering on your lips;
You think I am juggling with my verse to make gross demands?
Well, lady, come empty handed if you wish, but do come,
For your two hands are precious for their own sake.”
Says Bose: “The last two lines lift the poem to a non-material realm, but the reality of the mangoes and pilaus remains undiminished.”
Pulaos and pantuas in the hierarchy of foods belong in the realms of the upper classes. Was that Tagore’s preference? In my mind I see shades of Madhusudan in Tagore, when, at the tender age of eight and as the scion of one of Bengal’s leading aristocratic families, he expressed his strong connect with simplicity in food. He composed one of his first poems, a lyrical description of the average Bengali’s ultimate comfort food, perhaps setting the tone for the way his culinary journey through life would unfold.
Amsotto Dudhey Feli, Tahatey Kodoli Doli
Sandesh Makhia Diya Tatey
Hapush, Hupush Shobdo, Charidik Nistobdho
Pinpra Kandiya Jay Patey
While it defies translation, the poem describes the squashing and mixing of candied mango pulp (Aam papad) and soft bananas in milk along with sandesh, and then the silence that follows when all you can hear are the ‘hapush-hupush’ sounds of satisfied eating, wiping the bowl so clean that even ants return to their nests, crying in vain.
I look at Mitun and ask her: “So, do we finally know what Tagore really liked to eat?”