Bhajhas, Bovril & Bombil: Notes On Babasaheb Ambedkar & Food
Image Credit: Via Wikimedia Commons. Babasaheb Ambedkar is seen here with his wife Dr Savita Ambedkar, in 1948.

Even as their intellects were nourished by the academic environs at prestigious universities and the exchange of ideas with leading thinkers, early Indian students who made their way overseas struggled to find food that would nourish their bodies.

This was true of Indians who would come to play a prominent role in shaping this nation's legacy as well — including Gandhi, (tragically) Ramanujan, and Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar.

With Dr Ambedkar, the matter of food was two-pronged. At the Columbia University campus in New York, his dining was not impacted by the dictums of caste, a revelatory experience in and of itself. He revelled in the freedom to eat his meals with the dignity that was taken for granted by those not oppressed by the caste system, or as a matter of course/privilege by the oppressing classes.

However, Ambedkar wrote in a letter dated August 1913 to a friend (Shivnak Gaokar Jamadar) about the trouble in finding food he wished to eat — exacerbated no doubt by his precarious financial condition — adding that once he was in the throes of his studies, hopefully such issues would fade into the background. 

The food question became more acute when Ambedkar moved to the UK, to complete his PhD at the London School of Economics. Vikram Doctor writes that Dr Ambedkar had a miserly landlady who gave her boarders the worst kind of food. Dinner was usually just Bovril with biscuits. Bovril — an extract of salted beef that could be eaten as a spread on toast/biscuits or dissolved in hot water for a savoury drink — was seemingly a favourite of both the Pope and Ernest Shackleton, at least according to the brand's advertisers in the early 1900s. Shackleton is said to have shared a cup of Bovril with Captain Scott near the South Pole, after they’d had a freezing four-hour march on Christmas, 1902. Its high profile ‘endorsers’ aside, Bovril must have been an insubstantial meal for Dr Ambedkar, who took to roasting papads in his room and brewing a cup of tea to assuage his hunger pangs.

In an essay titled “Unfit for Human Association”, about the deplorable attitudes towards Dalits in India, Dr Ambedkar includes the case study of a young man who had secured a job as a clerk, much to the consternation of upper caste Hindus who sought to show him ‘his place’ by denying him lodgings and food, “There was no place or person from where I could get my meals,” reads the young man’s account, as recorded by Dr Ambedkar in his essay. “I used to buy ‘bhajhas’ morning and evening, eat them in some solitary place outside the village and come and sleep at night on the pavement of the verandahs of the Mamlatdar’s office.”

In more ways than one, Babasaheb understood the full extent of the interlocutor's deprivations.


Back home, even as he was opposing Brahminical hegemony and shaping Indian society into the progressive, just and equitable one he envisaged, Dr Ambedkar made time for the simpler pleasures of life. Reading and writing took up his time, as did horticulture — and occasionally, cooking. His taste in food is described as simple (a roti, curd, moderate quantity of rice, fish) but when at the home of Dadasaheb Gaikwad (politician and social activist) in Nashik, he would ensure that everyone who came to meet him was well-fed. Seafood was a favourite, and he would prepare fresh catch in the Konkan style, with plenty of kokum and coconut, as a break in between meetings.

Babasaheb was reportedly fond of bombil chutney, and he would make this for his circle of friends as well. Bombil or Bombay Duck (a misnomer that may have arisen from an Anglicisation of “Bombay Daak”, for the mail trains that transported wagonloads of the fish in its dried, preserved form to Bengal) has a long history with the coastal regions of Maharashtra. It is eaten both fresh (battered and fried, or in a curry) and dried. Dried Bombay duck — sukka bombil — is used in pickles, teamed with greens as an accompaniment to bhakri, and (as Dr Ambedkar preferred it) in the form of a chutney. As Sohel Sarkar observes, dried fish is a food on the margins of India: “ubiquitous, yet invisible”, part of the staple diet of many communities but with its acceptance in the mainstream barred by the “social hierarchy of taste”. It’s fitting then that this is a dish that Babasaheb enjoyed and shared — a moment of championing in food too, the underdog.