What appeals to historian Ramachandra Guha the most in food is the chronicling of its past through the present
It’s getting to lunch time and diners are shuffling in to 19 Oriental Avenue, the spacious Asian restaurant at Shangri-La’s Eros hotel, New Delhi. Occupying a table with one of the best views of Central Delhi is Ramachandra Guha. Well-known historian and writer of impressive tomes like “India After Gandhi” and also notable sports books like “The Picador Book of Cricket”, “The States of Indian Cricket” and some more, Guha has recently written “Patriots and Partisans” (Penguin India), a set of essays that are a rather candid commentary on our political culture, from pre-independence days down to the contemporary milieu, where he examines terms like patriots and nationalists and more often than not bringing to the pages many a clown, joker and chamcha in today‘s political class. Indeed a joy to read.
An avid conversationalist with a wide range of interests, including environment, Guha is all keyed up when we meet for the lunch outing. But first things first, and he waves at a waiter to know what best vegetarian option he can serve him in Asian cuisine. He, of course, notices the crease on my forehead and addresses it quickly, “I have stopped eating meat.” To each his own and he settles for a simple option: sticky rice with a curry of fresh Asian greens. Keeping the weather in mind, he opts for a piping hot corn soup, delivered to him in a jiffy.
Guha says he became a non-vegetarian during his Doon School days but later felt that vegetarian food agrees with him more. “To the outside world, Indian food means mainly Mughlai food with a lot of non-vegetarian options. The world is yet to discover the glories of Indian vegetarian food,” he points out. Here, he talks about the wide vegetarian variety from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Bengal. “We tend to identify Bengali food only with fish, but there is so much more in that cuisine. When we were in Dehra Dun, we had a Bengali neighbour; through that family I realised what delicious vegetarian food Bengal has,” he relates. Relishing a sip of the soup, Guha adds, “I am glad that more and more of us are getting interested in discovering each other’s food now. We have such variety. They are a window to caste, community.”
Essentially a historian, Bangalore-based Guha doesn’t quite surprise you when he adds to this banter on food that what appeals to him here too is the history of food. “Have you read the book ‘Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History’? The author Sydney Mintz so beautifully elaborates in it the anthropological social history of sucrose consumption in the West from the founding of sugar plantations through the present day. Among other things it tracks the discovery of sugar as a rare spice or medicine and talks about the consumption patterns linking it to its availability.”
Yet another book he talks about is “The History and the Social Influence of the Potato”, a remarkable book, first published in 1949. “It is an amazing read, of how potato became a cultivable plant and then was adopted worldwide; how it influenced the social structure and economy of different people,” he notes.
At this point, his main dish arrives, steaming hot. Guha takes a spoonful, nods his approval and the conversation picks its thread. Such books on Indian cuisine history are rare, he notes. But there is an important book, on the history of Bengali food that traces the journey of K.C. Das, the man often given the credit for popularising rosogolla.
About himself, he says with a laugh, “I can only make a cup of tea, that’s my limit.”
Lunch done, Guha asks for a cup of tea, an orange pekoe. Over sips of the aromatic tea that comes in a teapot filled to the brim, the conversation takes a swerve towards his latest book, “Patriot and Partisans”, which has warranted his Delhi visit. But that calls for another story. On why he is neither on the Left, nor on the Right and how fiercely he can fight for his Centrist position.