After Sharat Chandra’s initiation, Swamiji had taken a few litchis (a small, sweet, juicy white fruit with a thin, prickly red skin and a large, maroon egg-shaped seed) from him as guru-dakshina. There were some litchis lying in front of Swamiji after Sudhir’s initiation as well. He lovingly put them in his disciple’s hands and said, “Give me guru-dakshina”.

The chilli cannot be called a fruit, but throughout his childhood, Swami Vivekananda had a tremendous attraction for it. He endorsed it at various times and in various ways. While on his travels, he had told his friend Haripada Mitra, “A travelling monk receives all kinds of food from various people and water from all sorts of places. That can harm the health. To counter this unhealthy eating and drinking, many monks become addicted to hemp and other intoxicants. I eat chillies for the same reason.”

Once during his travels, hearing that monks should never be stout, he gently objected, saying: “This is my insurance against famine! Even if I do not get any food for several days, my fat will keep me alive, whereas your vision will be blurred if you do not eat for even a day.”

About exceedingly high expectations from sanyasis, he had said to Haripada Mitra, “Society thinks that a man becomes trigunaatita (one who has conquered all the three gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas) as soon as he takes the monk’s vow. You believe he should not eat well, should not have a bed to lie on, so much so that he should not even wear shoes or use an umbrella! Why? Is he not a man like you? Should he not wear saffron robes until he becomes a Paramahansa (a monk of the highest perfection)? That is unfair.”

Swamiji’s gurubhai (disciple of the same guru) Premananda’s younger brother Shantiram Ghosh had jokingly said that Swamiji’s favourite fruit was the gulab jamun, not a fruit at all, but a sweetmeat! On Jogeen Maharaj’s direction, Shantiram and his wife received initiation from Swamiji on 23 March 1897, after Swamiji returned to Calcutta from the USA. After the initiation, Swamiji said, “Please bring me some fruit or something.” Shantiram brought a gulab jamun that Swamiji promptly ate. “He didn’t give any further advice.”

Sri Ramakrishna’s wife Sarada Devi’s disciple and the first pujari (priest) of Belur Math’s Durgotsav (Durga Puja), Swami Dheerananda has written about another favourite fruit of Swamiji. He (Swamiji) loved to have tender coconut with sugar and ice inside. “I gave him a tender coconut at Balaram Babu’s home. He had it, saying, ‘Aah! Wonderful! Here, you have some.’ And then when I was eating it, like a child he said, ‘Give me some too!’ He was not at all concerned about having my leftovers (something inimical to most sanyasis).”

When Swamiji left India for the second time, his South Indian devotees arrived at Madras to see him off on the ship with a few sacks of South India’s famous king coconut.

Haricharan Mallik too has reminisced about a meeting with Swamiji at Master Mahendranath Gupta’s rented residence in Calcutta’s Bhavani Datta Lane. Mahendranath Gupta, often referred to as Mastermoshai, was the author of the seminal book, Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita, the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna. Swami Turiyananda famous as Hari Maharaj, was also present at the gathering.

Swamiji himself had asked Mahendranath in an intimate tone, “Mastermoshai, can you please arrange for a watermelon or something? Let’s have a bite to eat.” It was summertime, and as requested, Mastermoshai arranged for Swamiji’s favourite fruit.

Not just the watermelon, there is some reference to the jamun, the Indian blackberry, as well. Towards the end of his life, Swamiji had once rested for a few days in Jagulia at Sister Mrinalini Basu’s home. Naresh Chandra Ghosh has written that when Swamiji left for Belur Math, she gave him a basket of fresh jamuns.

When they reached the Math, Swamiji said, “First wash all the jamuns well and juice them.” Subsequently, some bottles were washed, filled with the juice and corked tightly. The corks were then secured with strong twine and left in the sun for a week or so. Then, Swamiji asked for the bottles to be transferred to a little dark room next to the Belur Math kitchen, under the stairs.

One day, when he was having tea, there was a sudden loud burst. He said, “Run and see – the bottles must be popping.” That was exactly what had happened; the fermented juice had begun to push the corks out and managed to burst out of one of the bottles. Swamiji said, “This is sirka (a kind of cider/vinegar) – very good for digestion. Now it’s done to perfection. All of you must have a little daily.”

When we speak of jaam (jamun), we cannot forget the aam (the mango). Having spent many months at Belur Math as a student, Gaur, a lifelong bachelor, has chronicled a few anecdotes from his own life. Among them is the story of Varanasi’s Imperial Bank’s famous Lyangda variety of Mango, then unseasonal, which Swamiji received very happily.

We have already seen Swamiji’s partiality to litchis as guru-dakshina after initiating his disciples. In the USA, when he enrolled as an art student, Swamiji himself introduced this ancient Indian ritual. American artist Maud Stumm has written about this in great detail.

