Professor Chaman Lal, author of several books on Bhagat Singh, recalls tales of the revolutionaries’ love for food

Bringing a revolutionary to the table is not always easy. But then, this is no negotiating table. Woktok, the restaurant located in The Grand, Vasant Kunj, is the scene of scrumptious meals. Besides, our guest is a revolutionary mainly in terms of ideas and ideals, rather than a belligerent anti-establishment operative. Still, Professor Chaman Lal of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University has not been an easy target. It has taken some persuasion to lure the author of numerous books on Bhagat Singh – the latest being Understanding Bhagat Singh.

Once in the net though, with a glass of fresh watermelon juice to combat the burning heat, the professor who has undertaken a prolonged study of revolutionaries from different countries is not only affable, he also remembers anecdotes about revolutionaries and their eating habits! “All revolutionaries have been very fond of food,” he laughs, recalling some tales that may not be found in textbooks but certainly bring colour to the conversation.

“Old style Indian comrades have very simple food, even if they come from privileged backgrounds. They completely transform themselves – (because) eating this type of food is considered bourgeois! Once a group went to China. Chou En-Lai invited them to a meal. He asked, ‘What will you have?’ They were very (shy), shrinking, saying ‘Whatever is there, dal, roti (would be fine).’ He offered them drinks; they said, ‘No, no we don’t drink!’ So after 10 minutes, Chou En-Lai said, ‘Comrades, why are you making revolution? If you want to have dal-roti, you can have that even without a revolution’!”

At this pan-Asian restaurant, there is lots of choice beyond dal-roti. There is a refreshing bean curd salad, the bean curd finely diced, pleasantly flavoured with a faint sweetness that makes itself felt off and on. For the professor who enjoys seafood, a tasty selection of starters includes shrimp and water chestnut dumpling, as well as the vegetarian baby pakchoy, spinach and cashew nut dumplings.

Fluent in Hindi, Punjabi and English, the professor is Chairman, Centre of Indian Languages, at JNU’s School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies. So while his professional background is in literature, reading and writing about Bhagat Singh is a passion. One that has become a mission, because while Bhagat Singh for him is a significant, “thinking revolutionary” on par with Che Guevara, he feels that the “Nehru-Gandhi centric” nature of India’s independence struggle, which continued into the view of history after independence, has contributed to the nation largely forgetting this martyr.

Having read up on Bhagat Singh and his contemporaries from all angles – recorded history, the correspondence between the comrades, as well as discussions with those who share his interests, Chaman Lal speaks of the martyred revolutionaries with a proprietary fondness.

“Bhagat Singh was a very tall and handsome man. Women liked him a lot, because he was a very decent man.” He relates another story exchanged by Bhagat Singh admirers. It so happened once the revolutionary was in Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh, where, in contrast to the large tumblers of lassi and milk proverbially downed by the residents of Punjab, they drink just “a small glass of milk”. A doodh wallah was going by with his bucket of milk. Bhagat Singh hailed him, but the vendor did not have a glass to serve him the milk. “Let’s see how much milk is in there,” said Bhagat Singh and proceeded, true to the reputation of his compatriots, to drain the milk vendor’s stock.

The group of young revolutionaries was very jovial, always pulling each other’s leg, says Chaman Lal, adding, “Bhagat Singh liked films so much, especially ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’.” He and his friends would even spend their frugal food allowance (one chavanni or 25 paise) on seeing a film, he avers.

As the mildly seasoned steamed fish with Thai lemon sauce comes in, one is reminded that Chaman Lal has spent time in countries of South America and nearby as he feels the region retains the spirit of socialism which India too can learn from. Not surprisingly he also appreciates the food, whose spice values are diametrically opposed to the heavy gravy ridden North Indian khana. While spending six months in Trinidad and Tobago, he shares, he got into the habit of enjoying boiled corn which is consumed there as soup with the corn on the cob served whole along with the stock. In Delhi too he keeps up the corn habit.

As a small helping of vegetable pan-fried noodles in ginger chilli sauce rounds off the meal, it is time for the professor to return to his study, where among the shelves of books and files, one is devoted entirely to literature on revolutionaries. His next project is cut out for him, a Bhagat Singh Reader which will contain documents penned by the revolutionary, who wrote in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and English.

The meal is over but the quest continues, to spread the word among the masses.