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Amrit Sen - Acharya PC Ray's Writings on Food

Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray

“Disease, Diet, Medicine”: Acharya Prafulla Ray’s Writings on Food

In a letter to the wife of C. R. Das in December 1921, APC Ray wrote:

I assure you my dear sister that in serving my favourite science, I have only one idea in my mind, that through her I should serve my country … God knows I have no other air in my life.1

Ray’s contribution in the history of the nationalist project in science and industry has largely been documented around his writings on Hindu Chemistry and Bengal Chemical. It is worthwhile to note that a substantial body of Ray’s writings discusses dietary practices as sources of preventive and curative medicine in the context of Bengali health in the early twentieth century. This paper explores Ray’s Khadya Bigyan (The Science of Food, 1936) and attempts to locate within it Ray’s nationalist project of devising ideal diets for the Bengali individual at this point in history.

Ray’s distinguished career as a scientist was complemented by versatile career as entrepreneur and author. In his career at Edinburgh University he had written on the Indian Mutiny and had returned to India for a long career at Presidency College and the University of Calcutta. His discovery of Mercurous Bromide had given him global recognition and he was a legendary teacher who had groomed some of India’s greatest scientists. Author of several texts including Hindu Chemistry (1902, 1909) and Life and Times of a Bengali Chemist (1932), Ray was instrumental in encouraging and setting up several industries including Bengal Chemical. Ray also wrote several primers on science and towards the end of his life published several aricles of Shakespeare Criticism anthologized as The Shakespearean Puzzle.(1940)

It is important to note that the notion of health and masculinity had infiltrated the discourse of Indian, especially Bengali nationalism during the period. The denigration of the Bengali middle class as effeminate and diseased had provoked a strong self critical urge to create the alternative version of a Bengali manhood (imagined in Bankimchandra for example) as healthy and active. The seamless integration of individual health and national health facilitated a serious rethink on the importance of dietary practices as preventive practice in the cases of diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, dyspepsia and so on. It is in this context that Prafulla Ray’s writings need to be located.

It might be mentioned here that Ray’s interest in food and its relation to disease can be traced to his early days of research at Presidency College. In his autobiography he recollects:

The adulteration of food-stuffs – a concomitant of modern “civilized life” – was becoming a growing evil. Ghee and mustard oil are practically the only sources of fat which enter into the dietary of the people of Bengal. Articles in the ordinary markets that are sold as ghee and mustard oil are far from being pure. It is however by no means an easy task to detect by chemical analysis the adulterants used and their percentage. I undertook a searching examination of the food-stuffs of this description. I procured samples of these articles from the most reliable sources and also had them prepared under my personal supervision.2

Ray’s use of western scientific discourse also needs to be highlighted. While being situated within the paradigms of scientific rationality, Ray was also strongly arguing against critiques of India as a nation ever benefit of science. Dhruv Raina’s analysis of Hindu Chemistry reveals Ray’s documentation of a vibrant scientific tradition and its disruption by a rigid, monolithic Hindu superstition and submission to theoretical religion.3 At the same time he was conscious of the need to accept and utilize the benefits of modern scientific knowledge that the West had acquired:

Thus for good or evil, the East has come in intimate contact with the West. The unchanging East had often in the past “seen mighty legions pass and plunged in thought again”. This time, however, the impact is leaving behind a more permanent impress. To me personally, the civilization is a mosaic, the richer it is, the more diverse and picaresque are the elements that go to build it up. The world has need of “Karmayogins”- men of great purpose who delight in action, men of strong common sense, men who are constantly knocking at the locked door of Nature’s secrets and are harnessing her forces to their own ends, men who in their communal and national life always try to play the game-and these typify western culture at its best. The world have equally the need for “Jnanyogins”-men who love knowledge for its own sake, who renounce their all in contemplating the beauties of the universe, and in establishing direct contact between their own soul and the Universal spirit. The West bereft of the spirit that suffered at the Cross led to the world chaos of 1914 and its aftermath. In the East where the intellectuals withdrew from the world into the inner-self of spiritual life, ignorance and superstition, poverty and squalor have grown up as luxuriant tropical weeds and enveloped the lives of the masses. In their synthesis lies a new hope for the world; in their unmeaning clash-a wreckage of much that is of immense value in the scheme of life.4

Thus with Bengal Chemical, Ray had used the resources of the kaviraji medicinal system but only after testing them scientifically in the laboratory:

