Taste of Life: Notes from a memoir on a feast for Diwali defying the plague

Nevinson observed that “other helpful powers beside Lakshmi had a share in the honour, and it were the temples of Durga and Vishnu, of Siva and Parvati, lady of the far-off mountain snow that made the sacred hill of Parvati outside the city sparkle like an illuminated birthday cake, for at least one night during the Diwali feast of brotherhood”
GK Gokhale and Servants of India. (Chinmay Damle/ HT PHOTO)
GK Gokhale and Servants of India. (Chinmay Damle/ HT PHOTO)
Published on Nov 04, 2021 04:20 PM IST
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ByChinmay Damle

Food is a great unifying force. Festivals and feasts always involve the sharing and eating of food, even when it may be underemphasised compared to the other activities going on around it.

Food brings out empathy. It has that magical power to make one believe that grief is temporary.

Henry Woodd Nevinson was a British war correspondent during the Second Boer War and World War I, a campaigning journalist exposing slavery in Western Africa, political commentator, and suffragist. He arrived at Bombay in October 1907, as a correspondent for the “Manchester Guardian” and other papers.

He spent a year in India, of which a month was spent in Pune. Nevinson’s socio-political memoir “The new spirit in India” records a feast on a Diwali night during the plague.

“It was the Indian festival of Diwali, held at Poona on Guy Fawkes’ Day, and celebrated with innumerable flames, like our own thanksgiving for the protection of King and Parliament. But, in feeling, the Diwali comes nearer to Christmastide, for it has no political significance, and the flames are not lighted as defiance to the Pope of Rome, but in honour of Lakshmi, the goddess of family prosperity, who provides wealth sufficient for us, and holds a baby to the breast above her heart”, wrote Nevinson.

The ceilings of the rooms in wadas and the verandahs fluttered with pink and yellow flags; the windows and doors were hung with “festoons of orange marigolds on a string”; upon the entrance pavement neat patterns in whitewash were drawn by hand-rollers; and, as the streets turned blue with the evening, the children, draped in all the gorgeous crimsons and golds their fathers could afford, lighted the tiny oil lamps on window-sill and doorstep, or threw the spurting fires under the “very noses of sacred bulls that wander for their living from shop to shop”.

Nevinson observed that “other helpful powers beside Lakshmi had a share in the honour, and it were the temples of Durga and Vishnu, of Siva and Parvati, lady of the far-off mountain snow that made the sacred hill of Parvati outside the city sparkle like an illuminated birthday cake, for at least one night during the Diwali feast of brotherhood”.

But the sad thing was that in the lane of Pune, many of the houses then stood dark and empty, in terror of the plague. Hardly eleven years had passed since the pestilence first appeared, imported from Hong Kong as people thought, and in those eleven years, it had killed nearly six million of India’s habitants. Within those eleven years, the inhabitants of Pune had been reduced to nearly one-third.

Many families had gone to live in selected open spaces outside the city when Nevinson visited. There among rocks and withered grass, they kindled their little lamps and celebrated family joy in any hut of wicker, matting, canvas, petroleum tins, old boxes, boards, or branches which they and the Imperial Government could manage to rig up between them. Many shopkeepers had transferred their little stores of grain, sweets, and cotton to this countrified scene, and the “general effect was like a scrappy Derby Day without the races”.

On the night of Lakshmipujan, Nevinson set out to meet Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the liberal political leader, and social reformer.

Having crossed a bridge, to the left of which thin columns of smoke still rose from the smouldering bodies of the dead, he passed through one of those health camps, as official language fondly called them, and found before him a partly finished building of solid stone – unfinished, but with “something already monastic and grave in its straight-roofed hall and line of cloistral habitations”. It was the rising home of the “Servants of India Society”, and in front of his small house the founder and “First Member” of the Society, Gokhale, stood to receive him.

On the edge of the rocky country west of Poona, close beside the Fergusson College, with which he had been so long connected, he had laid the foundation of his “Servants of India Society” two years before, and in the two-roomed cells about a dozen Knights of the Order were already living. They were men prepared, in the language of the Society’s rules “to devote their lives to the cause of the country in a religious spirit, and to promote, by all constitutional means, the national interests of the Indian people”.

The object of the Society was to train the Servants as national missionaries, ready to visit any part of India at the order of the First Member and Council, in the hope of creating a deep and passionate love of the country, organising political teaching, promoting goodwill among the different races, assisting education, especially of women, and raising the people “who live below even the lowest caste”.

Nevinson was dining that night with such of the Servants of India as had not gone home for the family festival. RP Paranjpye was there too – Senior Wrangler of his year, Fellow of St John’s, and then head of the Fergusson College. NC Kelkar, the editor of the “Mahratta”, and BG Tilak’s vigilant captain, who belonged to the “extremist” camp, had come as well. And a few more “Brahmans and non-Brahmans” sat with them, in a row. They did not care about the “purity” they would be sacrificing by eating beside a “carnivorous European”.

That “inscrutable dispensation” was discussed amid laughter. Gokhale mentioned that the British rule had instilled into the Indian nature a love for freedom and self-assertion against authority that Indians used to lack, but “English people often possessed in enviable abundance”.

Nevinson met Gokhale many times again – in Pune itself, Surat, Bombay, and London. But to Nevinson he always pictured him on that Diwali evening in the refectory where the Servants of India were gathered around him, together with friends from both the main parties of the time.

Friends who did not see eye to eye on several social and political issues dined together that evening.

Nevinson was allowed a table, chair, and spoon at dinner. Others sat on the floor, their backs against the walls, and in front of each of them was laid half a banana leaf, neatly studded around the edge with little piles of rice, beans, vegetables, chutney, and other condiments, laddoo, and “thin wheaten cakes”.

Which when they had eaten, and drunk clean water from round brazen vessels, they washed up by burning the banana leaves, rinsed their hands, and continued the discussion over pomegranate seeds, orange cloves, and pan-leaves concealing betel-nut and various spice.

Serene, modest, definite in aim and knowledge, Gokhale continued to discourse with his guests.

That moonless night, Nevinson returned to the city of plague, where the oil lamps were now extinguished, and the children asleep.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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Sunday, December 05, 2021