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Revisiting the life of K.T. Achaya, scientist, historian and the man who first showed us the world on our platter

Written by Amritadutta |
November 2, 2008 5:54:03 pm

Revisiting the life of K.T. Achaya, scientist, historian and the man who first showed us the world on our platter
The idli. At its best, an airy, fragrant moon that melts in the mouth. Always, the no-frill fast food that, after filter coffee and Rajnikant, could count as south India’s best gift to the country. So imagine my surprise when a certain K. Thammu Achaya dug up 10th century treatises and told the world, gently and without fuss as was his wont, that while the dosa and the vada was as indigenous as the veshti and the Udipi chain, the humble idli had a distinct foreign gene.

The first mentions of iddalige in Kannada literature occur around 920 AD, said Achaya, and that refers to a dish made only of urad dal, which was neither fermented, nor steamed to fluffiness. How then did the modern idli evolve? Hindu kings from Indonesia, a country where fermenting is quite common, often came to India between the 8th and the 12th centuries, looking for brides. The cooks with them, suggested Achaya, brought the technique that changed the character of this breakfast delight.

Food travels. And the idli’s was just one of the many journeys that Achaya charted in two of his main works— Indian Food: A Historical Companion (1994) and a later, more accessible form, The Dictionary of Indian Food (published in 1998, four years before his death). If you browse through works of food writers today, his is a name that often crops up. And with good reason.

Rukun Advani, who edited and commissioned the books for Oxford University Press in the Nineties, calls Doc Achaya as India’s first food historian of consequence. “There was nothing in the nature of comprehensive overviews of Indian food and culinary history (when he wrote) — there were regional studies in obscure places, and people like Madhur Jaffrey and Chitrita Banerjee, who write intelligently on aspects of Indian food, are even now covering a much smaller terrain…His two books will remain the ultimate works of reference on this topic for a very long time,” he said. Indeed. Such has been their popularity that OUP decided to revisit the classics in a new book, The Illustrated Food of India (out this month, Rs 395).  

Looking for the Doc
Time, also, to revisit the life of the good doctor. For, Achaya was that rarest of creatures—an Indian scientist of global stature who could leave the world of molecular reactions and lipid structures and communicate with you with ease and elegance; in whose work chemistry met literature and history with brilliant results. He was a man who told us the story of our food.

Born in 1923 at Kollegal, Karnataka, to a liberal Coorgi family, Achaya graduated with chemistry at the Presidency College in Madras in 1943. After a long career as a scientist in institutes such as Regional Research Laboratory in Hyderabad and Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), Mysore, he returned to Bangalore to live in a flat on Lavelle Road, where he died in 2002. So here we are in Bangalore, searching for his life beyond the dry summary of a curriculum vitae, trying to find the connection to food of a man who “found history, geography…and high romance” behind our meals.

Many of the places that made up the map of his daily existence have disappeared. His small flat, spilling over with his collection of modern art (some hung, as a surprised friend once found, in his bathroom) was sold after he died. The bungalow in which he lived with his sister has gone the way of old Bangalore: buried under an apartment complex. His enviable collection of classical music, both Carnatic and Western, was given away to the Subbulakshmi Foundation, in accordance with his will. Books that could have been thumbed for revealing inscriptions rest now with friends and libraries. Only memories remain to be culled.

Over cups of coffee with his friends and relatives at Koshy’s, the city’s landmark café, we find he was a soft-spoken, unassuming man, who wryly referred to himself as a “cowboy” for the amount of time he spent researching milk products. For nephew Mohan Bopiah, an architect in the city, he was the “severely practical” uncle who would shut out the world every afternoon with a board outside his room that said, “Do not disturb”, and then emerge in the evening for long conversations. For writer Lakshmi Lal, he was her “cultural attaché”, driving her to music concerts during the time they were in Mumbai. For historian Ramchandra Guha, he was a “godfather”. For the scientist community, he was a man whose work they still find indispensable.

He also loved food. Mahtab S. Bamji, a Hyderabad-based scientist and a friend of the doctor, tells us she found him very cosmopolitan in his food habits. “Chocolates,” says Bopiah. “Thammu mama had a sweet tooth. In his later years, he developed diabetes and was quite strict with himself. But he always looked forward to friends sending him diabetic chocolates from across the world.” Lal tells me of the quirky dinners Achaya would throw on his birthdays at a Chinese restaurant in Mumbai. Vinod Huria, a student of Achaya at CFTRI and long-time associate, says he liked eating food from all over the world and relished it to the full, but in small measures. “He liked both traditional and modern recipes, but preferred to eat with his fingers. He travelled across the globe and learnt about food by tasting and gaining knowledge about different cuisines,” he says.