Over and above that I began a regular campaign in favour of these and impressed upon the profession the fact that the efficacy of these drugs had been proved beyond doubt by their universal use in the households of Bengal.All that was needed was that their active principles should receive the imprimatur of the practicioners … slowly but surely they began to creep into favour and well they might. It was the universal practice in those days to prescribe syrup of tolu as an expectorant; but it was found that syrup of vsaka acted more efficaciously. Our newly introduced indigenous drug preparations thus began to make headway on their own merits.5

Ray’s self critique was complimented by his trenchant critique of the colonial apparatus that was stripping India of its material resources and inculcating an education system designed to rob originality. He was also aware that colonialism had dealt a body blow to a nation that had known a healthier past, making an ironic contrast between the course charted out by the coloniser and the colonised:

The facts and figures given by Sir George Newman show the ‘amazing transformation’ in the health of the British people which has taken place in the past 100 years. In India also there has been ‘amazing’ transformation in the health of the people. But the transformation is such as to bring tears to the eyes of a man who has lived to be fifty or sixty and who remembers still the smiling villages which had not yet proved a prey to the epidemics of cholera due to scarcity of drinking water, or which had not yet felt the effects of the scourge of malaria.6

Khadya Bigyan embodies both a rigorous self-critique of the diet as well as a rejection of colonial diets to imagine a healthy Bengal. The idea of a primary for familiarizing his countrymen to diet as preventive and curative medicine is defended in the conclusion to his text:

In this book, researches into the science of food have been written in Bengali and I hope that the women of Bengal will choose the food she serves carefully so that she can preserve and cure health in the family and justify the title of mother.7

Ray was aware of the need to introduce basic primers in science in the local languages to create awareness in the broader population:

The medium of Education is to be the Vernacular languages of India, into which the best elementary treatises in English should be translated. Such translations are to be advertised for, and liberally rewarded by Government as the means of enriching Vernacular literature. While, therefore, the vernacular languages are on no account to be neglected, the English language may be taught where there is a demand for it, but the English language is not to be substituted for the Vernacular dialects of the country.8

Ray quotes Hopkins, the Nobel Prize winner for his research on Vitamins and proceeds to justify the importance of his primer on food:

We now know that the satisfaction of appetites by mere bulk consumption is no final proof that a food supply as quantity; details are of the utmost significance; the absence of factors which add almost nothing to the bulk of a dietary may make the whole entirely inadequate … What is the relevance of research on food – we must look for the adequacy of food based on factors like place, time and person. We must learn how to supplement dietary inadequacies and choose our food accordingly.9

Accordingly Ray defines the digestive system, types of food, vitamins and enzymes, food value, diets for various diseases and the reasons for the onset of diseases. Ray mentions diets for obesity, gout, diabetes, glycosma, nephritis, dyspepsia, constipation, pneumonia and typhoid. In many ways this is a treatise that makes the reasons, indications and diets in a particular disease available to the population at large in a local language, thereby highlighting Ray’s project of making scientific knowledge available to the masses. I would like to think through the text asking myself question like - what diet does Ray prescribe? What does he reject? What is his ultimate project here?

Ray’s initial proposition is that Bengali health had once been in pristine condition and various diseases had been given short shift. He locates this in three major presences in the Bengali diet – adequate milk, flesh and fruits and vegetables. Looking at the presence of the flesh in the Bengali shakta tradition he regrets that this was disrupted by the turn towards the non-vegeterian diet. Ray refers to the Chandimangal as a source of the recognition of meat in our diet and of Jagai Madhai as Brahmins who took meat: “Unfortunately with Chaitanya that diet was rejected of course in Chaitanya’s time there was a prevalence of milk products in the diet”.10

Interestingly Ray is here creating a social history of food much like his project of a social history of science in locating the fundamental shifts within dietary practices within the changing social movements in contemporary history.

