New Delhi, April 4 Swami Vivekananda, the 20th century visionary and founder of the Ramakrishna Mission, loved lentils, especially the 'kalai', a traditional Bengali variety cooked with fennel, salt, slit green chillies and a pinch of turmeric. Many a time, he appealed to those who were close to him to cook "kalaier dal" for him, says one of West Bengal's top contemporary writers Sankar, or Manisankar Mukherjee, in his new non-fiction "The Monk as Man: The Unknown Life of Swami Vivekananda". However, the monk advised "his followers to eat the watery part of the 'dal' like the way South Indians do". The lentils were difficult to digest, Vivekananda observed.
Sankar, who researched the book for years in libraries and pored through faded newspaper and magazine writings of the time, says "it appears that Swamiji was fond of cream too". Once when he was eating with his companions in the U.S. and they enquired whether he liked strawberries. Swami Vivekananda answered, "he had never seen one".
"At this, his companions were surprised and amused. They pointed out that the monk had been eating strawberries every day. Vivekananda explained that the strawberries were covered with cream; even stones covered with cream would taste good!"
His American host, the Legget family with whom the seer was boarding in the US discovered that the easiest way to keep him at the dinner table was to announce: "There will be ice-cream for dessert". "Then Vivekananda would wait patiently for his ice-cream like a little boy and consume it with great satisfaction," Sankar says in his book.
Another humorous story was presented by Ida Ansell.
"One evening, Swamiji was talking about the different interpretations of heaven and hell in Indian scriptures. Usually after a lecture, his devotees took him to a restaurant... On this particular occasion, it was a very cold night and Swamiji shivered in his raincoat.
"But in spite of the hellishly cold weather, he chose ice-cream and liked it very much," the writer says.
There are comedies of errors with ice-cream too, Sankar comments.
Once after a lecture, Vivekananda invited "eight of his friends for ice-cream." They walked along Powell Road in San Francisco and came to a cafe.
"Vivekananda ordered ice-cream for everyone. Perhaps the waitress was inexperienced or misunderstood his accent. She brought them ice-cream soda. Vivekananda did not like ice-cream soda and asked if the bottles could be returned," the writer says. The manager was annoyed and scolded the waitress.
The monk called the manager and said, "If you scold the girl, I will drink up all the ice-cream at once." According to Sankar, Vivekananda was once heard to have enthused over an ice cream: "Ah, food for the gods".
The 20th century visionary from Bengal, who inspired millions of young people across the world with his secular views on religion and progressive philosophy was intuitive about food. The intuition often verged on an obsession with purity.
In his writings on Bhakti-yoga, Swami Vivekananda refers to the commentary on Bhagwan Ramanuja on impure and pure food. He says three things make food impure: jaati dosha — the impurity in the nature of the food itself like onions and garlic which excite nerves and addle brains; ashraya dosha — impurity arising out of contact with an impure person, and nimitta dosha — impure food because of impurities like worms, hair or dirt in them.
Sankar brings interesting observations made by the seer in his book. Vivekananda once told his disciple Sarat Chandra that "one who cannot cook cannot be a great monk". His disciple, native of East Bengal, had once cooked the monk a "Bangal" platter of "rice, munger dal (lentils), koi macher jhol (koi fish curry), maccher tak (tangy fish) and maccher shuktuni (bitter fish with vegetables)".
Vivekananda said he had never tasted anything like it before, Sankar says.
A few days before his premature death at the age of 39 from ill health, Vivekananda was found "gleefully eating chanachur (a hot and spicy mix of chickpeas and nuts) from a saal leaf at Ahiritola in north Kolkata on the bank of Ganges".
It was around the same time, he expressed his desire to eat "phuluri" or munchies.
His disciples brought out the pot, lit the stove, poured the oil and the monk "became the munchie (phuluri) seller frying chick pea paste in the oil as he called out to his customers (disciples) to eat".
On July 4, 1902, Vivekananda lunched on "hilsa" fish curry, rice, fried vegetables and a tangy dip (ambol). At 9.30 p.m., after a day of prayer, banter and meditation, he died of a heart attack.
The book, which probes the simple childlike man behind Narendranath Dutta alias Swami Vivekananda, has been published by Penguin-India. It is priced Rs.299.