The Primus stove & Gandhiji

It was Maaji’s nostalgic article on the Janata Stove that took me back to our bachelor days and some connections between Gandhiji and the Primus stove.

I remember that mom had the same green and red Janata stove and as a kid I used to play with the lever that raised the wick up and down - up and down till I got a sharp whack on the back of the head and was shooed away from the kitchen. But it was a big relief for the women from the smoky adupu’s (even though the sawdust ones we had in Calicut were virtually smokeless) or fireplaces and the ‘kozhal’ that was used to stoke the flames. I used to blow (plooom – that was the sound) and blow through it when I passed the kitchen, for the fun of it and as usual got a crack on the head from any elder in attendance in the kitchen for destroying the peace and getting on her already strained nerves. Back to the Janata - If I remember right, there was a circular thing that you had to lower from the top to shut down the flame, by pressing on the wick from the top.

And then came the lovely natural gas or propane/butane stove. But what a pain it was to get one of those things – many years waiting list, ration card and special influential connections were needed, especially in large cities. Then the wait for the cylinder, when it was finished was a major frustration, for we could have only one in a family in the early days. That was the time when only Indane made the cylinders.

But when we started communal living in Bombay, my brother, cousins, Venkat & me, in a small one room kitchen flat, we had to cook. And well, we could buy kerosene from shops, so the pumping stove was the only source of fire.

That was great, and one efficient piece of equipment. The stove was made of brass and when kept polished, looked sleek and, well, like a real solid possession, something that could be cared for. Pump! Pump! Pump! and the kerosene started as a jet jet through the nozzle and hit the plate on top. You then set it alight and turned the air valve to adjust the mixture till the flame caught on with a noticeable hiss and it finally turned into an even blue hissing flame. Once it was going strong, the ever dependable Janata was no match in cooking speed to the Primus, even though it finished off the kerosene stock much faster (or so they said – On the contrary it was probably more efficient)..

But then for us, it was a must – with some 20 minutes of water supply, we were five who had to finish our baths and cook something and so time was a premium if we had to catch the 738 limited stop train to the Victoria terminus.

I always thought it was British, and only recently did I find out that it was a Swedish design. And if you recall from my Ivar Krueger blog, even the WIMCO matches in India were of Swedish origin. So without any of us knowing, Swedish technology was helping us eat hot cooked food, in a jiffy.

We used to even get a horse shoe shaped starter which was a cotton wick inside a metal mesh soldered to a handle. You dipped it in kerosene or spirit to light and heat the nozzle & top plate of the Primus before you pumped up the kerosene & lit it. If you did not have a hot top plate, the stove would smoke and smoke and burst into flames and everything would stink of kerosene. Alas, today all these things are unknown to the youth, they are in tune with the hot plate and the gas stove and the microwave…I am not saying it was great fun, but it was a time…

The Primus stove, the first pressurized-burner kerosene stove, was developed in 1892 by Frans Wilhelm Lindqvist, a factory mechanic in Stockholm, Sweden. The stove was based on the design of the hand-held blowtorch; Lindqvist’s patent covered the burner, which was turned upward on the stove instead of outward as on the blowtorch. It became a camper’s necessity and even accompanied Tensing & Hilary to Everest.

But as I wax and wane about the stove, I have to bring to the fore one person who hated it and spent much of his time decrying it and telling people especially women not to use it. It was not anything to do with technology or its foriegn origins but the fact that the Indian women wore clothes inappropriate for open flame cooking. The person who hated it was none other than Mahatma Gandhi. His hatred started when his colleague & friend Prof Trivedi lost his sister in law to an accident related to the Primus stove. Let us now move on to the days of Gandhiji and what he had to say. The sermon Gandhiji always used to give to women was to forget & throw away the Primus stove. In his works, it is pretty clear that the fear of fire and the safety of the illiterate Indian woman were paramount in Gandhiji’s mind. It brought out repeated warnings, and angry statements from Gandhiji, and it would be fair to say it was often preying on his mind in the 1930’s.

Here are some extracts from his many letters

TO THE HEARTLESS MEN - The heartless Gujarati’s do not appear to be concerned about Gujarati women being killed every day by Primus stoves. I have just been informed of the death of two women. During the present pilgrimage, I have had first-hand experience of the dangers involved in using these stoves. Even one of my experienced and skilled colleagues has had two narrow escapes. As a result of this, I have prohibited the use of such stoves altogether. Women do not know how to use a Primus stove, for it does require some skill. And our women cannot put it on a table. Hence, it is the duty of men to boycott it. So long as they do not do so, the deaths of the young girls and women from the use of this stove will be on their heads. Even Primus stoves which have been bought should be discarded. It is an illusion that the Primus saves time. We must also consider all the attention it needs when it goes out of order.