In fact, Ray sees the drying up of milk as a major factor in the decline of health in Bengal:

One potent reason is malnutrition, as the infants between age 0-5 and 5-10 get a very insufficient quantity of mother’s or cow’s milk; in short, they are fed on thin gruel of boiled rice, which neither contains nitrogenous (i.e. muscle-forming) stuff nor calcium (i.e. bone-forming) element. No wonder that the Census Report of 1931 points out that the Muslim population is to the Hindu as 55 to 45 (approx.); but if babies be left out of consideration, i.e. if adult population be taken into account, the ratio would be 51 to 48. In other words, the mortality of the babies among the Muslims is much more than among the Hindus, though the latter is appalling in all conscience.11

In his autobiography he recollects the importance of the dairy products in the daily diet of Bengal:

The tending of milch cows was a sort of religious duty with every Hindu. I still remember how my mother used to superintend personally the feeding of the cows of which there were various breeds. It was a rule with my parents that their children should be nourished chiefly on a milk diet till they were five years of age. Even ladies and gentlemen of rank did not disdain to cleanse the cowshed in the early morning.12

He also locates within practices of the prasad and suryapranam, sources of vitamins and sunlight that can prevent diseases in India. Ray thus locates the sources of health within indigenous dietary practices. A key text in this analysis is his short essay “Chira, Muri, Khai, Biscuit” where diets like Chira, Muri and Khai (varieties of beaten and puffed rice) are seen as rich sources of carbohydrates that are easily affordable to the Bengali individual.

Ray’s point is that a return to and a respect of traditional dietary practices may prevent and cure numerous diseases. He urges against polished rice, urges the retaining of the decantation of boiled rice, retaining of the shin of potatoes in the increase of nutritive value. His advocaton of pulses and edible greet leaves (Shak) as rich sources of nutrition need special mention. Ray also looks at available fruits like the guava over imported fruits that are relatively difficult to obtain. In an ironic rejoiner he reminds us that a fractional investment in food might save a major expenditure in medicine and dietary supplements later:

You had attempted to save money from expenses on food for six continuous months – more than five times that expense is now spent on buying medicines. I acknowledge that the poor are deprived of adequate food; but we are compounding the problem by an ignorant choice of diet and inviting disease.13 (433)

Ray’s insistence on the diet for a healthy mother as a source of healthy children is a recurrent point within his writings.

An important trait of Ray’s work is the constant reminder that rural health is a necessary aspect of the improvement of national health and there is a possibility of regenerating it:

The health of our country can only be regenerated by the regeneration of its villages – in the prosperity of its ponds and rivers, agriculture and orchards, in its animal husbandry and poultry. I do not think there is a lack of food resources in our country. We have to turn to them.14

Ray is however not insular in his adoption of elements of foreign diet, provided it suits the economic condition of the Bengali. Thus he is in favour of soyabean as a cheap source of protein, while he is effusive about the benefits of tomato (‘bilati begun’):

Dr. Nilratan Dhar used to say ‘A tomato a day keeps the doctor away’ when it is impossible to cultivate apples, grapes and oranges in Bengal, we must irate the poor man’s apple, the tomato with great respect’.15

Ray urges the Bengali to follow the ideal English breakfast and draws the comparative analysis of a Sikh diet versus a Bengali diet to highlight the importance of protein as a source of health:

Indeed nothing could be more striking than the contrast between the manly, stalwart and resolute races of the North – the Pathans, Beluchis, Sikhs, … and the poorly developed, toneless and supine people of the east and south; Bengalis, Madrassis, Kanarese … besides proteins, element of food vitamins and mineral elements are concerned in bringing about this result.16

Ray’s critique of adopting English food is intricately linked with the theme of colonial exploitation. The two sharpest targets are tea and biscuit. Ray’s writings on tea draw upon tea as lacking food value and initiating disease like insomnia, dyspepsia and others. He however acknowledges that it is not an occasional cup of tea that he is against; it is the imagining of tea as an antidote to fatigue and disease that the protests. He locates the clever English projection of tea as a source of health in the English attempt to trap and economically exploit a huge population:

The “Educated” Bengali ever on the alert for imitating European ways, eagerly swallowed the bait. He has already become a confirmed tea-drinker and the habit is spreading like wild fire among the coolies, carters and labourers in general. The Tea Association, having captured Calcutta and emboldened by its phenomenal success, has begun propaganda on a large scale in the Provincial towns and big railway terminals with immense success.17

Ray is quick to count both the economic and the medical cost of such a replacement of the diet by tea:

