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Vol. XXX No. 8, August 16-31, 2020

Lunch at Calicut with Pandit Nehru

by Geeta Doctor

In Jairam Ramesh’s fascinating biography of V.K. Krishna Menon, the brilliant crusader for freedom and a close confidant of Pandit Nehru, there is a charming vignette of Panditji visiting the family home of the Menons at Calicut (present-day Kozhikode) on 24th December 1955. Ramesh records the episode, “Nehru, accompanied by the then Chief Minister of Madras K. Kamaraj, visited Janaki Amma in her home in Calicut.”

Krishna Menon happened to be away at New York and could not make it back on time, much to the consternation of his sister, Janaki Amma. She had been informed that her distinguished guest would only partake of non-vegetarian items, obviously a taboo in her pure vegetarian Nair household. Ramesh includes an account from Nehru’s own diary of the meal – “The house is vegetarian and they were unhappy about this. Worse still, the District Magistrate sent four chickens to be slaughtered and cooked. The lady of the house was completely upset at this idea. Fortunately, I came in time to prevent this outrage on her sentiments and I asked specially for a Malayali vegetarian meal. A very good dinner was given to me which I enjoyed.” (Extract from page 11 of ‘A Chequered Brilliance’ by Jairam Ramesh, published by Penguin).

When I discussed the event with K.N. Ramaswami, Director Chennai Kendra of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan at his office in Mylapore, his eyes lit up. “I was there at the meal in Menon’s house. Our house was just a few yards away from Krishna Menon’s home, Vengali as it was known. I used to walk past the house on my way to school and his sister Janaki Amma would wave to me. The lunch was served on banana leaves and once all the items were placed on it, someone asked for a fork!” Ramaswami recalled, throwing up his hands to indicate the consternation that the idea of a fork caused him at the time. “I wondered if the banana leaf would be torn into strips by the fork, rendering us unable to eat any of the food. But we all managed and it was a memory I shall always cherish of a great man.”

“Those days we led a very simple life,” continued Ramaswami. He took us back to an era just before Independence was declared, describing how he celebrated the very first Republic day at home. “I was a Boy Scout, so when it came to celebrating the first Republic Day, we were all given small flags to pin on our pockets.” He indicated how the flags had to be pinned exactly to one side. “We were given safety pins. No stickers or any such thing. We had to make sure that the safety pin would not be seen from the front and also that the flags were pinned straight in one corner of our pockets. That day I went home and made a larger flag out of paper. I stuck it on a stick, went upstairs to our tiled roof, and somehow placed it so that it would hang straight. Then I made all my aunts come out and salute the flag. I had already made them practice the salute. So, we stood in a line and saluted the Indian flag that was flying over our house for the first time.”
His one memory of Krishna Menon is of him walking up and down with a flask of tea, and every now and then to take a sip from it. He also recalled with amusement the puzzled look on his aunts’ faces when he asked them if they had any foreign-made goods that he could throw into a bonfire. “There was not a single thing that was foreign-made in our house. There was a very precious fountain pen that belonged to my Father. It was foreign. I looked at it. He would not even lend it to us except on some rare occasions. That is Father’s pen, I told myself. If he wants to burn it, that’s up to him. I cannot burn his pen.”

Ramaswami then picked up his cell-phone and spoke into it. “I just use this for official work,” he explained. “When I want to talk to the family, I use the regular one,” he says, thumping an old-fashioned grey-molded plastic phone that sits on a tray on his left. It makes a slight squeak of protest. The meeting is clearly over.

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