Mumbai News

How a Gujarati cookbook came to symbolise love and gratitude during the bubonic plague in Bombay –

As I joined the cricket fans milling out of the Brabourne Stadium on a crisp Mumbai winter evening in December 2009, I could sense its ebullient mood. They had been lucky to witness an innings of a lifetime – an almost-triple century (284 not out) in one day from Virendra Sehwag against a hapless Sri Lankan bowling attack.

Walking down Churchgate Street, I noticed a ubiquitous Mumbai institution: a raddiwalla with neatly arranged piles of books. Closer inspection revealed that most of them were Gujarati books of a certain vintage. An old Parsi book-lover had died and the family got rid of their book collection. As I rummaged through the novels and books on the Zoroastrian religion, I spotted a hefty tome with its cloth-bound cover depicting a dainty lady cooking on a kerosene stove. It was the first volume of the third edition (1915) of Vividha Vaani, a cookbook which had enjoyed cult status among Parsi households for over half a century. I snapped it up for a few rupees.

When I mentioned this to my friend, the scholar Virchand Dharamsey, he said not only did he have both volumes of the third edition but also a copy of the second edition of Vividha Vaani. Luckily for me, his interests did not extend to cookbooks and those copies also found their way into my collection. Many years later, I met Jayant Meghani during a visit to Bhavnagar in Gujarat. The soft-spoken writer and translator, who for many decades ran the bookshop Prasar, had also built up a wonderful collection of rare books. As we got talking about our interests, he fished out a copy of the first edition of Vividha Vaani.

It was this edition which appeared on 9 August 1894 when a Parsi lady named Meherbai Jamsetjee Wahadia wrote and self-published a Gujarati book of recipes titled Vividha Vaani, subtitled Pakwan Banavavnu Pustak. This could be translated as An Assortment of Culinary Dishes or The Book of Cooking. Written in the Parsi idiom of the Gujarati language, the book contained 1248 recipes arranged alphabetically.

Meet the authors

Meherbai hailed from the famous Parsi clan of Wahadia (Wadia) shipbuilders who had later diversified into a range of businesses and professions. Her father Jamsetjee Nusserwanjee belonged to a family that owned a range of industrial enterprises including cotton and jute mills, insurance agencies, and banking companies, alongside their traditional brokerage business. However, they lost control over these investments in the aftermath of the Share Mania of 1866.

When Meherbai was born on 24 November 1866, the family had been reduced to a relatively modest lifestyle. Before he died, her father had made extensive notes on the history of his family; perhaps this inspired Meherbai to develop her writing skills. A generation earlier, most Parsi girls from her social background would have been educated at home, but Meherbai went to school. Besides learning to read and write, the girls were taught a curriculum that emphasised the domestic sciences – cooking, sewing, knitting, and gardening.

During the 19th century, when print in Indian languages was still in its infancy, Gujarati cookbooks were hardly commonplace. The first Gujarati cookbook which I could trace was the Pakshastra Vishe Granth by Uttamram Purushottam. It was published in Ahmedabad in 1857. Uttamram wrote the cookbook based on his own experience coupled with references to Sanskrit writings on cookery. He was convinced that cooking was an art, and though a book might be useful to consult, it was “the touch of the hand” which made all the difference.

Title page of the third edition of ‘Vividha Vaani’ (1915)

He continued to revise and enlarge the book and a third edition was published in 1869. The first Parsi to publish a cookbook was Burjorjee Nusserwanjee Heera, whose Pakwan Pothi contained 400 recipes and was issued in 1878. A second edition appeared in 1882. This was followed by the Pakwan Sagar of Burjorjee Sorabjee Chikan Chhapnar in 1887.

Though it was not an innovation when it appeared in 1894, a cookbook like Vividha Vaani was still quite a rarity as it was the first Gujarati cookbook to be written by a woman. Just a few years ago, it would have seemed too forward to reveal one’s name and claim authorship, but by the 1890s, Parsi women were willing to have their names published along with their writings.

Even though she was 28 years old when the book was released, Meherbai was unmarried, exemplifying a trend towards late marriage which had just set in among the Parsis. Contrast this with her father who was only 17 when she was born, and her mother Pirojabai must have been younger.