As the vast majority of Indians are too poor to afford both their customary food and tea, it meant the substitution of their food by tea altogether … it possesses no dietetic value whatsoever. … to strangle the salutary and universal dietetic custom of the country and undermine the health of the guileless people. He, momentarily, feels refreshed and goes on with his drudgery and again follows with another cup and in this way he often drinks half-a-dozen cups. He urges in support of this habit that it kills appetite and therefore he has no need for nourishing food. I am as much concerned here with the medical and physiological aspects of the question as with its economic bearing; 96 per cent. of the tea produced in Bengal comes from the European Gardens and barely 4 per cent. from the Indian. The tea-drinking habit is spreading fast among the masses and, if it goes on at this rate, in the course of the next 25 years the population of Bengal being taken at 50 millions, the European planters may safely count upon a yearly sale of 50 millions rupees worth of tea in Bengal alone. I have been appalled by the new fashions in diet in this age. We tend to imitate Europeans, but we forget that Europeans drink tea with plenty of food – we on the other hand drink it repeatedly without any food.18

The case of the biscuit replicates this process. Ray is at pain to point out the inferiority of biscuit as a source of energy. But his sharpest critique is in the cultural perception of biscuit as replacing traditional Bengali food and an indicator of sophistication or civility:

In terms of food value and also in terms of price, the food articles that we make at home are far superior than biscuits that are largely imported. The Bengali woman can have far greater satisfaction in feeding her family members a diet of chira and muri rather than opening a shining new tin of biscuits.19

Ray also points to the fact how perceptions of food change culturally with colonialism so that perfectly nourishing food is seen as unacceptable in opposition to items without any significant food value:

I would like to ask – what is the comparative price of chira muri and biscuit. What I observe is that in servile imitation we are moving towards a crisis in food habits. If a gentleman is offered muri he thinks he has not been shown respect!20

In a way Ray’s analysis of food ties up with his project of decolonizing the mind through a rejection of certain underlying principles of a non-indigenous diet:

In Bengal from time immemorial, every man, rich or poor, used to take his morning meal of Gur Chhola (molasses and gram) or phen bhat (rice with water) and milk, and as dietetic prescriptions they can hardly be improved upon either in general balance or in vitamin content.21

Ray thus added:

We are afflicted with Malaria and other diseases. One of the major reasons is thus we shut off our houses (like chests) to light and winds – we use our ponds and water bodies as garbage disposal centers. We Hindus merely pay lip service to cleanliness. I am revolutionary – a rebel – not in politics but in the spite of health, education and social norms.22

Ray’s analysis of the spread of malaria reflects an interesting response from the nationalist perspective. He traces the rise of malaria as an epidemic to the British project of laying railway lines across the breadth of the country:

Choonakhally, Bhatpara, Cossimbazar, kalkapore, bamunghatta and Fureshdanga were situated on the curve of the river Hoogly until a straight cut was made some sixty years since forming the chord of the curve, thuds changing the course of the river and throwing these places inland. This engineering operation was closely followed by the breaking out of an epidemic in all those places which, in the virulence and morality is unparalleled by any pestilential visitation in Bengal, saving perhaps that which depopulated Gour … not only the ravages of malaria but also the terrible calamity caused by the North Bengal flood would have been mitigated, if not altogether avoided if the railway authorities had taken the precaution to provide sufficient outlets for the passage of water. But they were more concerned in cheapening the cost of laying down the railroads. Earthworks had been thrown across partially silted up river-beds leaving narrow culverts for the flow of water. An engineer with only an elementary knowledge of the subject would have suggested the construction of bridges in such places. But the authorities were more anxious to consult the interest of the foreign capitalists and were thus utterly regardless of future consequences.23 (137-8)

Ray also accused the colonial government of importing quinine therefore pushing up the cost and thereby depriving the population of adequate medicine:

There is a cinchona plantation at Mungpoo where quinine is manufactured at a government factory. But strange to say that the Indian public is supplied with Java Quinine at a higher price .. it is thus evident that our benign government far from helping the malaria stricken peasants actually compel them to buy the drug at a dear price.24

Interestingly Ray sees pedagogy as a key tool in the overall enhancement of national health. Apart from education about diet as medicine Ray sees the schools teachers as imparting food to student. He also urges each school to monitor the weight of students and maintain charts of their growth so that children and their guardian are sensitized to the upkeep of their health. It is imperative that in the process of growth teachers accommodate and enthuse guardians in the healthcare of the ward.25 Ray’s vision is thus congruent with the mid-day meal project of the government where the school is seen as a source of holistic nourishment – both physical and intellectual.

