There will be many facets of his life that Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee will be remembered for—his poetry, his decorum in public life, his three terms as prime minister, his conciliatory politics and the nuclear test in Pokhran. But the foodie in Vajpayee truly reflects the delight he took in life, one that those who knew him personally speak of. A man not given to self-praise, Vajpayee, on the contrary, could be charmingly self-effacing and claimed to be a good cook, saying, in particular, that he could cook a tasty kheer and khichdi, amongst other things.
As a full-timer with the RSS from a young age, travels were an essential part of his life. On numerous visits to Mumbai in the late Fifties and early Sixties, he stayed at the home of my grandmother’s sister. During those times, she tells me, meal time was an important one for interactions with him. During the rest of the day, he, now a part of the Jan Sangh, would be closeted away for long political discussions. Even then, there were many who travelled with him and the dining room became a space for convivial exchange and, yes, food.
In an era when travel accentuated alienation from one’s roots, the taste of the familiar would move the friendly guest to sentimental conversation. Hailing from the same community as their poetic guest, regional specialities were cooked by my nani to make him feel at home. Of these panaucha was a favourite, a special dish made of moong dal in kanyakubj cuisine, which is usually prepared on the day after a wedding. The dal is ground and mixed with spices before being cooked on a slow flame till it binds. It is then dried out, flattened on thalis and left to cool. Subsequently, it is cut into the shape of one’s choice, then deep-fried and dipped into a curry of one’s choosing. This dish takes some time to prepare, but was a favourite of the erstwhile prime minister on those visits.
LK Advani, his close friend of 65 years, has spoken of their younger years and the penchant for gol gappas followed by khichdi, maybe out of necessity! The foodie former PM was also partial to Sindhi kadhi and khichdi. A long-time parliamentarian from Lucknow, a city famous for its food, he was, according to local journalists, a big fan of thandai. His favourite shop, in fact, boasts an image of its most famous patron. Thandai and chaat (presumably, a habit picked up from his years of study in Kanpur, famed for its chaat) were his must-indulgences on visits to Lucknow. In a documentary on his life, a childhood friend speaks of their adventures of stealing laddoos.
The young boy, who held on to the mischievous glint in his eyes even in his later years, used to compel her to “steal” them as well, so that when his mother found them out, they would both be in trouble and not him alone! Senior journalist Rasheed Kidwai recalls a story of how the foodie PM, on a diet, was once heading straight for the gulab jamuns before wily aides, knowing of his love for cinema, waylaid him on his way to the buffet counter with an introduction to the actor Madhuri Dixit! Paranthe Wali Gali in Chandni Chowk also saw many visits from the former prime minister who was a regular there before security concerns must have halted his visits. However, during a visit to this foodie district a few years ago, the most famous jalebi wala informed me that, during his time as prime minister, Atal-ji had asked for the jalebis to be served in his home.
It is undeniable that this much loved former prime minister’s imprint will live on in many aspects of our national life, but it is also heartening that his foodie escapades will remain endearing recollections for the many who have never met him and the generations that will follow. These stories will be delicious anecdotes for those who want to know more about the man behind an ‘atal’ determination and vision—an insight into the other side of the man who was prime minister and who can be credited with giving Indian democracy an alternative. Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad