Taste of Life: Vegetarian messengers and the ‘no three Fs’ diet plan

“The Dietetic Reformer and Vegetarian Messenger” magazine was started in 1861 by the Vegetarian Society which had its headquarters in Manchester. Established in 1847, the objects of the Society were to “induce habits of abstinence from the Flesh of Animals as Food
Flat lay of family hands eating healthy food. Vegan lunch table top view. Baked vegetables, fresh salad, berries, bread on a white background. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Flat lay of family hands eating healthy food. Vegan lunch table top view. Baked vegetables, fresh salad, berries, bread on a white background. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Updated on Aug 26, 2021 04:21 PM IST
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By Chinmay Damle

I am sitting inside the semi-circular hall of the bright red, old building of the Connemara Public Library in Chennai one February morning, wishing that it was a bit cooler inside. The library staff has taken my reference receipts inside to get the books for me. In the meantime, I have been craning my neck to get an eyeful of the intricate designs on the roof of the main hall. That part of the old building is not accessible to visitors.

I am there that day to read the issues of “The Dietetic Reformer and Vegetarian Messenger”. The magazine was started in 1861 by the Vegetarian Society which had its headquarters in Manchester. Established in 1847, the objects of the Society were to “induce habits of abstinence from the Flesh of Animals as Food, by the dissemination of information upon the subject, by means of tracts, essays, and lectures, proving the many advantages of a physical, intellectual, and moral character, resulting from Vegetarian habits of Diet”.

The Society had a branch in Calcutta which was run by Baboo Keshub Chandra Sen, one of the most influential and prominent social reformers in 19th century Bengal. According to the September 1885 issue of “The Dietetic reformer”, a branch was opened in Bombay that year of which Mr Byramjee Panday was the chairman.

The magazine makes an interesting read. Almost all the articles preach the virtues of a vegetarian diet and urge the readers to abstain from three Fs – Fish, Flesh, and Fowl. Most of the articles are argumentative, yet eloquent.

While I am a little overwhelmed by the huge stack of magazines on my desk, in one of the issues I find some handwritten pamphlets and notes. All of them are signed as “JM Lane, Poona”. Some have dates on them, many don’t.

The first pamphlet bears the date 23/8/1885. It says – “During the past twelve months four – entirely Vegetarian restaurants – have been opened in London, and at least three other dining – rooms have undertaken to provide Vegetarian meals. Manchester has seen the establishment of two new restaurants, and one has opened in Leeds. I urge the members to start a Vegetarian restaurant each in Bombay, Poona and Mahabaleshwar.”

This pamphlet seems to be meant for private circulation of an organisation, because it is clearly addressed to “members”, perhaps of the “Vegetarian Society”.

Another interesting pamphlet was probably written to convey a decision taken collectively in a meeting, or by Mr Lane himself - “A Vegetarian badge, for which many friends have been so anxiously waiting, has been decided upon in the form of a narrow silk ribbon, with a red center, narrow gold lines on either side and blue margins. This badge may be worn by all Vegetarians, its signification being simply that the wearer is an abstainer from fish, flesh, and fowl. By the general use of this badge, especially at festivals and meetings, Vegetarian friends will be able to recognise each other, while it will frequently afford an excellent opportunity for introducing the subject to the notice of others.” It is neither dated nor addressed to anyone in particular.

The other pamphlets have appeals to come up with innovative vegetarian recipes, to preach vegetarianism during the Sunday mass, to meet medical practitioners and sell them on the idea of giving up meat, to visit hospitals and explain to the patients the benefits of a plant-based diet. Then there are a couple of notes which request the “presence of members at the residence of JM Lane in Civil Lines, Wanowrie” on certain Wednesday evenings from 1891 to 1893.

“The Dietetic Reformer” mentions in August 1885 that Lane published “a useful pamphlet in Poona”. There are no other mentions of him or the city again in the magazine. This means that Lane was affiliated with the Vegetarian Society from Manchester. But, did he start a branch in Poona, or was he associated with the one in Bombay? In what capacity did he convene meetings at his residence in Poona?

I dig a little in the hope that I find answers and come across a report published in “The Bombay Gazette” on September 10, 1891. On September 6, Sunday, a meeting was held in Church Gate Street, Bombay. One Mr Gostling took the chair. In his opening address, he mentioned that he had personal experience of the advantages of natural living, which had cured him of the chronic dyspepsia from which he had suffered for over twelve years. Dr Daji then moved the resolution referring to the formation of a “Vegetarian Society”. He said that the Vegetarian Society at Manchester had repeatedly requested their friends in Bombay to form a similar organisation in Bombay “that would find work to do in educating the native vegetarians in the land in the physiology of digestion and the chemistry of food”.

The chairman then declared that the society would be called “The Natural Living Vegetarian Society”, so as to “guard against the misconception that vegetarians had to live upon vegetables alone”.

The report ends with a quote from Gostling – “The admirers of British rule were not right in attributing the success of the British Army to their eating beef since the poor Irishmen and Scotch men who form the bulk of the army were brought up from childhood on potatoes and oatmeal respectively.”

This report suggests that the branch of the Vegetarian Society opened in 1885 in Bombay was short-lived and that another was started in 1891.

What interests me is the revelation that the last quote by Gostling is replicated verbatim in one of the notes written in Lane’s handwriting. This means that he was either present at the meeting in Bombay, or he copied it from the newspaper to use it later.

Lane and his pamphlets have remained a mystery to me after I first saw them three years ago. How the pamphlets ended up in the Chennai library, is another question. He probably shifted there from Poona. Or the pamphlets were brought there by another member of the Vegetarian Society. I have found no mention of Lane in the newspapers or magazines published from London, Manchester, Bombay, Poona, and Madras. Yet his pamphlets tell us that he kept championing the cause of vegetarianism till 1893 at least.

I hope to find out more about JM Lane someday.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2021