Parsi society had seen major changes in the last decades of the 19th century and perhaps saw an opportunity to expand its cuisine and update its cooking practices. Though she belonged to the upper echelons of society, Meherbai seems to have spent a lot of time in the family kitchen. According to RA Wadia, the author of Scions of Lowjee Wadia, “In the preparation of this work, she had devoted all her energies and had prepared recipes by calling in the aid of special cooks.”

Between the covers

Vividha Vaani is a collection of recipes drawn from numerous cuisines. Meherbai never claims that she is documenting Parsi cuisine; on the other hand, she is insistent on introducing a variety of new dishes to her readers after she has perfected their recipes with the assistance of her “special cooks”, many of whom have earlier worked in European households. The book features standard Parsi fare like akuri, aleti paleti and patiyo, but there is also a plethora of cakes, jams, tarts, creams, essences, and dumplings.

As the entries are alphabetically listed rather than by genre, you could be looking at custard recipes one moment, only to encounter a variety of cutlets on the next page. Even the many “How to” tips are scattered all over the text. Most importantly, there is no separate listing of ingredients; each recipe is a single paragraph and might include numerous minor variations. Meherbai also includes Goan and Bohri recipes besides a number of Madrasi items. An omnibus cookbook, Vividha Vaani exposed the average Parsi housewife to a new world of culinary experiences.

The book attracted the attention of the two largest Gujarati publishers to this genre of books. In the following year, the Jame Jamshed Press issued a cookbook titled Pakwan Sangraha. The Duftur Ashkara Press, which had last issued Heera’s Pakwan Pothi in 1882, now had it completed revised by a Gujarati scholar, enlarged it substantially, and published it in 1896 as an 800-page behemoth under the title Duftur Ashkarani Pakwan Pothi.

Enter the plague

Exactly two years after Vividha Vaani was published, Bombay was struck by the bubonic plague in September 1896. It had probably been imported into the city by international travellers arriving by ship. The disease did not make any distinctions between the rich and the poor and spread rapidly in a densely packed city. The city emptied out as the rich moved to bungalows and tents in the suburbs while the poor went back to their villages.

The plague fever struck in waves for the next few years. Plague hospitals were quickly established all across the city on caste and community lines as people were still worried about ritual caste purity even in the worst of times. This applied not only to Hindus but to all the other religions of Mumbai. The Bombay Parsee Punchayet, whose main role was to administer the trust funds of the community, set up a fund to establish a hospital exclusively for Parsis.

Vignettes of (left) Meherbai Wahadia (1866–1897) and Dr KN Bahadurji (1860–1898)

The Parsee Fever Hospital was the brainchild of Dr Kaikhusru N Bahadurji, one of the most prominent Indian doctors of Bombay. When the city was overwhelmed by the plague, he was at the forefront of two critical initiatives – medical care for patients and research into possible treatments for the disease. Not only did he initiate the Parsee Fever Hospital project, Dr Bahadurji also equipped and conducted its operations.

Meherbai was unfortunately one of the patients to be admitted to the Parsee Fever Hospital during the first wave of the plague. She was taken care of by a strong contingent of female medical workers including Dr Manek Turkhud (the first woman to obtain a medical degree in Bombay in 1892) and the future nationalist, Bhikai Cama, who volunteered her services as a nurse. Writing to the Times of India (20 January 1897), a visitor to the hospital saw that food and drink were an important component of life in the worst of times. He wrote that he was…

“…greatly struck with the admirable arrangement of the wards, everything being scrupulously clean and arranged in order. I visited the kitchen and was surprised to find that the able conductors of the hospital with a wise forethought had succeeded in securing the services of Parsee cooks – so difficult to obtain now-a-days – so that even the orthodox people of the community could have no objections to avail themselves of the benefit of the institution during this critical period…To supply a quantity of pure milk for the patients, about a dozen buffaloes were kept in the compound, so that genuine article of nourishment for the sick without adulteration may be had on the spot at any hour of the day or night.”

Two deaths

Dr Bahadurji might have been already acquainted with Meherbai and her family and perhaps, she was admitted to the Parsee Fever Hospital at his urging. It must have taken some persuasion as hospitals were then viewed as places to which only the poor resorted; the upper classes preferred to be treated at home. She came under his personal care and experienced some of his new treatment protocols including prolonged immersion in ice baths. However, nothing could avail the dying patient, and Meherbai at the age of 30.

