(This article, about a charity buffet organised by the Woodlands restaurant in Hong Kong on October 2 every year, which is the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, was published in DNA edition dated October 2, 2006.)
An eat-all-you-can invitation that rewards gluttony may seem like a curious way to remember a frail man who used the hunger strike as a political weapon during India’s freedom struggle. But an Indian vegetarian restaurant in Hong Kong offers just that on October 2 every year, hosting an Open House where patrons are encouraged to “eat as much as you can, pay as much as you wish” as part of a charity fund-raising effort that honours the Mahatma’s memory.
“It’s part of our effort to contribute to the community and to foster a continued understanding of Gandhi’s pacifist message,” says S.M. Khaleel, director of Woodlands, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in Hong Kong this year. “Every dollar we collect from our annual Charity Lunch and Dinner on October 2 goes to sponsor some good work in some part of the world.”
The October 2 event typically raises about HK$40,000-50,000 (Rs 2.4-3 lakh) a year; in recent years, the beneficiaries have included agencies working on education and poverty alleviation projects in India, Bangladesh, China, Afghanistan and Rwanda. This year’s proceeds will go to Friends of the Earth, the international voluntary organisation that works on environmental issues.
Woodlands in Hong Kong does not belong to the eponymous south Indian restaurant chain that has taken the masala dosa and sambar vada to far corners of the world. But it was started up in 1981 by brothers S.M. Uzair and S.M. Khaleel, whose family is in the gems business, after securing the global chain’s founder Kadandale Krishna Rao’s consent to use the brand name. “Mr Krishna Rao laid two conditions – that we serve no meat or alcohol,” recalls Khaleel. “And we’ve been happy to abide by that.”
The restaurant is hugely popular with Indian, European and Chinese vegetarians in Hong Kong, and has done much to advance the cause of vegetarianism, which Gandhi too advocated. In fact, the European Vegetarian Society of Hong Kong was inaugurated at Woodlands.
On Monday, a multinational throngs of diners – Indians, Western expats and Chinese – queued up at the food counters, which had portraits of an emaciated Gandhi overlooking them. As scenes from Gandhi’s life played on a TV screen, the patrons wolfed down piping-hot sambar-vada, puri-korma, fried rice and vegetables. After which they deposited their donations in a till and left. Individual donations varied from HK$10 (about Rs 60) to HK$5,000 (about Rs 30,000).
Not everyone at Woodlands, however, needed masala dosas on their plates to inspire memories of the Mahatma. Khaleel and his family, the hosts of the event, weren’t eating a morsel today, since this is the month of Ramzan. That’s the nearest it ever got to a Gandhian fast. But even the Mahatma may well have approved of a project that uses vegetarian gluttony as a vehicle to raise money for charitable projects that touches people’s lives across the world.