Miss Stumm was present at the New York harbour to receive Swamiji and Swami Turiyananda in 1899, during Swamiji’s second visit to the USA. When he got off the ship, Swamiji had a large bottle with him. He would not part with this valuable bottle at any cost. Apparently, he had brought it all the way from India. Swamiji said it was a very tasty pickle, “This is for Joe (Josephine MacLeod).”

Miss Stumm writes, “One day he told me that he wanted to undertake some sort of work that would keep his hands busy and prevent him from thinking of things that fretted him at that time – and would I give him drawing lessons? So materials were produced, and at an appointed hour he came, promptly, bringing to me, with a curious little air of submission, a huge red apple, which he laid in my hands, bowing gravely. I asked him the significance of this gift, and he said, ‘In token that the lessons may be fruitful.’”

Swamiji’s disciple Manmathanath has also written about eating apples in India. When Swamiji first returned from the USA in 1897, Manmathanath took leave from work and joined him. Manmathanath, whose memoirs were published in English in the Vedanta Keshari Magazine in 1960, passed away in 1953 at the ripe old age of eighty-six.

In his memoirs, Manmathanath reminisces about one afternoon when he reached Belur Math at the time when prasad was normally served. “I was very anxious to receive prasad from Swamiji but did not say anything. Suddenly, Swamiji went into the storeroom and came out with an apple. Then, borrowing a knife from one of the monks, he himself slowly skinned the apple and, halving it, gave me one half and ate the other himself.”

From the apple stories, let us go back to Gaya Da. He often quoted from the Bhagwad Gita, “Action is your right, not the fruits thereof.” In other words, the gods, with immense foresight, continuously endeavour to keep the popularity of fruits within limits!

Let’s stay with our childhood seniors, for Gaya Da’s stories don’t seem to want to end.

After coming under Gaya Da’s influence, my initial disinterest towards Sri Ramakrishna and Swamiji turned into heightened curiosity. Gaya Da never disclosed his source for the daily bits of news about his hero’s favourite foods. He had heard somewhere that unless one researched Swamiji’s childhood thoroughly, it would be impossible to understand where the root of his love for food lay.

We had a textbook in school named Swamiji’s Life, but it only contained descriptions of the world leader Vivekananda’s struggles and successes. There were no analyses about what Vivekananda liked to eat at each stage of his life, or why. Gaya Da used to tell us stories during our breaks, like the one that chronicled how, except for the attraction for rosogollas, Gadadhar Chatterjee (Sri Ramakrishna’s original name) and Narendranath Datta (Vivekananda) would never have met.

Books inform us that Baghbazar’s Nobin Chandra Das invented the rosogolla, the famous Bengali sweetmeat, in 1868. Here is the interesting anecdote Gaya Da referred to, involving the rosogolla, Sri Ramakrishna and Swamiji.

One day, Swamiji’s elder cousin and Thakur’s great disciple Dr Ramchandra Datta told the young Narendranath, “Come, let us go to Dakshineswar’s Thakur. He feeds visitors with very good rosogollas.” Narendranath, who couldn’t care less about what he said to anyone, was wary of stepping into a rosogolla-trap. So he warned his beloved Ram Da (Dr Ramchandra Datta) that if the sweets did not appear as promised, he would tweak the much-loved pandit (Sri Ramakrishna)’s ears!

Those days, this advance warning about tweaking ears was quite prevalent in Calcutta. We have heard that another contemporary personality, Kailash Chandra Basu, swayed by doubts, had also threatened to twist our Dakshineswar Thakur’s ears! But Kailash Chandra was left very embarrassed by our fun-loving Thakur. While he was waiting for a sight of Thakur, someone announced, “Thakur is calling the person who had said he would twist his ear.”

The rosogolla did not seem to have played a role this time. But in the case of Naren, the sweet rosogolla did play a huge role in transforming his life, a fact that many people of Calcutta, the pilgrimage for sweet lovers, have almost forgotten. More on this subject later.

Unfortunately, today’s sweet makers do not seem enthused to find the shop from where this rosogolla was procured and to look at the possibility of whether there can be a resurgence of that brand name to earn crores of sweet-currency. Our mischievous seniors at school termed this first meeting between Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda a “spirituality grounded on sweets”.

Gaya Da often said, that once we were older, we would need to undertake serious, ceaseless research on Swamiji’s culinary interests. Our deep desire was that one day when we grew up, we would all collectively contribute to an authoritative history of our adventurous endeavours to find spirituality through food, fasting and starvation.

We believed Gaya Da would be the most competent person among us to undertake the responsibility of writing this book. However, due to familial financial demands, Gaya Da joined aviation and left for England.

Swami Vivekananda: The Feasting, Fasting Monk

Excerpted with permission from Swami Vivekananda: The Feasting, Fasting Monk, Sankar, translated from the Bengali by Malati Mukherjee, Penguin Books.