Travelling tapioca
That and his many journeys into historical texts, ranging from Tamil Sangam literature to the Ain-i-Akbari, formed the basis for the fascinating stories Achaya told. Tales which show that long before globalisation tossed up culture and spices in one melting pot, the many flavours of the world had found home in our kitchens.
To wit, the tapioca. Kappa in Malayam, this tuber is tied by nostalgia and tradition to every Malayalam household, in Kovalam or Connecticut. But as Achaya pointed out, this South American plant has been in use for less than 200 years and was one of the many New World species that arrived here in the 19th century. To Vaishakam Thirunal, the ruler of Travancore in the late 19th century (1880-85), this hardy, carbohydrate-rich root, cultivated first in the

Andes by the Incas between the 12th and 16th centuries, was a crop that could stave off suffering in his famine-struck kingdom. His many inducements to his subjects to cultivate the crop worked. And today, in kappayam meenum or tapioca fish curry, you have a dish that could be the official ambassador of the cuisine of Kerala. Among many foreign ingredients that are now indistinguishably Indian include the tomato, the potato, the chilli and the cabbage. Looked through Achaya’s lens, one finds every kitchen, to tweak John Donne, “an everywhere”.

Across the street from Koshy’s is another nugget of food history that Achaya was involved with. In 1972, Sharat Charan Das, the grandson of the man who invented the rossogulla, moved part of the K.C. Das establishment to Church Street. Sure enough, Achaya with his expertise in traditional foods, became part of the store’s advisory board and a friend to Biren Das, the present owner. Das remembers Achaya as a guest at the elaborate Bengali lunches he threw, talking about music over chanar dal and shukto and dismissing the Coorgi habit of combining meat and drink. Did he like fish, asks the Bengali in me? “Fish, fish, fish?” mutters Das in an attempt to remember. “I don’t know.” I let it be. Memories, like recipes, sometimes slip through time.

The other side
But no one’s forgotten Achaya, the passionate music enthusiast, a connoisseur of Carnatic music (they say he could have written a Companion to Indian music). In Hyderabad, where he spent 22 years from 1950 in work that would make him a world authority in his field, Achaya formed a music group. Scientist-friend Bamji said, “We used to meet in different people’s houses after dinner, more often his, to listen to classical music. We also used to attend lots of music concerts. In fact, his car used to be always loaded with people like me who did not have a car but enjoyed attending concerts.”

In the Bopiahs’ living room, we pore over the wittily-captioned black-and-white photographs that Achaya (he was also an amateur photographer of great skill) took. The scientist, always the self-effacing man, is absent from the album. On the wall is the image of a dusky beauty looking over her shoulder. “We used to call it the Mystery Woman,” says Bopiah. “We often teased him about the beautiful women who kept appearing in the photographs and life, though he never married.” I tell the Bopiahs—Mohan and Nina— about my visit to a cottage behind the Infosys campus in Mysore. There, 86-year-old Hussy Parpia, former director of CFTRI, told me with a chuckle, “He had a girlfriend, an equally accomplished scientist.” Nina Bopiah, Mohan’s wife laughs but agrees. “He said he didn’t have the time and space for marriage. And he really had so many interests. But he lived a full life. He was a happy man.”

He was also, from all accounts, a man of science—in his moderation and liberal values, in the meticulousness of his work and in the orderly passion with which he followed his every interest. A man of knowledge, without a wild side? “My dear, he was a maniac of a driver,” corrects Lakshmi Lal. “Thammu did drive me to those concerts in Mumbai. And what rides they were. I used to tell him to slow down, but he just wouldn’t listen.”

Music it was that kept him company till the end, as the death of friends and siblings left him lonelier. He was active till the end, a manuscript of The Story of Our Food, reaching his publishers weeks after his death. “He was an extraordinary, ordinary man,” says Lal with warmth. Memories, like recipes, are also recovered through time, as Achaya’s work reveals. “Yes, the answer to your question,” Lal tells me. “He loved fish.”

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