When the British left India 70 years ago, almost everything went with the empire. Well, not quite. The Raj left indelible marks of a long legacy of incarceration and struggle and a particular round ball, notorious for its taste and the unpalatable history associated with it.
It was none other than the tummy-churning Gothambunda, or the steam-cooked wheat ball. Fed to thousands of prisoners once upon a time, the wheat ball has now become part of history. You may have to source jail archives to find images of this crude ball. No inmate today knows how this “third degree” ball tastes.
The wheat ball was the trademark food in all jails, the “national food” of prisoners right from the days of the Independence struggle. Although the as-hard-as-a-nut ball has disappeared from the jail menu in the state, it will forever stay as the symbol of torture and confinement. To stretch it a bit, it’s now become associated with tepid western food for the simple reason that it was a British legacy.
The balls were made by mixing flour with water and salt. This raw mix was then rolled into crude balls and steamed. The “undas” were ready. No spicy or special ingredients were added. This fast (literally) food was a quick fix. That it lacked taste was its distinct taste! Since it was an easy task for cooks, it needed no special skills to steam thousands of balls. No one, from freedom fighters to hard core criminals, were spared the ordeal of breaking and biting the balls.
For years, these balls leveled all inequality. All inmates, irrespective of power and pelf partook of them. From one-day remand prisoners to life termers, it was the same food. Each prisoner was given two to three balls for breakfast. That is, it was mandatory to serve them 200 gm of flour every morning. The outer covering would be as tough as leather and the inner core, raw and poorly cooked. Such was the beauty of the balls!
Jail inmates dreaded the sight of them. They were afraid that the balls would choke them to death. To this day, there’s been no record of anybody having a ”weakness” for these wheat balls. Nor has anyone asked for “more”. It’s part of a painful past, of solitary confinement and harsh punishments. An interesting twist to the tale is that none outside the high walls of jails know how it tasted. Neither home nor hotel has ever served it.
Now for a bit of history. How did the gothambunda become a jail VIP? Dr Alexander Jacob, former DGP, who came out with a study of Kerala jails says, “It was the British who gifted this item to the world. It had the solid backing of two world wars. Beleaguered war cooks found it easy way to roll wet flour into no significant shapes, steam them and dish them out to thousands of famished soldiers who could ask for nothing else than a bite of what they were served.”
The British then brought this to India and it became the major course in labor camps and later in jails. Doctors later found that the high salt content in the balls was the main cause of BP in prisoners.
However, even decades after the Raj, the jail menu was very much the same with very few changes made. Though a lot of changes were envisioned, nothing came out of them. Things changed when Andhra Pradesh took the initiative to revamp jail food. This was when Kerala sat up. When the balls started disappearing from jails outside, the state too decided to roll them away. What next, was the moot question. If not wheat balls, then what? With not many alternatives, the question remained unanswered. When E.K.Nayanar became Chief Minister, the question once again popped up with verve.
The next move was made by the A.K.Antony government in 2001. A high-level committee set up in 2003 to look into the issue decided to ban gothambundas from jails. Along with it went dry fish and dried tapioca. On the menu came new arrivals like chappathi-curry and fresh fish.
However, the swell in the number of prisoners and the insufficient facilities to turn out chappathis in large numbers forced authorities to fall back on the balls as a supplement. When Dr Alexander Jacob took over as DGP (prisons), the balls and whatever vestiges of them remained were all wiped out.
Though the repelling balls are no more, their ghosts resurface from time to time. When the chappathi machine went dead for a time in Kannur Central Jail in 2011, the imp jumped out of the bottle to strike terror in the heart of the inmates there.