Hey Gujjus, Who Made You the Food Police of India?


Hey Gujjus, Who Made You the Food Police of India?

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

My family and I grew up in a ground floor Santacruz apartment, adjacent to the house of the Patels. We were The Shahs and they The Patels. It sounded like the beginning of a Gujarati West Side Story, but unfortunately ended up more like an episode of Tarak Mehta ka Ooltah Chashmah.

Mr Patel had a Maruti Esteem that he never drove because he believed in saving money, and two sons whom he didn’t love because he believed in making money. Mrs Patel stayed indoors most of the day – we knew she was alive because we could see the channels flipping on the TV through the window.  

Despite being the landlords of three buildings in Santacruz (which made them actual, legit crorepatis), the Patels didn’t seem rich or content. They chose to spend their time aggressively drying papad on the gravel patch outside the house or feeding their ratty pomeranian (who we called Barker Wadi) a diet of dahi and roti or sniffing the air from the smell of any meat we might be cooking.

One afternoon while cooking an exceptionally aromatic batch of sausages that my father had brought back from Goa, I dropped a piece of meat on the floor. With the brashness typical of my youth, I opened the window and threw it out. Unfortunately, the offending piece of meat flew out the window and landed right onto my landlord. He had been squatting between the water tank and his Esteem with his nose in the air, trying to figure out whether I had been cooking meat again. His question was answered once I dropped the juicy, greasy morsel on his head. I wondered if, for a moment, he must have assumed his Shah neighbours were affectionately throwing him a ghugra.

At the other end, there were kids who lived all the way into their 30s without ever having tasted any kind of meat, who in turn grew up to be members of the food police academy

My parents, who brought me up with the ability to decide what kind of food I’d like to put into my stomach, had not prepared me for the fallout from the incident. It involved months of us running out of water for no reason, the area outside our house getting suspiciously flooded, and Barker Wadi turning unusually aggressive toward members of our family. It was food terrorism at its finest.

Gujaratis have always had this penchant for food terrorism. There were Gujarati kids at school who wouldn’t drink “jhoota” water in case it had been touched by a meat eater. There was my grandmother who’d remind me that I was Jain every time I’d go for an evening snack. This one time, a grand-aunt walked up to me at a pani-puri stall in the middle of a wedding and asked sarcastically if I would prefer a tandoori chicken instead. The answer I wanted to give her had two parts: First, yes I actually would; second, who the fuck made Gujaratis the food police of India?

Most of my Gujju friends weren’t allowed to eat meat at home. This led to them spending whatever available pocket money they had on chicken lollipops at the worst shack they could see, or staring hungrily at the ham sandwiches their friends would bring to school. At the other end, there were kids who lived all the way into their 30s without ever having tasted any kind of meat, who in turn grew up to be members of the food police academy. People from other communities are suddenly not allowed to cook meat anywhere near a Gujarati, eat meat anywhere near a Gujarati or suggest the idea of meat near a Gujarati 

The power of this growing police force is considerable. In 2016, 500 Domino’s stores across India turned vegetarian for nine days of Navratri and practically the whole country was asked to eat Chilly Paneer Pizza. Big deal, I hear you say, it’s only nine days. Well, they’ve taken prime real-estate in arguably the most beautiful part of Mumbai – the stretch opposite Chowpatty beach – and turned it into a permanent all-vegetarian zone. It’s probably the only coastal area in the world where you can’t eat a fucking piece of fish. It’s also the only place in world that boasts of Jain Starbucks.

For all this self-righteous food policing, one would think that Gujaratis are connoisseurs of fine, vegetarian food, but let’s not forget, we are people who wake up on Sunday morning and eat fried jalebi and gathiya. Most of our food is confused about whether it should be main course or dessert, and farsan is basically an episode of “can you fry this”? Also eating a spoon of salt with methi-aloo does nothing for our increasing hypertension.

This baffling hypocrisy of dietary habits from arguably the country’s highest income group has forced poor restaurant owners to come up with abominations like gobi manchurian, veg hot dog, and Jain American chopsuey. Imagine the outrage if the non-vegetarian janta gave Gujaratis a taste of their own medicine by going over to Swati Snacks and demanding they serve undhiyu-stuffed tandoori chicken and dhokla-battered calamari.

But Gujaratis are known for certain traits, and subtlety is not one of them. Luckily, the law in the city doesn’t allow them to legally evict any poor tenant that moves in for eating meat. This anti-carnivorism usually comes out in more passive-aggressive ways like you waking up one morning and finding out that your parking space has turned into the building’s communal dustbin. Sometimes, the Gujarati landowner in question may go so over the top, they hire a watchman to smell every pizza that’s delivered to your house. If this isn’t a form of food fascism, I don’t know what is.

Back home, the Shah-Patel dispute never really quietened down. My grandmother eventually joined the Patels in this war, and would casually chat with the neighbour’s maid about how messed up it was that our dog ate chicken Pedigree. I’m now waiting for the day when a Gujarati businessman buys Pedigree and announces a batch of Jain dog food with a tagline like “Kutra maatey khaas: Jalebi, ghatiya ane mukhwaas!”

I felt bad about my grandmother betraying us for the Patels, but I got over it eventually. It’s a little stupid, I guess, to expect Gujaratis to change their eating habits for something as small as family. These are the same people taking theplas to Antarctica, after all.