You are late with your remarks about the primus stove. It was banished from the Ashram now some two months ago. I ought to have written to you then. On learning of the death of Prof. Trivedi’s brother’s wife from the primus-lighting, I wrote to Narandas that the best way to mourn the event was to banish the stove altogether from the Ashram. It was a hard job to convince some of the women. But they all realized the necessity. The banishment was not made compulsory.
Did I not sign somewhere in a corner the letter in which I wrote about the primus stove? If I forgot to sign it and if you want my signature on it, return the last page. If you need a stove very much, you may use in place of the primus stove the kerosene stove which is available [in the market]. Mahadev tells me that these stoves are very good, and are also cheap at present. Why not try this stove? It is also very easy to light.
You will take care not to burn yourself with the primus. You know how Gujarati women have burnt themselves over the use of the primus. The loose saris lend themselves to the wick especially at the time of lighting it. As it is kept on the floor, they have to bend and the rising flame easily catches a fold or a loose end of the sari. It may be wise for you, therefore, to keep it on a metal mounted stool. Then too there is precious little room in your little dormitory. Anyway, you have my warning. You will now take what precautions you may think right.
I felt that we should either banish the primus stove from the Ashram or the women should resolve never to light it. I enforced this rule today in the case of Ba. We have got a primus here at present. Ba went to light it. I stopped her and Mahadev went instead. The dress of our women is such that there is every danger of its catching fire. If the women must use a primus stove, they should ask a man every time to light it. Really speaking, it is not at all necessary.
If, by way of shraddha for Taragouri, you banish the primus stove from your family, that will not be too great a sacrifice, and probably it will save other women from this monster.Apart from that, we should overcome our love of the primus stove, and everybody should also learn what to do when his or her clothes accidentally catch fire.
I saw your list of primus stoves. It took me aback. We certainly live in no ordinary style. However, it will be enough now if the women agree that only men may light these stoves. If they don’t they should be ready to sacrifice one victim at least on the altar of this demon god. The Ashram has no licence of exemption from such accident. In this age of freedom, I should be satisfied with this warning.I have written to Jamna a long sermon on the primus stove. Ask the other women also to read it, and then they may do as they like. Their renouncing the use of the primus stove will benefit them only if they do so willingly.


It is true that the Primus stove has enslaved the minds of Gujarati women. I also believe that this stove is not as necessary as it is generally believed to be. It is undoubtedly true that a Gujarati woman’s sari lends grace to her, but it does cause great inconvenience to the working women. It seems to be a fact that the sari is responsible for the accidents through the Primus stove in which Gujarati women have been involved. If I could persuade these women, I would rid them of their fascination for this stove and have them imitate the tucked-up sari worn by the brave women of Bardoli. In my opinion, the sari draped in that manner is no less graceful. It also gives full freedom of movement while working and, looking at the matter more deeply, we see that it affords better protection to women inasmuch as they are more fully clad in this dress. Those who have seen the women of Bardoli at work would testify that they could do no work in the field if they wore the sari with one end of it hanging in front of them.
One could dwell on these dire threats and warnings from this great man and wonder why the death of some two or three women created such a fear in his mind at a time when malnutrition and childbirth killed scores if not many thousands of people especially women.



You are one fantastic raconteur. Sent a note to self to come back for more...I hope you will keep this blog going on and on.

Stumbled on this blog while searching for more info on 'Devaki Panicker'.
Vijay said…
Maddy, Can you imagine the lawsuits that would inundate the manufacturers today, if these stoves were available in the US? In a sense, the Mahatma was perhaps trying to be the deterrent, that fear of personal injury lawsuits provides today, especially in the US!
SUNIL said…
great. have seen and used these stoves both janata and primus. rest of the history was unknown. thank you
Gandhiji's concern is understandable. I also walked along the memory lane. Thanks.
Maddy said…
thanks Talaktive man - keep coming & looking forward to your comments
Maddy said…
Vijay - I think there are similar camp stoves still around with open flames and so on. I do not think these burst, it is just that the Gujarati woman in the village has the stove on the ground and she bends over it wearing a loose sari...
Maddy said…
Thanks a lot PNS & Sunil....