Meherbai was survived by her mother Pirojabai for whom her bereavement would have been very traumatic. Dr Bahadurji visited Pirojabai frequently after Meherbai’s death, both as a medical practitioner and as a well-wisher. Was there a romantic angle to the connection between Meherbai and Dr Bahadurji? Were they engaged to be married before Meherbai’s illness?

It is useless to speculate without further information, but Dr Bahadurji continued to be in regular contact with her mother who was grateful for it. He had also managed to antagonise a prominent section of the Parsi community; the severe restrictions he placed on the visitation rights of the family in view of the contagious nature of the disease were not viewed favourably, nor were his methods of treatment, especially the prolonged immersion in wet baths packed with ice.

Dr Bahadurji fell seriously ill with fever which was diagnosed as typhoid and eventually died on 15 August 1898. The Times of India (17 August 1898) noted that, “His services during the plague were characterised by all the strenuous zeal and devotion to duty which distinguished him, and it is to be feared that the excessive amount of work he undertook really hastened his death by weakening his constitution.”

Many Bombay organisations with which Dr Bahadurji had been associated began to debate the methods by which his memory could be perpetuated and his contributions recognised. Pirojabai also must have felt the need to commemorate her gratitude towards a doctor who had first tended to her daughter and then to her. What better way to do this than to give new life to her daughter’s creation?

She decided to issue a fresh edition of the Vividha Vaani and dedicate it to him. It would not be a mere reprint; the book was entirely rewritten and was expanded to include 1593 recipes. Recipes were structured such that the ingredients were listed first, and variations were spun off into new recipes. However the basic structure of the book with its alphabetical listing was retained and Meherbai continued to get sole credit. A Gujarati cookbook thus came to symbolise love and gratitude during the bubonic plague which raged for over a decade in Mumbai from 1896.

Recipe for revival

The second edition of Vividha Vaani, nearly 700 pages long, was released in 1901. Printed at the Jame Jamshed Press, it was published by its owners J B Marzban & Co, who also acquired the copyright to the book from Pirojabai. The book had begun to assume the form of a culinary encyclopedia.

In 1915, a third edition was issued under the same imprint. Nearly twice as big as the second edition, its 2050 recipes extended to over 1200 pages which had to be bound in two volumes. It was this edition which ensured the reputation of Vividha Vaani as a vade mecum for the Parsi housewife. The fourth and final edition of 1926, published before Pirojabai’s death in 1928, was over 1500 pages long and listed 2180 recipes. These editions were also credited to Meherbai Jamsetjee Wahadia and the dedication to Dr KN Bahadurji by Pirojabai was prominently featured.

Covers of the first three editions of ‘Vividha Vaani’

All editions of Vividha Vaani are handsomely bound in cloth with the text embossed and gilt. Each edition features a different image on the cover illustrating the changing times. The first edition of 1894 features a young woman, almost a girl, cooking on a wood-fired stove placed on a low platform. The 1901 edition features a middle-aged woman, a Parsi matron, with an apron tied over her sari stirring a pan on a coal-fired sigri placed on a wooden table. The third edition has a decidedly modern woman, with her hair done up in a bun, working at a kerosene stove placed on a countertop with shelving underneath. One can see the contours of the modern Indian kitchen emerging from these images.

Passed on from generation to generation, the later editions of Vividha Vaani became family heirlooms. From being a book of reference, it became an object of reverence not to be discarded even when it fell into tatters. However, by the 1950s, the archaic language of the book was incomprehensible to many Parsis who had drifted towards English as a primary language.

In the same decade, Indian weights and measures went metric and soon the tola, rattal, tipri, and sher measures used in the book rendered it all but unusable. Niloufer Ichaporia King notes in My Bombay Kitchen (2007) that Vividha Vaani “is enchanting in its vigorous Parsi eclecticism.”

Emulating the efforts of Meherbai Jamsetjee Wahadia and her mother Pirojabai, the later anonymous contributors to the book assimilated influences from numerous other cooking cultures and helped shape what is now globally recognised as Parsi cuisine.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.