Ray’s writings on food as preventive and curative medicine thus dovetail nicely with his writings on Hindu Chemistry and Bengal Chemical. Using Bhaba’s notion of third space as moving beyond imitation Ray borrows the discourse of western science to establish the basis of his dietary logic. However, he locates this diet within indigenous food practices and in this location he underlines the rejection of colonial diets that exploit the economy and the population. Apart from its contribution as the first comprehensive manual of food as medicine, Khadya Bigyan needs to be placed and read alongside Ray’s broader postcolonial outlook.


Prafulla Chandra Ray, Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist (Kolkata: Chukrevertty, Chatterjee & Co., 1932), Vol. 1. p. 233.

Ibid., p. 84.

See Dhruv Raina, “The Young P. C. Ray and the Inauguration of the Social History of Science in India 1885 – 1907”. Science, Technology Society 1997 2.1 ; 2-40. Raina has identified the “inauguration” of a “social history of science” in Ray's identification of the cause of scientific decline in the consolidation of the caste system and social rigidities of medieval times. This is part of Raina's larger thesis of identifying Ray's project as a clear break from the Orientalist paradigm, marking and initiating a new scientific discourse of colonial India. Raina argues that while Orientalist literature on India tended to decontextualise Indian know¬ledge from its social matrix, Ray's analysis of the caste system located the prob¬lem both beyond the question of eastern and western 'minds' as well as the nature of scientific practice in India. Moreover, through his unearthing of an Indian scientific past, Ray had articulated the logic of the universality of scientific and civilisational modes. Thus a break from the fundamental postulate of Orientalism, which had proposed an ontological and epistemological divide between the Orient and the Occident was initiated. (Raina, 8)
Life and Experiences, Vol.2, p. 58.

Life and Experiences, Vol.1, p. 104.

Life and Experiences, Vol.2, p. 148.

Prafulla Chandra Ray, Khadya Bigyan (1936) in Anil Bhattacharya, ed., Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray Rachana Sankalan, Vol. 1(Kolkata: Ekush Shatak, 2008): 310-503, p. 318. All translations from this text are mine. Ray’s text is the most comprehensive statement and analysis of food practices. He alludes to an earlier publication by Biresh Chandra Guha titled “The Food Problem in India”. Ray also argues: “Our lack of knowledge and interest about food is unfortunate. In our country the educated class increases the cost of motor fuel with an increase of earning, but they devote scant attention to their food habits.” (485)

Life and Experiences, Vol.2, p. 56.

Khadya Bigyan, p. 479. Ray suggests that in the ideal diet of the middleclass household there should be (i) No monotony (ii) Should contain Fish, eggs, meat or paneer (iii) Should contain fruits and salad and (iv)Should contain milk. (482)

Ibid., p. 399.

Life and Experiences, Vol.2, p. 148-9.

Life and Experiences, Vol.1, p. 396. Ray harps on milk as a diet which could revitalize the Bengali physique recurrently in his writings: “Our lack of knowledge and interest about food is unfortunate. In our country the educated class increase the cost of motor fuel with an increase of earning, but they devote scant attention to their food habits”. (485)

Khadya Bigyan, p. 433.

Ibid., p. 493.

Ibid., p. 403. Ray also highlights the acute lack of proteins in the Bengali diet” “Insufficiency of vitamins and of high-class protein, apart from racial factors, accounts for much of the short stature and proveners to disease observed in Bengal”. (361) Ray mentions – various pulses, Kachu (roots and stems), bringal and spinach as rich sources of protein. (357) which are therefore available to the impoverished Bengali individual. He also argues that the Prasad of the familiar pujas was a way of intake of fruits and vitamins: “The prasad of our pujas is saturated with vitamins and we bow in respect to the far reaching vision of our saints. (388)
Ibid., p. 402.

Life and Experiences, Vol.2, p. 334.

Life and Experiences, Vol.2, p. 335.

Prafulla Chandra Ray, “Chira Muri, Khoi, Biscuit”, in Shyamal Chakraborty, ed., Acharya Prafullachandrer Prabandha (Kolkata: Aajkaal, 2001): 69-75, p. 73.

Ibid., p. 73.

Khadya Bigyan, p. 499.

Ibid., p. 499.

Life and Experiences, Vol.2, p. 137-8.

Ibid., p. 145.

Khadya Bigyan, p. 445. Ray’s final words harp on the issue of food and exercise complementing each other: “My advice for most Bengali gentlemen (i) Most of us dig our graves with our teeth. (ii) Every mile you walk carries you a step away from the funeral pyre. (470)


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